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Is an ESTA required for a transit through the USA?

Easily obtain an ESTA for your transit through the United States or for a simple stopover in the USA, you can trust our carefully selected partner who will enable you to access the online application form.

Although your final travel destination may not be the United States maybe you find yourself in the position of needing to transit or stopover in an American airport before continuing to your final destination country. Many travellers in this position ask if they need to obtain an ESTA travel authorisation for a simple transit or stopover in this country. In this article we shall explain why such an authorisation is in fact necessary and how to apply for an ESTA to transit through the USA and thereby successfully complete your travel plans.


Why is a travel authorisation necessary for a simple transit through the USA?

Firstly, you are undoubtedly wondering why it is necessary to hold an ESTA or another type of travel authorisation as you are not planning to stay in the USA, just passing through as a transit. It is in fact necessary to obtain some kind of travel authorisation to board a flight to your destination if your flight lands at an American airport even for just a stopover or transit, and even if you do not leave your airplane.

In reality a visa or ESTA authorisation is necessary to enable you to step onto American territory and this is also the case with American airports. The American authorities also study each case individually to verify that the visitors that transit through these airports do not present any potential threat to state security. Whatever the length of the visit, however much time you actually spend on American territory, you therefore need prior authorisation.

The first control of this travel authorisation is actually completed before your departure by the airport personnel where you will board your airplane. If you do not have this authorisation then you will simply not be allowed to board the plane. It is therefore primordial to obtain this official document before your departure date. As we shall examine later in detail, the ESTA electronic travel authorisation is clearly the best way to gain approval for your transit through the USA.


What is an ESTA travel authorisation relating to a stopover in the USA?

Let us take a few minutes to remember exactly what the ESTA electronic system of travel authorisation actually is and how it works, particularly relating to transits through the USA. 

This system was implemented by the American government in 2009 with the objective of simplifying the administrative procedure for certain visitors wishing to travel to the United States that were previously obliged to obtain a traditional visa which can necessitate a long and expensive process. This new security programme is, as its name indicates, an entirely electronic or digital system as the entire procedure is completed online. The name ESTA represents Electronic System for Travel Authorisation and forms part of the Visa Waiver Programme in that it avoids the necessity for you to hold a visa. This means that if you obtain an ESTA you will not need a visa to travel to the USA whether it is for a simple transit or a longer stay. However, this document only allows you to enter American territory by boat or by airplane.

An ESTA authorisation can therefore greatly simplify your travel preparations as this simple application will only take a few minutes to complete online as we will explain later in greater detail. However, it is important to note that this electronic system of travel authorisation is subject to certain conditions as follows:

  • Firstly, only certain travellers may benefit from this simplified authorisation programme to visit the USA or complete a transit. In fact, the ESTA is the result of an agreement signed between the United States and, at present, 38 countries that fulfil certain specific conditions. Of course, Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and Ireland are all included. It is imperative that you are a permanent citizen of one of these member countries to be eligible to benefit from an ESTA.
  • Another condition relates to the reason for your planned visit to the United Sates using your ESTA. In fact, it is not possible to visit the USA to work, follow studies or permanently reside there using this travel authorisation and in these cases you will need to apply for a specific visa according to your situation. An ESTA travel authorisation uniquely covers visits for tourism and business and to visit friends or family. Of course, an ESTA also covers transits through American airports or stopovers in this country.
  • The length of your visit to the USA using your ESTA is also limited. You cannot remain longer than 90 days on American territory using this travel authorisation. Longer visits will require you to hold a specific visa.
  • Finally, it is also necessary to hold a valid biometric or electronic passport that is also valid for both your outward and return flights to be able to use your ESTA for transits through the USA, even if your final destination does not require you to hold a passport.

Once you have obtained this ESTA travel authorisation it is valid for two years and can therefore be used for numerous visits, stopovers and transits through the USA as long as they comply with the conditions stated above and no major changes to the personal information given have taken place since your initial application.


What is the procedure to obtain an ESTA for a transit through the USA?

Now that you understand what exactly an ESTA travel authorisation is and the need to obtain one before you try to complete a transit or stopover in the United States, let us pass on to the practical aspects by explaining how you can obtain this official document.  

First of all, let us examine when it is best to complete this application. As we shall see more in detail later, obtaining an ESTA is fairly rapid and should only take a few hours. But even though it may therefore be tempting to leave it until the last few days it is still recommended you complete your application at least two weeks before your departure to avoid any last minute problems or delays.  

To start with, given that the ESTA system is 100% online and digital, to apply you will need to find the official application form online which is available through numerous specialised websites that provide this service such as the one we recommend on this website. The application procedure is fairly straightforward and only takes a few minutes. You will need to have your electronic or biometric passport close to hand as you will need the number to complete this application.

On the application form you will of course be required to state your full identity as it appears on your passport as well as your passport number and a valid email address. This email address is important as it is here that the response to your application will be sent. You will also need to reply to some questions particularly in relation to the reason for your visit to the USA. Here you may tick the box for ‘transit’ if this is applicable. Other questions relating to homeland security will also be asked such as any legal jurisdiction or criminal record and details of other countries you have visited. It is exceedingly important that you check all your answers you give on this application form to ensure that you are not refused this ESTA travel authorisation due to a simple mistake. Of course the answers you give must be clear and entirely truthful.   

Once you have completed your verification you can continue with the payment online of the associated costs and fees. This payment can only be completed directly online, you cannot pay with cash or a cheque. Of course, your payment by credit or debit card is completed through a secure server to ensure confidentiality. It is only when payment has been completed that your application is transferred to the American authorities for processing which includes the examination of your application.  

The response to your application will be sent by email within a maximum of 72 hours following the submission of your application although in the majority of cases applicants will receive a reply in only a few hours. If you do not find the response email in your inbox within 72 hours then check your spam or trash folders. The email that you receive will note the status of your application which will be ‘Accepted’, ‘Refused’, or ‘Pending’ in exceptional cases. If your ESTA application is accepted then you have nothing further to do. This is because the ESTA is a paperless document that is digitally or electronically linked to your passport number. You therefore do not have a physical document other than your passport to carry during your travel and therefore nothing to print out either. However, we do advise you to keep a copy of your application, particularly if you plan to use this ESTA for future visits to the United States.


Does an ESTA guarantee that you can complete your stopover in the USA?

We would also like to draw your attention here to the fact that obtaining your ESTA authorisation does not guarantee the right to stopover or transit through the USA. In fact, it is simply a method of control implemented by the American authorities with the objective of identifying people that may present a risk for national security. When you actually transit through the USA you may still have to undergo a supplementary inspection with an immigration or border agent who has the right to stop you entering American territory for another reason. 

Remember also to complete an ESTA application for all children, even those who are very young, that will travel with you and ensure you have their passports to hand for the travel. However, in the majority of cases, this ESTA will enable you to complete your stopover peacefully through the USA and maybe even do a little sightseeing if you have the time between two flights to visit the area around the airport.


Should the valid period of an ESTA cover the entire trip for a simple transit through the USA?

Now we will examine the rather tricky question as to the validity period of your ESTA authorisation for a simple transit through this country. Many visitors actually wonder if this travel authorisation needs to cover just the transit or stopover date or the entirety of your trip abroad until your return to your home country.

In reality, the answer to this question depends on several points. What you need to remember here is that whatever your situation you do need to hold a valid travel authorisation each time you enter United States territory. Therefore, depending on the individual case this is how you should organise yourself administratively speaking.

If your travel plans do not include a transit through the USA for the return trip then it is pointless for your travel authorisation to cover your return flight as you will not be passing through the United States. You should simply ensure that it is valid for your outgoing flight which includes the transit.

If your travel plans include a transit through the USA for both your outgoing and incoming flights then you will of course require an ESTA authorisation that is valid for both dates. However, it is not obligatory that your ESTA covers the entirety of your time away from your home country. Let us imagine that your ESTA expires during your time away but after your outgoing flight including the transit through the USA. In this case, you will simply need to renew your travel authorisation before the date of your second, return transit through the USA. Certain visitors in this case prefer to simply renew their ESTA before the initial departure date even if it hasn’t expired to avoid the hassle of this procedure during their time away from home.

It is also extremely important here to examine the role of the passport and its validity for your various transits through the USA. You do of course need to hold a passport that is valid for both your outward and return dates and this passport should also be valid for at least 6 months after your last transit through the USA. Therefore, if your passport expires shortly you will need to renew it before your departure date and even before completing your ESTA application online. It should be remembered that your ESTA is automatically and digitally linked to the passport number you stated on your application form. So, if you change your passport, therefore the passport number, before your travel then it will of course be impossible for border and immigration agents to view this authorisation and therefore you will not be able to board your flight or transit through the USA.


How to complete a stopover through the USA without obtaining an ESTA authorisation?

As we have just examined in detail in this article, applying for an ESTA online if you plan to fly to, transit through or stopover in the USA shortly is undoubtedly the simplest manner of ensuring you have the travel authorisation necessary to do so. This will of course save you precious time that you can use for other preparations for your visit. However it is not guaranteed that this authorisation will be granted and certain applicants receive a negative response to their application. In this case is it still possible to transit through the USA?  

In reality, this of course depends on whether you can obtain another travel authorisation as the latter is obligatory. In this situation you have two possibilities. If you are certain you fulfil the conditions to be eligible for an ESTA and you believe the refusal was due to a simple mistake when completing the application form then you have the possibility of course to reapply for an ESTA, checking your responses carefully this time. To reapply for an ESTA you will have to follow standard procedure and wait for 10 days after receiving your initial refusal notification.

If your ESTA is refused for any other reason then you can always apply for a specific visa. It should be noted that certain websites refund the cost of your ESTA application if the latter is refused.