The United States is often eyed as an ideal destination for higher studies by millions of students hailing from different countries. The numerous famous universities and colleges in the USA lure talented students from those countries. Generally, to study in the USA and stay there, students require suitable VISA but this is not a hard and fast rule! Students eyeing short term courses in the US institutes and colleges can very well opt for the ESTA or Electronic System for Travel Authorization. It has been made effective since January 2009.
Nuances of ESTA that students seeking education in the USA must know
The Electronic System for Travel Authorization, briefly referred as ESTA is a unique and automated system that is deployed to assess eligibility of visitors headed to the USA under the VWP (Visa Waiver Program). The VWP is a special US Government Programme, rolled out by the Department of Homeland Security. It is used to authorize entry of nationals hailing from 37 countries with lower illegal immigration rates to the territory of the USA. This enables the eligible applicants to enter the USA without VISA for a specific period. Like travelers or people visiting the US for a short duration for various work, students seeking short term courses in the USA can also opt for ESTA.
As of now, the Visa Waiver Programme lets the applicants including students apply for ESTA only through online applications. As per the norms, the applicants can stay in the USA after getting approval for ESTA for a maximum duration of 90 days. The applicants must ideally apply minimum 72 hours prior to travel to the USA but it is prudent that you apply while keeping some time in hand. The approval time may vary from one candidate to another but in most cases, students applying for ESTA do not have to wait long.
The advantage is that the applicants do not have to fill any form manually or take printouts. The entire application and approval process takes place online. There is no need to go to the US embassy for screening etc.
More about validity and limitations of ESTA
Students seeking admission to short term educational courses in the USA and opting for ESTA must learn about its validity and limitations well. While approval for ESTA does allow a student to stay in the USA for a period of 90days for studying or related work, it is by no means a substitute for US VISA. If a person already has a Valid US visa, he/she does not need to apply for ESTA. ESTA does not let you immigrate to the USA at all.
After an applicant is given approval for ESTA, it remains valid for a 2-year duration. The applicants/students must remember a passport is still very much required. The ESTA validity will cease to exist after approval if the passport gets expired before the validity of ESTA. It is possible to pay multiple visits to the USA within the 2 years period though at each time, staying is not allowed for more than 90 days at a stretch.
If an applicant gets approved for ESTA but his/her passport actually expires within 2 years then he/she will get ESTA valid until expiry date of that passport. Opting for a new ESTA authorization will be required when:
- You get a new passport
- You opt for change in name
- You change your gender
- Your citizenship is changed
- Your circumstances are change (criminal record or contracting contagious disease)
Incidentally, if the applicant’s ESTA expires when he/she is in the USA that is not going to affect departure.
While ESTA approval lets an applicant travel to the US for specific needs, it does not actually guarantee admission into the territory of United States. Upon arrival at the entry port, the US Customs and Border Protection dept will review the case of each applicant and they can determine eligibility as per the country law. Applying for ESTA is also required if a person (belonging to a country covered in Visa Waiver Programme) only needs to transit through the territory of the USA to atoner country.
Not sure if you are eligible for applying? Check here the passport requirements for ESTA Authorization.
When students can use ESTA instead of US student VISA
When the citizens of other countries seek entry to the USA, they need to apply for either an immigrant visa or a nonimmigrant visa. However, the foreign students are typically required to apply for US student VISA. This can be either an M1 or an F1 visa. It depends on aspects like type of school and the course of study. Usually, the US Universities or colleges, and high schools and most academic institutions use F-1 student visas. The recognized non-academic institutions opt for M-1 student visas. Study aimed at acquiring certification requires an F-1 visa, usually.
Students coming to the USA can bypass all of these if they opt for the ESTA but they have to fulfill certain conditions. Firstly, they have to be from countries that participate in the VWP. Besides, the stay duration for study shall not exceed 90 days. This indicates the courses cannot be long term. One benefit of ESTA applicants is that they can bypass enrolling for medical insurance which the student Visa applicants cannot evade.
Applicants using ESTA to study in the USA can only enroll in specific types of institutions and courses. They can get enrolled in government accredited institutions to study language classes. They may not be able to opt for regular colleges or universities. They can however attend non-formal education events. The course has to be below 18 hours a week as well. You will not be able to pursue graduation or similar full time degrees awarded by US universities by using ESTA. It would be prudent for the applicants to check with specific US universities and colleges to figure out if those offer short term courses that meet ESTA requirements.
Checking the ESTA visa status is important
It is necessary for anyone to check status of his/her ESTA application before traveling to the USA for studying or any other work. If the ESTA application is fund to be expired, applying for new authorization is mandatory prior to the travel.
Additional things the ESTA applicants including students must remember
To make sure your application for ESTA is approved, a few aspects have to be analyzed carefully.
Passport details- Whether you use ESTA or any other type of VISA to travel to USA, you cannot do so without having a valid passport. The passport is an identity document while ESTA serves as a travel permit to the USA. Your ESTA travel permit depends on validity of details on your passport. If information in your passport clanged after getting ESTA approval, you should submit a fresh ESTA application. If the customs agent gets any discrepancies between your passport and ESTA application, you may be denied entry to the USA despite having approved ESTA permit. After renewal of passport, you also need to apply for travel visa another time.
Passport requirements for traveling to the USA under ESTA
Students and others applying for ESTA must learn about passport requirements. The passport must have machine-readable part on its biographic page. The citizens of the below listed VWP countries have to produce electronic passports:
- South Korea
- Republic of Malta
The citizens hailing from all other ESTA Visa Waiver Programme covered countries may get clearance with machine-readable passport.
What to do if your ESTA application is rejected?
For a majority of applicants/students belonging to countries covered by VWP, getting clearance soon after applying for ESTA is natural, but there may be a few exceptions. However, ESTA application rejection does not equate to rejection of entry to the USA. It simply denotes you cannot travel to the US using ESTA. You are still very much eligible to apply for US student VISA or other types of VISAs. You can thereafter contact the American Embassy in your country and undergo the regular process for Visa issuance. However, it is not prudent to retry for ESTA if the initial ESTA application is rejected.
The process for ESTA application
The Students applying for ESTA to study in the USA should learn the procedure and it is not tedious as such. The process is online and you need a valid passport and credit/debit card to make the payment. The VISA and MasterCard debit cards are accepted and Accepted credit cards include American Express, MasterCard, Discover and Visa. You also need to use valid email id and a telephone number. These are optional but useful for future needs.
The online application is simple and does not take more than 20 mins on an average. It can be done on any modern computer with a stable internet connection and web browser with basic security measures. The response is prompt and it comes within 3 days at max. If the application is approved, processing fee and additional fee are charged. Before making the payment, it is prudent to check the information you have typed is correct. Everything including date format has to be correct. After receiving response, it is prudent to note down the case number. It will be used for future verification or correction needs. It will also be used to check the application status.
You may save your application and modify and finish later. The things that are allowed to be updated are place of departure, Airlines Company, address in the USA where you will stay, Contact telephone number etc. For updating any data, you will need the case number and Passport number.