This post has been sponsored by — a private company that helps travellers visiting the USA in obtaining their ESTA authorisation.

Whether it’s getting jabs from your doctor or renewing your passport, there are some boring tasks that just have to get done before traveling. Especially if it’s a long haul destination!

Mainly down to terrorist threats and ongoing security issues, the USA is incredibly strict with who it allows through its borders — and that means you have to go through the boring task of applying for a visa or ESTA, also known as an Electronic System for Travel Authorisation.

Which one you need depends entirely on factors like where you live, where you’ve been and how long you’ll be visiting for. So without wasting too much time, let’s get right into the differences between the two and find out which one you’ll need to visit the United States of America!

Why you’d need ESTA

If you’re visiting the USA for 90 days or less, don’t already have a visitor’s visa and you’re a citizen or eligible national of a country listed on the Visa Waiver Program (shown in the image below), you’re eligible to apply for ESTA — a much simpler and low-cost alternative to getting a visa.

Countries in the Visa Waiver Program

Countries in the Visa Waiver Program

According to the government website, in order to go down this route you’ll need to ensure you own an e-passport (with an embedded electronic chip) which is valid for at least 6 months after your departure from the USA.

Bear in mind, applying and getting the ESTA doesn’t necessarily guarantee your entry into the United States! It’s just a more affordable and convenient option for people from the countries listed above.

Why you’d need a visa

Assuming you don’t fit into the criteria above — meaning you’re neither a citizen of the USA, Canada, Bermuda or the other nations from the Visa Waiver Program — you’ll need to go through the visa application process which you can read more about here.

Even if you are eligible for ESTA, bear in mind that if you’re intending on staying beyond the initial 90 day period, you’ll need a visa anyway!

The ESTA application process

You can make your application directly through the U.S. Customs and Border Protection website, but if the whole process seems a little daunting and you’d like a hand, the guys over at offer a great value-added service worth checking out.

For their service fee of $74 (which already includes the $14 ESTA application), you get a bunch of benefits like live chat and email support; a learning centre which answers a range of common questions/concerns; a detailed inspection of your application to make sure it’s all in check; and they’ll even refund you if the application is denied.

Although you end up paying more money this way, the option of having support during the application process may be worth the cost for many people.

Border control: the last hurdle

Being from Portugal (and living in the UK), I’m able to benefit from the Visa Waiver Program which is so, so convenient! I’m so glad I don’t have to apply for a visa in order to visit.

Still, one important thing to note is that even with your ESTA in hand, US border control is notoriously tough to get past — and understandably so when you consider the current state of terrorism. You’ll need to ensure you go well prepared and make a good impression before they’ll let you through.

Do you have any tips to make the process of getting into the USA any easier? Share them in the comments below!

Fabio Virgi

A real geek at heart, Fabio caught the travel bug after traveling for a month in the summer of 2015. After visiting 4 different places in 4 weeks, he decided to leave his job, become self-employed and see all the world has to offer!