How long does an ESTA take to be approved?

How long does it take for your ESTA confirmation to arrive? Find out the waiting time following an online ESTA application before receiving your notification by email or by post.

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ESTA processing time

If you are thinking of shortly visiting the United States and have heard about the new ESTA system that enables you to obtain a travel authorisation rapidly and directly online then maybe you are wondering how long it takes to receive a confirmation of this authorisation. Here we will explain all the details concerning this procedure and how long before your departure you should apply for your ESTA online.

ESTA application processing time: Key points

  • Using the online application procedure, it takes an average of 24 hours to obtain an ESTA, up to a maximum of 72 hours.
  • It is possible to obtain an urgent ESTA within 4 hours by paying an additional fee
  • In some cases, it may take longer to obtain an ESTA, particularly if the application requires verification.
  • We recommend that you apply for an ESTA no later than two weeks before your departure.


About the ESTA system, its processing times and how it works

Before entering straight into the subject and explaining how much time you will need to wait before receiving your ESTA confirmation response we would first like to quickly summarise certain information about this system which is also known as the ‘visa waiver programme’. 

The ESTA is in fact a fairly new system created to replace the traditional visa and enable certain visitors to travel to the USA more easily than before. It consists of a 100% electronic system as everything is completed online extremely rapidly. However, in order to benefit from this online travel authorisation system you will need to fulfil certain basic conditions as follows. 

Firstly you should be a citizen of one of the ESTA system member countries. At present the United Kingdom is one of around twenty countries that belong. Being a citizen of one of these countries means that you live there permanently and hold a valid passport from this country. In fact, the United States chose these countries carefully when they implemented this travel authorisation system and they have all signed an agreement ensuring that this travel privilege works both ways.  If you live in a country other than those that are members of this system then you will unfortunately not be able to apply online for an ESTA and will need to apply for a traditional visa.

Another existing condition for using the online ESTA system relates to another travel document, your passport. This passport should of course be valid at the time of your ESTA application but it should also cover your visit. You should also ensure that your passport is an electronic or biometric passport which is generally the case for more recent passports.

Finally, your visit to the United States should only be for tourism or visiting someone close to you. Under no circumstances can you use this travel authorisation to live or work in the USA or follow studies. There are specific visas that exist for these situations.

The last condition that we shall examine later relates to the length of your visit to the United States. In fact, the ESTA is a travel authorisation that only enables you to visit the United States for a maximum of 90 days. For visits of longer than three months you should apply for a traditional visa.

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How long does ESTA take?

Let us now continue directly to the subject that is primarily covered in this article, which is the time necessary to obtain your ESTA confirmation. Once you have submitted your application online and paid the associated costs and fees, you will not have to wait for long to obtain a response from the American immigration authorities.  

In fact, the processing time of an ESTA application is a maximum of 72 hours, or three days, even if you apply during a weekend. This extremely short processing time is made possible by the entirely digital operation of the ESTA system which makes the processing of applications much simpler.

The response to your ESTA application, or your travel authorisation confirmation, will be sent to you by email to the email address you gave when completing your application form.

However, in reality, and depending on the website you used to complete your application you may notice that in reality the time is often much shorter. Generally speaking you will only have to wait for a few hours before receiving your confirmation email.

Once your ESTA has been confirmed then you have nothing further to do. As it is an electronic travel authorisation and therefore attached digitally to your passport then you do not need to print this document and present a physical paper copy during your travel. The immigration and customs authorities as well as airport personnel will be able to view this authorisation when they scan your passport during the boarding and arrival procedures.

As you may have noticed the processing time for an ESTA application is far more rapid than that for obtaining a visa.


Concerning this processing time, when is it recommended to complete an ESTA application?

We have just noted that the confirmation of your ESTA is sent rapidly and directly to you by email which may tempt you to leave the application procedure until the last few days before your visit.

However, in all cases we recommend you apply well in advance to ensure that you have plenty of time to explore other possibilities in case of any mishap which, if you do not leave enough time, could cause a major upset to your plans for visiting the United States.

This would notably be the case if, despite all your expectations, you receive a negative response from the American authorities which means that your ESTA has been refused. In this case you may still be able to visit the USA but through another administrative method. For example if the refusal is due to a mistake you made when completing the application form then you have the opportunity to reapply online after waiting for 10 days following the receipt of the refusal. If the refusal is due to another reason, for example an incompatibility of your application with the regulations of the ESTA system then it may be possible for you to apply for a traditional visa to visit the country. In this case the time required to obtain a travel authorisation will be much longer, in complex situations it can take as long as several months.

In all cases it is therefore highly recommended you complete your ESTA application a few weeks or even a few months before your departure date in order to review other possibilities in the case of a refusal to your initial application.


What to do if 72 hours has passed and you have not received a response to your ESTA application?

As we mentioned earlier when we explained about the time necessary to obtain a confirmation response to your ESTA application, you will generally only have to wait a few hours for this email response either granting or refusing your ESTA application with a maximum response time of 72 hours. However if this maximum response time of 72 hours expires and you have not received an email then several explanations are possible. 

Firstly and before giving in to panic, ensure that you have carefully checked your incoming emails. Check also in your spam and junk email folders as it is quite frequent for the email response from the American authorities to be automatically filed there as it is from an unknown and apparently foreign source.

You could also check that your ESTA application has been successfully submitted. To do so the simplest method is to confirm that the payment has been deducted from your bank account. As the payment is the last step in successfully submitting your application the latter will not be transmitted to the American authorities for processing unless the payment for costs and fees related to your ESTA has been completed. If the payment has not been recorded on your bank account then this means that your application has not been successfully submitted. This is often related to a problem occurring at the time of payment. It is therefore important to confirm that there are sufficient funds on your bank account to successfully complete this payment and also check that your bank has not blocked the use of your card for one reason or another. It is also possible that the submission procedure was interrupted at some point before completion. Online payments using a credit or debit card are generally highly secure procedures and during the authentication procedure of your card details you are generally redirected to your bank’s secure server for verification and completion of your payment through the use of, for example, an SMS message with a code. Therefore, if you think you have completed the payment and close the web pages before completing this security procedure then your payment will not be verified and completed. In this situation you will therefore have to reapply and complete the entire procedure again, checking each step carefully as you do so.

In the case whereby you observe that the payment has indeed been deducted from your bank balance then another explanation for the non receipt of your ESTA confirmation email may be an error made when stating your email address during the completion of your application form. It is possible that your ESTA application has indeed been submitted successfully and confirmed, but sent to an incorrect email address. In this situation it is best to confirm the status of your ESTA application directly online on the American authority’s website. You will be able to access your application using your passport number and some supplementary information. If you noted your application reference number then this will save you precious time here. It should be noted that you do not need your confirmation email for your ESTA to be valid at the time of your travel.

Finally if you have no plausible explanation for the non-receipt of your ESTA confirmation then we recommend you simply reapply for your ESTA online.


How soon can you use your ESTA after obtaining it?

Let us now look at the time period within which you are able to use your ESTA authorisation once you have obtained it. You are not actually obliged to travel to the USA as soon as you obtain your ESTA and in fact your visit can take place much later after obtaining it.

However, do not forget that your ESTA has a two year validity period on the condition that the information entered on your original application does not change. If it has or the time period has expired you cannot use this ESTA authorisation to visit the United States, even if you never actually used it for a visit. It is therefore best to optimise the validity period of this authorisation by only applying for it when you truly need it, this means when you are planning a visit to the USA.  

Another important thing to remember concerning your ESTA relates to the length of your visit. In fact, this time should not exceed 90 consecutive days. For a longer visit than this you should apply for a visa for the United States which entails a longer and more complicated procedure. You should therefore leave plenty of time for this if necessary. 

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How to complete an online ESTA application in the best time possible to rapidly obtain a confirmation?

Now that you know all about the time necessary for your ESTA confirmation let us continue with explanations on practicalities relating to the details of completing your online travel authorisation application.

Firstly you should ensure you have a short time available to complete your application form in peace and quiet. Ensure you will not be disturbed for the time it takes to complete the procedure in order to avoid making mistakes that could result in a refusal of your application. Also ensure you have your valid passport number close to hand when you complete your application as your ESTA will be digitally linked to this number.

You should then access the online ESTA application form, ideally in your own language by visiting a service provider such as the one we recommend on our website. Complete the application form taking great care when entering your personal information such as your full name and postal address, date of birth and email address.  Do ensure that this information is the same as that stated on your valid passport and your travel documents. 

You will then need to answer a series of questions aimed at determining your right to enter onto American territory in accordance with the laws and regulations established by the American authorities and the system itself. These questions relate to your career, your family situation, your state of health and even your morality and legal situation. You should of course respond to them all in a completely truthful and clear manner as the American authorities that will study your application can easily verify the answers you have given.

Once the application form has been completed take the time necessary to verify all the answers you have given before submitting it. You will then need to complete payment of the costs and fees as requested by credit or debit card or any other electronic method available to you.

You will then have nothing further to do apart from wait for your ESTA confirmation email to arrive which should occur within 72 hours from the time of submission including the successful payment of the associated costs and fees.

It should be noted here that if you plan to travel as part of a group of family or friends then you have the possibility of applying for your ESTA as a group by completing the application form for all members at the same time. You will of course in this case need all the relevant documents and details for each group member in order to do so.


The particular case of receiving an ESTA by post and its processing time:

The ESTA system was designed to function in a totally paper free manner, via the internet and therefore entirely online. The application form also therefore needs to be completed online and the response is sent rapidly by email, within 72 hours after you have submitted your application. However, this electronic or digital system can disconcert certain people that would maybe like to obtain their travel authorisation in a more traditional fashion, in the form of a paper document. Of course, it is possible to print the email response following your ESTA application and keep a copy even though it has no real value as an administrative document. However, if you do not have a printer then certain websites that specialise in an ESTA application service offer you the opportunity to receive a paper copy of this document by post.

Of course, sending a paper copy of your travel authorisation by post is an option that is generally payable but it only costs a few extra Euros.

Concerning the subject that we are examining here, the time taken to receive a response to your ESTA application, it goes without saying that a paper document sent by post will take longer than a simple email confirmation. Of course, your application will still be processed within the maximum of 72 hours but it is only after this online confirmation procedure that your paper ESTA will be sent. You should therefore allow for a certain delay. The time taken to receive your paper document will depend partly on where you live however it should not exceed more than a few days after the initial 72 hours.  You should however take this extra time into account and prepare for any delay caused by the postal services to avoid any inconvenience or further delays if your ESTA application is refused.

Of course, you will also receive your ESTA response email even if you have elected to receive a paper copy by post. In this way you may, by checking your email inbox, learn if your application has been granted or not before receiving the paper document. You can of course also verify the confirmation of your ESTA online if necessary.


Advice summary to obtain an ESTA within the time period:

To avoid having to delay your travel plans due to the non arrival of your ESA authorisation within the stipulated time follow this advice:

  • Begin the ESTA authorisation application procedure at least two weeks before your departure ensuring you have your biometric or electronic passport close to hand.
  • Ensure you have carefully read and submitted your application form.
  • Favour payment by credit card as processing is faster and more secure.
  • Check that the sum paid has been debited from your bank account.
  • Finally, if you have missed out one of the steps cited above, do not waste any time, restart the ESTA application procedure from the beginning, unless you already have an ESTA reference number.
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As a web writer and globetrotter with a passion for travel and tourism, I have acquired in-depth knowledge of the procedures that are essential for travellers. I help travellers to complete all the formalities required for a successful trip, particularly when it comes to obtaining a visa online. With several years' experience in this field, I'd like to offer you some valuable advice to help you discover the world with complete peace of mind.


Frequently asked questions

When is the best time to apply for an ESTA?

We advise you to apply for an ESTA at least two to three weeks before your departure date. However, it is not advisable to apply too early either. Your ESTA authorisation is valid for two years from the date of issue and obtaining it a few months earlier would reduce your future travel possibilities.

Why may your ESTA application be on hold?

If you have received an email indicating neither acceptance nor refusal of your ESTA but simply a pending status, or if you see this status when checking your application on the ESTA website, this does not mean that your application has been refused. In fact, a pending status simply means that your application has not yet been processed or is being reviewed. This can happen when there are too many applications in progress, but also when immigration officers need to carry out further checks.

What to do if you do not receive your ESTA within the 72-hour time limit?

If the normal 72-hour deadline has passed and you have not yet received the email informing you of the status of your ESTA, there are several possibilities. First of all, check your spam or junk mail folder as it is possible that the email you received is in there. If this is not the case, you can also visit the ESTA website to check the status of your application.

When does an ESTA expire?

An ESTA authorisation currently expires two years after it is obtained. This means that you can use this authorisation to make several trips during this period, provided that your passport has not expired and that the data you entered on the form is still valid.