US stops instant ESTA approvals
You'll now need to allow at least 72 hours.
Most Australians travelling to the USA don't need a visa as such. Instead, you apply for an ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization) permit, which is valid for multiple trips over two years.
US Border Protection has always advised applying for an ESTA online at least 72 hours before your travel. Obviously, the best thing to do is to apply as soon as you book your tickets.
But if you didn't know you needed an ESTA and get to the airport, it's been possible to apply online and receive immediate approval. That's a risky practice (since some approvals do take longer), but I've seen lots of people do it at check-in counters in recent years.
Now, though, several travel forums have noticed that option has been removed. There's a message on the ESTA application site making it crystal-clear that last-minute applications won't be possible any more:
Apply for ESTA no later than 72 hours before departing for the United States. Real-time approvals will no longer be available and arriving at the airport without a previously approved ESTA will likely result in being denied boarding.
That means that if you hit the airport for a US flight and don't have an ESTA (or a US visa), you're stuffed. Also bear in mind that travel insurance won't cover your costs if that does happen.
An ESTA only costs US$14 and doesn't require you to visit a US consulate, so it's a fairly convenient option. Don't make the mistake of thinking you need to apply through one of the third-party sites which flood Google results for searches for "ESTA" – they don't add any value.
Europe is planning a similar system to ESTA, known as ETIAS, for introduction by 2020. Being able to apply online definitely makes the visa process easier, but the onus is still on you to get it right.
Angus Kidman's Findings column looks at new developments and research that help you save money, make wise decisions and enjoy your life more. It appears regularly on finder.com.au.
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