The ESTA or Electronic System for Travel Authorization is a document that allows nationals of states with visa waiver programs to make short stays in the United States. The U. S. government, in an effort to strengthen border and internal security, has put in place an online intelligence system to better control the movement of people across the country. Formalities for ESTA are wuite easy.
At first glance, the ESTA therefore looks like a visa, which can lead to much confusion among those who are not familiar with the practice of this system. Let us try to take a look at the differences between these two systems.
First of all, ESTA only concerns travel to the United States, although it is true that Australia already had a similar system in place, ETA. In addition, the system is only open to the 37 countries benefiting from the visa waiver programme, including most of the countries in Western and Northern Europe, but also Chile, Japan and New Zealand.
Thus, the general mistake is to consider that ESTA simply replaces the Visa for the nationals of this programme. The reality is significantly different. In fact, in theory, recipients of this program can travel to the United States for up to 90 days without the usual business or tourist visa previously required.
However, before starting their journey, travellers are asked to complete an online form called "ESTA" in order to register with the relevant authorities controlled by the US government. This approach is therefore intended primarily to be safe. It makes it possible to obtain, by its punctuality, a better traceability of the entries into the territory.
Unlike the Visa, ESTA allows the U. S. immigration service to control who wants to come into the country and for what reasons. It is also advisable to apply at least 72 hours in advance. In general, the response (acceptance or refusal) is given, but some requests need additional checks so, additional delays.
This poses many problems for professionals, especially journalists, who have to travel fast and in sudden conditions to the United States. Moreover, ESTA, under its 90-day maximum durability on the territory, cannot concern a certain number of people who are beneficiaries of the visa waiver programme.
Professionals who spend a long time, such as engineers, who have to work on a project for six months, or students who are generally on site for ten to twelve months, cannot stay on American soil with an ESTA form. For this type of travel, a visa is required. But, a VISA application is relatively expensive (for example, a VISA intern will cost between $/€1000 and $/€1500, regardless of the duration).
Thus, it would be wrong to think that ESTA is the literal substitute for visa in the United States. Besides this fundamental difference, the ESTA is set up to ease the travel for travellers wishing to make short stays in the territory. In this way, it avoids the long and tedious procedures involved in applying for a visa from the U. S. government, and also avoids the physical confrontation with an agent of the U. S. embassy.
In a hyper-connected and globalized society, ESTA facilitates administrative procedures in the same way - to a different extent, of course - as contactless payment now offered by credit cards. Contactless payment is only possible on small daily sums and is governed by a weekly and monetary quota not to be exceeded.
The same is true for ESTA in front of the visa. This system both saves travellers’ time on their short stays and greatly simplifies the administrative procedures for immigration authorities. It is currently not possible to travel to the United States without a visa for long time in the same way that most people would not be able to make contactless payment for a car possible. Finally, the fundamental difference between ESTA and visa is a question of scale.