If you are a passport holder of country participating in the U.S. Visa Waiver Program and plan to travel to or from Mexico via the USA by air or sea, you need to complete an ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization) form online and get pre-authorized to travel before you arrive in the United States. ESTA is not required if you cross into the United States from Mexico by land, and does not apply to U.S. and Canadian passport holders, regardless of how you travel.
ESTA was first introduced in August 2008 and made mandatory on January 12, 2009. The application fee is currently US$14, and the authorization is valid for two years, after which you need to re-apply and pay the fee again. Airlines are fined heavily if travelers requiring ESTA land in the U.S. without authorization, so they deny boarding to anyone who has not applied; you might be asked to show your ESTA authorization number at check-in.
The US government hosts its official ESTA web site at: https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov/esta/. The application process involves filling-out detailed personal information about yourself as well as your passport details, and submitting these with the $14 fee paid by credit or debit card. Most passengers are authorized immediately, although in the event that your application is denied, you will need to contact your nearest U.S. Consulate before you travel.
Since the new requirement was set in motion, an entire raft of ‘service companies’ has appeared online offering to undertake the application process for a fee, usually between $50 and $100. These companies set up websites that look ‘official’ and some even have web addresses that are similar to the official government address – but have nothing to do with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
The procedure you undertake when you use a service company to apply for ESTA is no more or less complex than the procedure you undertake when you apply direct, and the final outcome (whether you are authorized or not) will not change by using a service company.
Some ESTA service company sites indicate their fees before you begin to fill-out their form, but these fees are not always prominently displayed. Many of the sites invite you to complete the application form right away, and also ask for your payment card details before you are presented with a summary screen that tells you how much you will be billed. It’s usually between five and seven times what you would pay by doing the same work on the official ESTA site.
Beware of Look-Alike Sites
Many travelers use Google or other search engines to search for ESTA and some people click on links that they think are the official government site, when in fact they have been linked through to a service company.
We have noticed recently that some of the service companies are placing the official government address into their web page title so that the official address appears on the search engine results list. Do not be fooled by this: go direct to the U.S. government’s secure (https://) site shown below.
While most of the companies out there are set up to capitalize on a requirement that demands millions of visitors to the U.S. undertake this application procedure, some operators may use the opportunity to steal credit card and identity details—after all, the ESTA application form and payment process requires you to divulge many personal details including your full name, birth date, gender, nationality, passport number, home address, and payment card number. Choosing the wrong site to share your details with could cost you much more than an inflated processing fee.
We therefore highly recommend to our readers who need ESTA that they ONLY use the official government web site set up by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to apply and go directly to this site: https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov/esta/
See Also: Mexico Entry Requirements
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