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Travelling to the USA

Travelling to the USA under the Visa Waiver Programme - Electronic System for Travel Authorisation (ESTA) - New Rules from 12th January 2009

From 12th January 2009, all qualified Visa Waiver Programme (VWP) travellers have been required to obtain electronic travel authorization prior to boarding an air or sea carrier to the United States.  Travellers who do not receive travel authorization prior to their departure may be denied boarding, experience delays or be denied admission into the United States. Applications may be submitted at anytime prior to travel, but no less than 72 hours prior to departure.

Travel Authorization is obtained through an online registration system known as the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA).  If your registration is successful, it will be valid for multiple applications for two years or until the date on which your passport expires, whichever comes first.

Before going on line to register, you should ensure that you are qualified to travel under the Visa Waiver Program otherwise your registration will be rejected.  ESTA only authorizes a traveller to board an air or sea carrier for travel to the United States.  It also does not guarantee entry into the United States; that decision rests with the immigration official at the Port of Entry in the same way that travellers previously entering the U.S.A. under the Visa Waiver Program or with a visa were subject to inspection.

Travellers who make their initial entry into the U.S.A. by land from either Canada or Mexico are NOT required to obtain travel authorization through ESTA before travelling.

Warning:  If your passport has ever been reported lost or stolen to the authorities and then recovered, please do not attempt to use it for travel to the United States.  If you input the passport details into ESTA, your application will be denied (i.e. get a new passport before you try to travel to the USA!).

The US Customs and Border Protection main travel website gives full details of ESTA at http://www.cbp.gov/xp/cgov/travel/id_visa/esta/.

You may submit your ESTA Application at https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov - the official US Government ESTA website.

USA Entry - Passports

From 26 June 2005, only travellers with machine readable passports have been able to enter the USA without a visa.  A machine readable passport (MRP) has 2 lines of characters across the bottom of the photograph page.  All current passports which were issued in the UK are machine readable (the Passport Office says).  Some passports issued by British consular posts abroad have a blank space instead of these characters and are not machine readable.  Children whose names are included on an adult's passport, even if that passport is machine readable, will need visas to enter the USA.  More information on the website https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov - the official US Government ESTA website.

New Passport Requirements from 26 October 2005

The additional passport requirements which came into effect on October 26, 2005, affect only those Visa Waiver Programme (VWP) travellers whose passports were issued on or after October 26, 2005.  If your passport was issued before this date, you need only be concerned that it is machine-readable.  Passports issued on or after October 26, 2005, must include a biometric identifier based on applicable standards established by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).  The US Department of Homeland Security announced that from October 26, 2005, a digital photograph of the passport holder's face printed on the data page of the passport will be the acceptable standard.  Passports issued on or after October 26, 2006, must also include an integrated circuit chip capable of storing the biographic information from the data page, a digitized photograph and other biometric information.  Many VWP countries already produce such passports and we believe that these include UK passports, although the Passport Office staff are reluctant to commit themselves in case they give misleading advice.  See https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov - the official US Government ESTA website for full information.
Reviewed September 2012