By Georgia Thomas Bennett, Student Brand Ambassador for the FCDO

When travelling to the United States, whether as the destination or a transit stop for connecting flights, you must have either a successful ESTA or VISA application. This was news to me on a recent trip transiting through the United States, I was unaware of needing an ESTA just to pass through! So, let’s talk about what is so important about an ESTA…

At 1am on Christmas morning in 2023, my mother and I found out we needed an ESTA for our connecting flights in New York. It all began with a good deed. We checked into a Heathrow airport hotel around 12am and soon after became hungry and wanted to go to the drive thru for some food. A lady asked me if we were going to the nearest one and wanted to come, so I told my mum and we went – it was late and very dark. In the car, chit chat began and it turned out this lady worked for American Airlines! We explained that we were going to Jamaica and had connecting flights in New York, she then explained we needed an ESTA to transit. There was instant panic at the drive thru as my mother and I slowly looked each other in silence. The clock started; it was 1am and our flight was at 6am! She did tell us that if you have previously been to the United States that it could speed up the process, but while my mother had, I had not.

Some people find out about the ESTA requirement too late and have to miss their flights or rebook, which can be really costly. This can be an especially big problem if you’re on your way back home to the UK. Imagine being stuck in a foreign country because you cannot transit the US to go back home. Having checked out of your hotel, you now don’t have a place to stay and potentially need to come up with hundreds of pounds to reschedule your flight. The stress alone is enough to ruin any trip, so please make sure to check the requirements.  

Global Entry programme

The US Customs and Border Protection programme Global Entry allows pre-approved travellers through border control faster at some US airports. If you’re a British citizen, you can register to get a UK background check on GOV.UK. If you pass the background checks, you’ll be invited to apply for Global Entry.

Back to the story: we downloaded the app and began whizzing our way through the application – reading carefully, of course! I cannot emphasis how lucky we were, as we got successful applications back within 30 minutes. We had plenty of time for our flight and afterwards a smooth journey transiting and travelling. On the way back home, our flights were delayed causing us to miss our connecting flight, so we ended up staying in New York for two nights – lucky we got our ESTA sorted! 

What is an ESTA? 

The Electronic System for Travel Authorisation (ESTA) determines the eligibility of visitors to enter the United States of America. Without one, you could be denied boarding, experience delayed processing, or be denied admission to the country – so you definitely need to get one organised before you travel!

It requires personal information such as passport details, home address and other questions to pre-screen you for US immigration authorities. It costs $21 and takes around 20 – 30 minutes to complete, read through and understand fully each question you are answering. 

While a standard ESTA processing time can take 72 hours, it may take much longer so allow sufficient time. Don’t be like me unaware, frantically completing an application three hours before my flight!

There is an app you can download to complete the application and track its progress. I did use the app to complete my application which I found was user friendly and made the process easier with features of the app. For example, Apple devices allow passport scanning which reduced the time spent filling out details.  

Browse the official website which sets out the eligibility criteria and how to apply.

Eligibility complications 

In certain circumstances, you may need to apply for a visa instead of an ESTA. Make sure to check whether you require a visa or ESTA and allow enough time to apply. If you are a British citizen, check the foreign travel advice on which gives advice and tips on entering the United States as well as other important information you may need to know like local laws and customs. 

There are few countries listed which void your eligibility if you have visited or travelled there on or after March 2011:

  • Iran
  • Iraq
  • Libya
  • North Korea
  • Somalia
  • Sudan
  • Syria
  • Yemen

You cannot apply for an ESTA visa waiver if you have travelled to or been in Cuba after 1 January 2021. You must instead apply for a US visa.

You also cannot apply for an ESTA visa waiver if you:

  • have been arrested (even if the arrest did not result in a criminal conviction)
  • have a criminal record
  • have been refused admission into, or have been deported from the USA
  • have previously overstayed under an ESTA visa waiver

Check the US State Department website for more information on US visas.

Applying for a visa as a British citizen 

Visit the US Embassy website for details on how to apply for a visa. You will need to book a Visa appointment at the US Embassy in London which are limited. Plan your application as far ahead as possible before travel. If you need to travel urgently, you can request an expedited interview through the US Embassy’s appointment service provider.

Are you Travel Aware?

The Travel Aware campaign is run in partnership with the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) to make people aware of information that might prove useful whilst travelling abroad.

Learn more