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First time visiting the USA? Whatever you do, don’t forget this four-letter word

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Stars and stripes Union Station Chicago

ESTA. That four-letter word

In the past, the need to apply for a visa for travel to America put off plenty of potential tourists. But since the introduction of the visa waiver programme this is much less hassle if your country is included. Even if you are eligible, don’t assume that ‘waiver’ means you don’t have to do anything – you still have to obtain a travel authorisation before you leave.

The Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) entails making an online application for which you will require your passport, flight and hotel information.

It is also a condition that your passport is relatively new, preferably an electronic version with a digital photo and biometric chip. You can complete the process yourself, but in many cases it can make sense to get professional assistance with your ESTA.

When to get help

If you are apprehensive about providing the correct information, if English is not your first language or there are any potential issues in your past that you are worried could be a problem, we recommend obtaining help to complete the ESTA application.

Let’s face it, you don’t want anything to spoil your first holiday in the States. Having someone who can explain the entire process to you in your own language, answer any questions you may have through online chat or email and even remind you when your ESTA is about to expire is worth the nominal fee.

A few things to remember

  • When approved, your travel authorisation is valid for 2 years. But if your passport expires or you renew it during this period you will need to make a fresh application next time you travel to the US
  • You don’t need any printed confirmation of your approved status – the system is, as the name suggests, fully electronic and all the information the authorities need will appear on their screens when swiping your passport
  • Travel authorisation is just that – you are authorised to travel to America. It does not guarantee entry as the final decision on this is made by Immigration officers on arrival, but this is basically a formality if your ESTA is in order
  • Be prepared to be fingerprinted and have a photograph taken on arrival – it’s all part of the process.
  • You will almost certainly have to endure a long queue when you land; keep your cool and be polite – it’s not much fun for these guys stuck in a glass box checking passports all day either. Resist the temptation to vent your frustration…

Last but not least – have a great trip to the USA!

View from the Empire State Building

Image (c) Andy Higgs, Grown-up Travel Guide

Compared to most of my friends of a similar age, I was a late starter in terms of visiting America. In fact I’d passed the ripe old age of 40 before I finally set foot ‘over there’ but I’ve been making up for lost time ever since.

After having still barely scratched the surface I find it a fascinating place and my brief time in the USA has changed a lot of preconceptions I had about the country and its people. After realising just how much there is to see and do in this one country, the fact that so many American never travel abroad is far less surprising than it was from my European perspective.

Despite the fact that we share a language and that our cultures have become increasingly similar, there are plenty of differences that will surprise Brits – and even more await visitors from other countries.

So you have much to look forward to – but don’t overlook the practicalities in your excitement!