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ESTA History

Updated: Jan 21, 2024  | Tags: ESTA

ESTA History

Why was the ESTA created?

The Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) is a system that is intended to automate and streamline the border security and screening process for eligible travelers arriving in the United States. The ESTA has been mandated to implement recommendations that were made by the 9/11 commission act of the year 2007 so that travelers from low risk countries can be admitted to America with less stringent requirements than travelers of other higher risk countries. A traveler deemed as a risk to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is one who is likely to break immigration laws and / or be a security risk. However, it is essential to realize that authorization through this visa program does not mean that travelers are automatically admissible to America, as admissibility is determined by CBP.

How does ESTA relate to the Visa Waiver Program (VWP)?

ESTA is just an extension of the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) that has been in existence since 1986. The main difference is that ESTA includes an additional requirement that visitors obtain pre-authorization prior to departure to the U.S. Furthermore, passengers can reuse the same authorizations for two years from the date is issuance. The VWP began when congress created a legislation in 1986 to facilitate short term business visits and tourism in America. This allowed the department of state to focus on other tasks like consular activities and address higher risk requirements depending on global dynamics on immigration and foreign relations (Siskin, 2014).

By the year 1991, many European countries had joined the program with the first Asian country (Brunei) becoming a member in 1993. Introduction of the program made it easy for visitors to get into America since they were cleared beforehand; but, the requirements changed after the 9/11 attacks where entry requirements were tightened to include provision of machine readable and biometric passports. Airline operators since 2010 have been forced to require ESTA at check-ins through fines as part of the current security measures. In the same year, some regulations demanding revocation of some holders based on their dual citizenship status from certain countries were passed through with controversial reactions from the affected countries.

What are the workings of the ESTA approval process?

According to Koslowski (2016), the VWP works by automatically preapproving successful applicants based on a broad range of questions. In addition to applicant information, their countries must be part of the waiver program and their certification is based on various considerations. First, eligible countries must have a travel history of their citizens who do not cause security concerns for America. For instance, countries whose citizens have been involved in attacks and other forms of security compromises are disallowed from the VWP since these individuals pose national threats; and, it is the role of the American government to disallow admission of such individuals.

Countries should also have low risk levels in their respective domestic settings. This is meant to prevent citizens of non-U.S. countries from radicalizing and entering America though the ESTA to execute malicious activities. In addition to security requirements, countries must have good diplomatic ties, have economic value, and provide strategic benefits for America. Due to the strict qualification process, only 41 countries currently participate in ESTA VWP. Dual citizens are also affected based on current or past citizenships. For instance, dual citizens of Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Sudan saw their ESTAs canceled in January of 2016 as a directive from the secretary of homeland security. However, they are still allowed to travel to the U.S. under the VWP should they disclose details of additional citizenships.

What rights do ESTA applicants have when submitting an application?

Despite the strict requirements and freedom to determine admissibility by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, applicants have several rights that must be afforded to them until the application process is complete. Whether successful of not, applicants have a right of fair consideration without any discriminative tendencies based on country of origin, demographic, and other individual attributes. According to Reilly & Tekleselassie (2017), the government should also provide progress on the approval process in due times without withholding any pertinent information. In fact, it is the rationale for having a tracking webpage where applicants can follow the application process until the final decision on admissibility is made.

Applicants who are eligible in terms of age, country of origin, and documentation also have a right to information as to why their requests were invalidated. They have a right to have specific reasons for their rejection either based on reason for application, intentions, or government considerations so that they can execute the necessary corrective measures. In other words, every applicant has certain basic rights that must be provided by the government else it will be in violation of international ratifications that guide creation of the visa program, as well as the subsequent relations with the involved countries.

Does an ESTA grant the same legal rights as a visa?

ESTA is not a visa because it does not suffice all legal requirements to those of a visa. Travelers with valid visas can enter the U.S. based on their travel purpose and do not require an ESTA. The difference is that an authorization to travel under ESTA does not constitute a visa, thus the legal requirements are less, and people with valid visas are not obligated to apply under ESTA. These differences are the ones that have made carriers to become signatories of the visa waiver program else they be fined for non-compliance.

Such requirements are in existence because of the fundamental constructs that led to introduction of ESTA. As per the information provided by U.S Customs and Border Protection in 2017, the visa program is only valid for a maximum stay of 90 days in America and its neighboring countries. This admission time cannot be extended as the visa is just an authorization for a short visit either for business, pleasure, or any other valid reason as provided. An application for a visa is therefore required in case a traveler wants to extend the stay without causing an incidence with the various state agencies responsible for immigration.

Why are visa waiver travelers charged a fee for an ESTA?

As of September 2010, the promotion act introduced a charge on all applicants although some member nations complained that it was ill intended and could cause negative outcomes on movement of people. Regardless, the initial fee of $14 has been divided into two sections classified as authorization ($10) charge and processing charge ($4). For the processing charge, applicants are supposed to pay a fee for handling their applications once a request has been filed. On the other hand, an authorization charge is required once the application goes through as per the program requirements. If an applicant is not authorized, a minimal charge is made as a processing fee.

In 2022, the ESTA fee was increase to $21, where the processing charge remains the same ($4) operational or processing fee.

How has the ESTA system changed over the years?

A new enhanced ESTA application was unveiled in 2014, and additional restrictions were rolled out in 2016 to limit travelers deemed high risk due to previous travel to Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Sudan, Syria or Yemen.

In 2019, applicants were required to provide employment information and are requested to provide social media information, although the latter is optional. Thus, all ESTA applicants must be aware of the new requirements. Because of increased security, there are additional ESTA form questions about other names, citizenships, contact information, employment, etc. Another notable update is that ESTA allows electronic payments with a maximum of 50 applications for one transaction. There is also an allowance to update all information apart from passport number and its issuing country.

In 2019 and 2021, Poland and Croatia, respectively, were added to the VWP. 

In 2022 there were added enhancements for application data verification. Mandatory passport photo uploading was made a requirement on every ESTA application. CBP also released a mobile app, CBP One™, which aims to be the go-to mobile solution for ESTA applicants. In 2022, Cuba was also added to the State-Sponsored Terrorism (SST) list and travelers who have visited the country could expect additional screening or restrictions on their use of the VWP.

In 2023, Israel was admitted as the 41st country to the VWP.

It is expected sometime in 2024 or 2025 that either or both Romania or Bulgaria will be added next to the VWP.

Countries currently participating in the Visa Waiver Program

Country Year Admitted to VWP
  United Kingdom,   Japan 1988
  France,   Italy,   Netherlands,   Sweden,   Switzerland,   West Germany (later Germany in 1990) 1989
  Andorra,   Austria,   Belgium,   Denmark,   Finland,   Iceland,   Liechtenstein,   Luxembourg,   Monaco,   New Zealand,   Norway,   San Marino,   Spain 1991
  Brunei 1993
  Ireland 1995
  Australia 1996
  Slovenia 1997
  Portugal,   Singapore 1999
  Czech Republic,   Estonia,   Hungary,   Latvia,   Lithuania,   Malta,   Slovakia,   South Korea 2008
  Greece 2010
  Taiwan 2012
  Chile 2014
  Poland 2019
  Croatia 2021
  Israel 2023


Regardless of the recent changes and additional security measures on the application form, the VWP is flexible, fast, and an efficient way to allow movement of people in America through an automated preapproval process; though, with legal limitations as compared to visa holders.


  1. Koslowski, R. (2016). 9 The US Visa Waiver Program and the management of mobility across the Atlantic. Externalizing Migration Management: Europe, North America and the Spread of remote Control Practices, 179.
  2. Reilly, B., & Tekleselassie, T. G. (2017). The role of United States Visa Waiver Program on cross-border travel. Applied Economics Letters, 1-5.
  3. Siskin, A. (2014). Visa Waiver Program. Congressional Research Service.
  4. U.S Customs and Border Protection. (2017). Travel. Retrieved from U.S Customs and Border Protection:
  5. U.S Customs and Border Protection. (2017). U.S Customs and Border Protection. Retrieved from Department of Homeland Security: