The ESTA is a visa waiver program authorization that grants travelers the right to enter and stay in the US for up to 90 days. Usually, people use this visa-free scheme to visit the US on business or tourism trips.
In this post, we’re looking to explore another use case of the ESTA – for in-transit visits. Can the ESTA be used for such? That is, when passing through the US, do you need to apply for a visa, and if so, is it the ESTA USA or another visa type?
This and many others are the questions we’ll be answering in this post. So, sit tight and learn.
What is ESTA, and who needs it?
Known as the Electronic System for Travel Authorization, ESTA is a unique visa-scheme program that qualifies citizens of certain countries, including the UK, Germany, Italy, and many others, to visit the US on a 90-day stay.
Commonly, ESTA is accessed by travelers looking to visit the US for sightseeing, exploration, tourism, business meetings, seminars, and other recreational/business purposes. However, as the title of this post suggests, the scheme is also available to folks looking to transit through the US.
By transit, some people are probably wondering what we mean exactly. Let’s spell that out, shall we?
Air Travel Definitions
An air flight transit refers to a situation whereby an aircraft makes a stop at a connecting airport to refuel or gather supplies before continuing to its final destination.
In transit trips, passengers normally leave in the same airplane they came with.
Usually, there are a number of reasons an aircraft could make a short transit stop at a connecting airport. As we’ve mentioned, it could be to refill its fuel engine, gather food supplies, or fix operational issues.
Whatever the case may be, travelers are usually issued a transit card while an airplane is making a transit stop. Also, depending on the aircraft and travel policy, travelers may be asked to remain in the airplane or moved to a transit room while the plane is waiting.
An air flight transfer is quite similar to the ‘transit’ situation described above. However, the main difference is that passengers don’t leave on the same flight that brought them. Instead, they change terminals and hop into another aircraft that takes them to their final destination.
It is not uncommon to find people mixing ‘transit’ and ‘transfer’ up, but they’re quite different.
As with Transit and Transfer, a Layover also involves an aircraft making a stop at a connecting airport before proceeding to its final destination. However, in this case, the length of the stop doesn’t exceed 24 hours. In fact, in the case of domestic trips, a layover may be as short as 30 minutes and around two hours or more for international travel.
Stopover is the twin brother of layovers. Hence, the reason people mix them up. However, unlike layover, stopover usually involves stops of more than 24 hours.
In fact, some travelers voluntarily ask for stopover trips so that they can make a stop in a connecting country for a family visit, exploration, or sightseeing.
How does ESTA relate to the four travel types?
In each of the four cases described above, it is not uncommon to find travelers who wish to leave the airport and explore the areas around. Sometimes for sightseeing, explorations, or regular recreational activities.
To do this in the US, it is mandatory to first obtain an ESTA visa. Your ESTA status qualifies you to step out from an airport in the US while your plane is transiting or while transferring to another plane.
Other cases where an ESTA is required for in-transit US travels
Based on the last few paragraphs, you may think you only need an ESTA if you’re stepping out of the airport. But that’s not entirely true.
The United States of America is a very lawful country with strict immigration practices. To even make a stop in a US airport in the first place, you’ll need to hold an ESTA USA. Anybody stepping into a US airport is believed to be stepping into American territory. And for that, they need to be authorized to do so.
So, it doesn’t matter whether you’re remaining in your plane, strolling around the airport, or stepping out from the airport; as long as you’re making a stop in American territory, you must get an ESTA.
A clear definition of the ESTA’s rules for transiting
When you board a plane bound for the US, it’s true that the US may not be your final destination. In fact, you may only be stopping because your plane needs to drop off or pick up new passengers, which is entirely not your fault. However, that’s no concern of the US customs and immigration. The fact you’re making a stop on American soil means you must get an authorization to do so.
Moreover, you could have boarded a direct flight from your home country to your target destination. If you’re choosing a flight that makes a stop in the US, you must be willing to satisfy the conditions that come with it.
How to apply for an ESTA
You can apply for an ESTA through a specialized application website like the one in the link above. All that will be asked of you is your passport and personal details. The agent will handle the rest of the application process for you, and in less than 72 hours, you’ll get your ESTA approval.
However, it’s important to note that the ESTA isn’t for everybody. Only citizens of certain countries can apply. If your country isn’t qualified to apply for an ESTA, you may apply for other transit visa types through the US Embassy/Consulate office.
Some of the common transit visas non-ESTA applicants apply for include: the C1 visa (General Transit Visa), C2 visa (United Nations Headquarters Transit Visa), or the C3 visa (Foreign Government Transit Visa).