The US Visa Waiver Program (VWP) was introduced in January 2009. It enabled citizens and nationals from eligible countries to obtain authorization to travel to the USA at least 72 hours prior to their departure. Known as the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) the application is submitted online to the US Department of Homeland Security for approval. ESTA USA is simply an authorization to travel to the US; it is not a visa. ESTA USA approval does not necessarily guarantee you will be permitted to enter the US, although refusals are rare.
The current ESTA USA fee is $14, however if applications are made through a third-party, an additional fee may be added for their services. Unlike regular visa applications, ESTA applications can be submitted online, either via the US government website or through a third-party website. If your visit is not covered under the VWP condition for business or tourism visits up to 90 days, you will not be eligible to travel with a travel authorization. You will need to apply for a suitable type of visa to cover your visit. For example, if you intend to live permanently, work or study in the US, you will need a specific visa to cover your intended stay. Travelers to the USA who already hold a US visa (such as a B1, B2 or E visa) do not need to apply for a visa waiver.
From April 1, 2016, applicants for ESTA must hold an e-passport, which has an embedded chip within its pages. If your passport cover does not have an e-passport symbol, you cannot apply and you must either get an updated passport or apply to your US embassy for a tourist/business visa.
If you are concerned about whether your previous ESTA is still valid, you can easily check the expiry date and make sure it is still current and up-to-date. You can use a third-party service or go to the official US government website and click on the tab “Check ESTA Status”. This should be done well before you leave, as you may have to apply for a new one. You will not be allowed to check in and travel without a valid US travel authorization. If your previous ESTA or your passport has since expired, you will need to reapply. Current travel authorizations cannot simply be extended. If you have made legal changes to your name, gender or citizenship since your authorization approval, you will also have to reapply. The application process is exactly the same, whether you have had a previous ESTA or are applying for the first time.
If you apply directly for an ESTA, there is a facility for making the payment as part of your application process. The fee is currently US$14 and is made up of a $4 processing fee plus a $10 authorization charge if your ESTA application is approved. If it is denied, you will only be charged the processing fee.
If you choose to apply through a private company that specializes in processing ESTA applications, an additional fee is usually charged to cover their services. Once approved, a US travel authorization lasts for two years, provided that your passport and personal details remain unchanged.
From April 1, 2016, travelers who apply online must have the latest e-passport, which has an embedded chip within its pages. If you do not hold a passport showing an e-passport symbol on the cover, you cannot apply for ESTA and must either get an updated passport or apply to your US embassy for a tourist/business visa.