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When to apply for ESTA

Updated: Jan 21, 2024  | Tags: ESTA Application Time, ESTA Status, ESTA Application Guide

Traveling to the United States under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) is streamlined by the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA), an automated system that determines the eligibility of visitors for short stays. Determining when to apply for ESTA gives applicants a good idea of timing on when to start an ESTA application. If approved, an ESTA is issued for a period of two years or the date of the applicant’s passport expiry, whichever date is sooner. Thus, if an applicant is planning multiple short trips to the United States over the course of two years, then the applicant may be better suited to wait closer to the time of their first departure before applying for ESTA.

Understanding when to apply for ESTA is crucial for ensuring a smooth travel experience. This article provides a detailed guide on the ideal timing for ESTA applications, factors to consider, and tips to avoid common pitfalls.

When to apply for ESTA
When to apply for ESTA

Understanding ESTA and its purpose

Before diving into the timing aspect, it's important to understand what ESTA is and its role in the travel process. ESTA is not a visa but a prerequisite for citizens of VWP countries to travel to the U.S. without a visa for tourism, business, transit, or medical purposes, for stays of up to 90 days. The system screens travelers prior to their arrival, enhancing security while facilitating expedited entry upon landing in the U.S.

When to Apply for ESTA: General Guidelines

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) recommends applying for ESTA as soon as you start planning your trip to the United States. Ideally, applications should be submitted at least 72 hours before your travel date. This recommendation is in place to account for any delays or issues that might arise during the application process.

If an applicant is planning only one trip to the United States over the next two years, then the applicant can apply whenever he / she chooses so long as the ESTA application is submitted at least 72 hours prior to departure as this is the maximum amount of time it takes for CBP to process an ESTA application.

The importance of an early application

Applying early for ESTA is essential for several reasons. First, it allows ample time to resolve any potential issues that may occur, such as errors in the application or the need for additional screening. In the event that an ESTA application is denied, travelers will have time to apply for a U.S. visa, which is a lengthier and more detailed process.

Early application also provides peace of mind, knowing that one critical aspect of travel planning is taken care of well in advance. This is especially important for business travelers or those with fixed travel dates who cannot afford last-minute disruptions.

Situations requiring special attention

Certain situations require extra attention when applying for ESTA. For instance, if you have a criminal record, a history of being denied entry into the U.S., or previous visa issues, it's advisable to apply for ESTA well before the 72-hour recommendation. These factors could lead to additional scrutiny, and applying early will provide sufficient time to address any complications.

Similarly, if you have recently changed your name, nationality, or obtained a new passport, it's crucial to apply for ESTA with the updated information as soon as possible to ensure that your travel authorization is accurate and valid.

What happens if you are denied an ESTA?

If an individual’s ESTA application is denied, the traveler will need to apply for a U.S. visa if they wish to enter the United States. Thus, to err on the side of caution, it is recommended U.S. bound visitors apply for their ESTA at least eight weeks prior to their departure to the United States to allow for any unforeseen circumstances that may arise with obtaining ESTA approval. This allows an individual with a denied ESTA with around eight weeks of time to apply for a U.S. visa, which usually takes anywhere from four to six weeks to process depending on the applicant’s selected U.S. embassy and personal circumstances.

Renewing your ESTA

ESTA authorizations are generally valid for two years or until your passport expires, whichever comes first. It's important to check the expiration date of your ESTA before planning subsequent trips to the U.S. If your ESTA has expired or your passport has been renewed, you must apply for a new ESTA. As with initial applications, it's advisable to apply for renewal at least 72 hours before your travel date, although earlier is always better.

What happens if you apply late?

Applicants wishing to apply for an ESTA less than 72 hours before their departure to the United States are risking disruption of their travel plans, should the applicant be deemed inadmissible for travel to the United States due to a pending or denied ESTA. A U.S. bound visitor will have their ESTA checked before boarding a U.S. bound aircraft as well as on arrival to a U.S. destination.

While ESTA applications are often processed quickly, sometimes within minutes, there is no guarantee that this will always be the case. Late applications leave no room for addressing issues or applying for a visa if necessary.

Tips for a smooth ESTA application process

Double-Check Your Information: Ensure that all the information on your ESTA application is accurate and matches the details in your passport. Mistakes can lead to delays or denials.

Keep Track of Your Application Status: After submitting your ESTA application, check the status regularly. If your application is pending or additional information is requested, address it promptly.

Understand the ESTA Requirements: Familiarize yourself with the eligibility criteria for the Visa Waiver Program and the ESTA requirements. Ensure that your purpose of travel and duration of stay align with these criteria.

Be Prepared for Other Travel Requirements: Apart from ESTA, be aware of other travel requirements, such as having a valid passport and meeting any health or vaccination regulations.


Applying for ESTA is a critical step in preparing for travel to the United States under the Visa Waiver Program. To ensure a stress-free experience, apply for ESTA as early as possible, ideally as soon as you start planning your trip. Early application allows for adequate time to address any issues and provides peace of mind. By understanding the importance of timing in the ESTA application process and following the tips outlined above, travelers can look forward to a smooth and enjoyable visit to the U.S.