Common challenges with obtaining ESTA approval – How to avoid them

This article is going to take a look at travelling out of Europe, and specifically to the US. There are new regulations that travelers should be aware of. Montenegro is currently not a VWP country, so you will need a full passport as a Montenegrin. However, if you are a national of a VWP country then read on to find out more about ESTA.

Before taking a look at the common challenges you may face with your ESTA application, let’s take a quick but detailed look at what ESTA really is and how it works. Understanding ESTA will already help you avoid some common problems people encounter with US travel.

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What is ESTA?

The Electronic System for Travel Authorization is an automated system which governs the authorization of travel to the US for citizens of member countries of the US Visa Waiver Program.

The system is used to screen intending travelers to the US to determine their eligibility to travel to the US, as well as determine if the traveler is a security or law enforcement risk.

ESTA collects biographic information and answers to the VWP eligibility questions asked during your application and evaluates them using information on the ESTA eligibility check database.

Such questions include general questions on your health status, crime history, any case of visa revocation you may have, deportation records, and so on.

ESTA approval is valid for two years during which time you can travel to the US without needing to obtain a new ESTA approval. But, if the information on your passport changes during this period, or, you obtain a new passport for travel to the US during the 2 year period, you will need a new ESTA approval.

The US government introduced ESTA as an additional layer of security in determining whether an intending traveler to the US is eligible to travel under the VWP, and is not a security risk.

Visa Waiver Program (VWP)

Visa Waiver Program is an initiative of the United States Government which permits citizens of certain countries to travel to the US for business or pleasure for a maximum of a 90 day stay, without a visa.

Under VWP, the US refers to the United States of America, Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Guam, the Virgin Islands of the United States, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.

Please see here for the full list of the countries whose citizens/citizens are eligible for the Visa Waiver Program

How does ESTA work?

You must obtain ESTA approval to travel the US, as long as you are a citizen of a country under the VWP program. This rule applies even if you are traveling to the US from a country that is not under the VWP program.

If you are traveling to another country and are only passing through the US, you must also obtain ESTA approval to enter the US. And, if you are traveling with a child, the child must also obtain a separate ESTA approval because it is an individual information processing system.

Note that, receiving ESTA approval does not guarantee you will be allowed into the US. The US Customs and Border Protection officers will have the final say upon your arrival. In fact, thy can even revoke your ESTA approval if they consider it necessary.

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Are you eligible for ESTA?

If you are not a citizen of any of the designated VWP countries, you are not eligible for ESTA.

Also, if you are a citizen of a designated VWP country but have been to Iraq, Iran, Syria, Sudan, Libya, Somalia or Yemen on or after March 1, 2011, you are not eligible for ESTA application. You will need a visa.

Applying for ESTA

Travelers are usually advised to apply for ESTA approval at least 72 hours before the trip so that any issues that may arise can be sorted out in time. However, if you are planning your trip in advance, it is even better to apply as soon as you are certain of traveling.

When filling your ESTA form, you must ensure that you fill the passport details of the same passport you intend to travel with. If the details on the form are not an exact match with that on passport, you will be denied entry into the US.

Common challenges with obtaining ESTA approval

Now that we have covered basic facts about ESTA, let’s have a look at the common problems you may encounter with obtaining ESTA approval, and how you can avoid them.

  • Authorization Pending – When you receive an ‘authorization pending” message after your ESTA application, the US Customs and Protection Agency advises that you check the ESTA website for update on your application within 72 hours.

Some travelers report that they receive travel authorization and then receive a pending authorization when they log in later to update flight information or print the ESTA approval.

There are many reasons this can happen. As security threats from terrorism and disease change constantly, so do screening rules.

A detail you entered about yourself may have been permissible during your initial application, but may become flagged as a threat later.

Also, applying for ESTA through fake or incompetent third parties may cause this problem.

  • Travel Not Authorized – If you receive a “travel not authorized” message, you are not eligible to travel to the US. This could be due to criminal records, deadly disease, terrorism, etc. Please refer to the ESTA help page for more details on this.

If you receive this message after your ESTA application, you are referred to visit the Department of State website, www.travel.state.gov for information on applying for a non-immigrant visa instead. The “travel not authorized” response only means you can’t travel to the US without a visa.

If your ESTA request is denied, do not reapply with different information as this will render you permanently ineligible to travel under VWP.

If you need to travel immediately, you may apply for a next-day appointment at the Department of State website. But approval for this appointment is not guaranteed.

  • Issues with group application – If you are applying for a group, say your family for example, you must make a separate application for each group member. Even if you choose the “Group of Applications” option, you would still have to apply for each person separately.

It is therefore advised that, to avoid any challenges such as payment in case a group member is pending or not approved, group lockout, etc., you should apply for each person as a separate application.

  • Mistake on application – If you make a mistake in your passport or biographical information, you would have to make a new application.

If the mistake is on any of the eligibility questions, you can click on the CBP Info Center Link at the bottom of the page of the official ESTA website, to enter the correct information.

All other mistakes can be corrected by clicking the Check Individual Status under Check ESTA Status in the official ESTA website.

  • Traveling with an expired ESTA – It is easy to forget that your ESTA has expired, especially if you haven’t travelled in a long while. This can be a big problem if you have a sudden and urgent need to travel.

If you travel with an expired ESTA to the US, you will be denied entry. So, it is always better to keep track of your ESTA status so you can know when you need to make a new ESTA application.

Avoiding these challenges is always better than looking for a way to rectify them.

Because it is not known to the common populace the reason for a pending authorization or a rejected application at any time, it is always better to enlist the services of a professional in matters concerning ESTA.

It is often advised to have help from an experienced person when filling your ESTA application. Your travel agent can help you fill your ESTA as they have better knowledge of the requirements, procedure and terminology in the form.

Also, you can apply through an expert company that has access to US travel experts (such as esta-visa.ie). These US travel experts can facilitate checking and processing of your application; they ensure that it meets all the requirements for approval. This is especially useful when you are traveling under short notice.

They also provide you with simpler forms which contain terms and procedure you can easily understand.

A good ESTA facilitation firm will keep you up-to-date with the processing of your application, especially in the case of a pending approval. They should also be able to provide you with a tracking service so that you are informed when you need to make a new ESTA application.