Arriving in the USA Without an ESTA — TPG Staff Mistake Story

Aug 11, 2019

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On a recent work trip, a series of unfortunate events unfurled and I found myself almost denied entry the United States. I went through feeling confused, angry (with myself) and disbelieving of the whole situation. All of this because I forgot to check the validity of my ESTA.

What Is an ESTA?

If you’ve never travelled to the States before, you might not know that you need a valid ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization). It’s used to determine the eligibility of a foreign national to travel to the United States under the Visa Waver Program (VWP). The VWP was introduced in 2006 to enable nationals of 38 countries across the globe to gain easier access to travel to the US for business or leisure without going through the lengthy process of applying for a proper visa.

How Do I Apply for an ESTA?

There is only one official government site to apply for an ESTA. It is a relatively straight-forward process, which costs $14 (£11). I would advise doing your application as soon as you find out that you’ll be travelling to the States in order to make sure you avoid any last-minute issues like I did. It can take anywhere from a couple of hours to three days for the ESTA to be granted, and until it is, you will not be allowed to clear customs upon landing.

What Happens If I Arrive Without an ESTA?

It shouldn’t even be possible to arrive in America without one. This is why things got complicated for me. There must have been some kind of mix-up at the check-in desk because I was handed my boarding pass without question. I even asked while I was checking-in to see if my ESTA was valid, and the check-in agent showed me the green light on his computer screen and explained that he wouldn’t have been able to give me my boarding pass if my ESTA wasn’t valid. So, illegal boarding pass in hand, I made my way innocently to the lounge before boarding my flight.

Eight hours later I arrived in a very hot Atlanta and made my way to border control. I used the automated machines where there was no queue and proceeded to the line of customs officers in their cabins. After a brief ‘What’s the purpose of your visit’ questioning, the officer asked me quite nonchalantly why I didn’t have an ESTA. He pressed a couple more buttons on his keyboard, looked confused and said there must have been some kind of bug. After a second look, he confirmed that indeed, my ESTA was not valid and that the airline would be fined $5,000 for allowing me to travel without one. (Thankfully, it’s not the passenger who is fined.)

In the next three hours, I was escorted to a second customs officer who then escorted me to a holding room. An officer informed me that I had two options: Either apply to renew the ESTA and wait for it to be authorised, or pay $585 (£470) for a one-time entry visa. The ESTA can take any where from one to 72 hours to be authorised, but I thought I’d give it a shot. After about two hours, I still had no authorisation email and it appeared my time was up. The same officer then told me I would have to pay the $585 and be done with it, so I reluctantly gave him my credit card. Just as I was coming to terms with the imminent black hole in my bank account, the same officer returned to me with a smile on his face and said, ‘You’re in luck’. He’d checked my ESTA one final time before charging my card and it had been approved.

Bottom Line

If you don’t want to feel like a criminal and end up having to spend $585 of your holiday spend, double, triple and quadruple check that you have a valid ESTA before you go to the airport. Even for those of you who travel to the States often, make sure you don’t make the same mistake.

Featured Image by Daniel Fela/Getty Images 

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