Do you need an ESTA for a simple transit through the USA?

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Do you need an ESTA for a simple transit through the USA?

You no doubt already know of the requirement to obtain ESTA authorisation or a visa for a visit to the United States. But how about if you are travelling to another destination whereby your means of travel requires a stopover in the United States? Do you need to apply for ESTA authorisation in this situation? This question is what we will answer here with some explanations.


Is it obligatory to apply for an ESTA authorisation for a stopover in the United States?

The response to this question concerning the necessity of an ESTA authorisation for a stopover in the United States is of course positive. To understand why this authorisation is necessary it is important to understand the difference between a trip that requires a flight over the United States and a trip that requires that the plane touches ground on American territory.

The visas, and more recently the ESTA system, enable the American authorities to regulate the entries and exits of foreign citizens from their territory.  When your airplane or ship has a stopover in an American airport or port, as a passenger you are therefore a visitor, even if you don’t set foot outside your plane or ship.

It is therefore logical that your visit requires an ESTA travel authorisation.


ESTA authorisation: An alternative to the visa

Created in 2009 by the American authorities, the Electronic System for Travel authorisation (ESTA) is the new security method implemented to limit the risks to the security of the American territory. It is basically a document that authorises travel to the United States by plane or ship without the need for a visa.

The ESTA authorisation is part of the Visa Waiver Program (VWP). Since the 8 September 2010, the ESTA has been payable. Once the application form complete with information has been submitted, the applicant simply has to wait for the response which is generally processed rapidly.


Who needs to apply for ESTA authorisation?

Visitors wishing to transmit via the United States, like the holidaymakers and business people, are required to submit an ESTA application form if they are a citizen of one of the Visa Waiver Program member countries.

Although the travel authorisation enables visitors to stay for a maximum of 90 days on American territory, those who need to simply stopover in the country also need to present the ESTA document when they arrive at the USA on a flight or ship.  The same procedure applies to children whether they are accompanied or not.


ESTA authorisation and entry onto American territory

Although the majority of applicants that obtained their ESTA travel authorisation are directly admitted into the United States, the authorisation of this application does not automatically grant access to American territory.

It should be emphasized that ESTA authorisation is only a supplementary control method enabling immigration officials to identify those who present a risk to American territorial security. Only the authorities at the port or airport have the necessary authority to admit each visitor into the country.


Information and the submission deadline for an ESTA application

In principle, the ESTA travel authorisation can be applied for at any time before departure. However, the United States Department of the Interior recommends that visitors submit their application at least 72 hours before departure. Uniquely processed through the Internet via websites authorised by the American administration, this procedure is normally fairly rapid.

To complete this application you will need to provide certain information. At the top of the application form it requires the name, date of birth and passport details of the applicant. Information concerning the travel planned such as the name of the airline, the destination, flight number etc., are also requested.  Finally questions related to the admission conditions of the United States are to be answered on the form: Criminal record, convictions, arrests, contagious illnesses, travel ban, visa cancellation…


Period of validity for an ESTA authorisation

An ESTA authorisation is valid for two years. Those who benefit from ESTA authorisation (Electronic System for Travel authorisation) can visit the United States as many times as they wish without having to renew their ESTA unless their passport expires before the end of this period as noted by the Visa Waiver Program.


How to apply for an ESTA to transit through the USA?

If you plan to travel via the USA shortly for a transit or stopover then you will need to apply for an ESTA, or a visa if you do not have a biometric or electronic passport or you are not a citizen of one of the program member countries.

To do so, you simply need to access an ESTA application form, choosing one available in your language such as that on our website, taking care to ensure that you have your valid passport number with you. This passport should be current at the time of application and indeed for the visit itself. You will also need a valid credit card with you to pay for the transfer and processing fees and costs for your application.

You should then complete the application form carefully, replying honestly and truthfully to all questions asked and omitting no important information. You may make a collective or group application if you travel as a family or with friends to facilitate your travel preparations. Do not forget to state a valid email address which will be used to send the email response as to whether your ESTA application has been accepted or not.

You will receive a response to your application, either positive or negative, by email within 72 hours maximum. If your ESTA is granted then you can transit through the United States and also use this authorisation for any other visits to the USA or transits through the USA during a period of two years following your approval.

In the case of a refusal, you unfortunately cannot transit through the USA and will be obliged either to apply for a traditional visa or transit through another country by changing your travel plans.


Is it possible to leave the airport during a stopover with an ESTA?

As we have just explained, it is necessary to apply for an ESTA and obtain this travel authorisation if you plan a trip with a flight that requires a stopover in American territory as without this authorisation you will not be allowed to board the plane, even if you do not envisage leaving the plane.

But when the stopover concerned is fairly long then some people like to benefit from this free time to visit the surrounding area. Indeed, in certain airports this can prove the ideal time to do a little sightseeing. If your stopover is in New York for example the airport is fairly close to Manhattan and you can therefore visit the city centre and explore one of the more characteristic areas of New York.

But before planning this type of visit ensure you have plenty of time available. We recommend that you actually stay in the airport if your stopover is just for a few hours and only leave if your stopover is for more than 10 hours. It is important to remember that during the time of your stopover you should include the time taken to leave the plane and pass through customs and immigration controls which can take several hours depending on the airport and the number of passengers using it. Plus there is also the time necessary for passing back through airport security on your return to the airport and boarding the ongoing flight.       

To summarise, you may only have a very limited time for tourism so this could prove advantageous mainly for longer stopovers. If this is the case then it could be possible for example to stay in a hotel close to the airport if your plane leaves the next morning or enjoy a little shopping in the surrounding area and try out the local fare in one of the nearby restaurants. 

Of course, this is only possible if you have an ESTA authorisation as your passport will be systematically checked when you pass through immigration controls at the borders. If all is in order then there is nothing to stop you leaving the airport and using your stopover in the United States to enjoy some of the attractions of this unique country and its fascinating culture.


Should an ESTA cover the entirety of your trip including stopovers in the United States?

Another question asked by many travellers that plan a stopover in the United States relates to the validity period of an ESTA. It is actually possible that you already hold a valid ESTA following a previous visit to the United States and it may still be valid at the time of your departure. In this case you can use it for your initial stopover in the United States. But what should you do if this ESTA expires before your return flight?

If your return flight also includes a stopover in the USA and your ESTA expires before this date then you will need to apply for a new one, even if you complete your outgoing trip with a valid ESTA and your visit is for less than 90 days. In fact, when you visit another country after a stopover in the United States this means that you leave American territory. The outgoing stopover and the return stopover are therefore considered as two separate visits to the United States and you will need a valid ESTA for both of them.

Two possibilities are open to you if you find yourself in this particular situation:

  • The first solution is to renew your ESTA when it reaches its expiry date and thereby benefit fully from its two year validity period. However this means that you must be able to apply for a new travel authorisation from the country you are visiting. In this case you should ensure that you have a good internet connection, access to your emails and the time available for this procedure. 
  • The second solution is to renew your ESTA before the end of its validity period and before your departure date. In this way, apart from if your trip lasts longer than two years, you can be sure that your ESTA authorisation is valid for the outgoing and return trips and your stopovers are hassle free in terms of administration. The only drawback to this solution is that you lose a few days of your initial validity period as they will not be added to the validity period of the new ESTA.

It is up to you to choose the solution that seems most appropriate for your situation.