New rules for travel to America: ePassports, VWP & ESTAs

Lorna Cowan / 16 March 2016

Off to the United States soon? If you’re a British citizen and travelling from 1 April 2016, you’ll need an ePassport with an electric chip.

If you don’t hold this type of passport, you’ll be refused entry.

New visa rules now also stipulate that not all visitors will be able to enter the USA under the Visa Waiver Programme (VWP). New rules apply if you’re a dual citizen of Iran, Iraq, Sudan or Syria, or if you’ve visited these countries, or Libya, Somalia or Yemen, since March 2011.

ePassports now compulsory for US travel

Anyone visiting the US after 1 April 2016 should hold an ePassport, valid for the proposed duration of their stay. Its electronic chip holds the same information that is printed on the data page in the passport – the holder’s name, date of birth and other biographic information – and, as a result, makes travel safer and documents more secure.

Passports are valid for 10 years and as all passports issued since October 2006 were ePassports, only people with an issue date from April 2006 to October 2006 could have an older machine-readable passport - but check before you travel. If you have an ePassport, there will be a logo on the front cover. Visit the US Department of Homeland Security website to view the logo.

You can apply, renew or update for a UK passport online. A standard adult first passport or renewal costs £72.50, or £82.25 if you use the Post Office’s Passport Check and Send service.

Changes to the US Visa Waiver Programme (VWP)

The VWP allows most British citizen passport holders to visit the US for up to 90 days – to enjoy a holiday, for some business trips and to pass through en route to another destination.

However, you will not be allowed to enter under the VWP if your nationality is described as anything other than ‘British citizen’. Anyone with dual citizenship in Iran, Iraq, Sudan or Syria will not qualify and will need to apply for a visa from a US Embassy or Consulate. If you’re visited any of the above countries, or Libya, Somalia or Yemen, since March 2011, you will also need to contact your nearest US Embassy.

You may also not be allowed entry under the VWP if you have a criminal record or if you’ve been arrested in the past, even if it didn’t result in a criminal conviction. Find out more travel advice from the Foreign & Commonwealth Office.

ESTA requirements still apply

Those travelling under the VWP, and arriving by air or sea, still need to apply for an ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorisation) at least 72 hours before arriving in the US. You will then be notified if you are eligible to travel. Carry your ESTA approval with you when you travel.

Your ESTA will be valid for a period of two years, or until your passport expires, whichever comes first. If you already have a valid ESTA but can no longer travel under the VWP, contact the US Embassy or Consulate.

Apply for an ESTA online at the US Customs and Border Protection website. It costs US$14. If your application is not approved, you’ll only be charged US$4. Avoid paying over the odds on other unofficial websites.

If you’re arriving in the US by land, you don’t need to complete an ESTA until you’re at the border. Note that getting an ESTA is a separate process to providing your airline with Advance Passenger Information, such as your passport details and the address of your accommodation in the States.

Transits via the US

The VWP also applies if you arrive in the United States then travel onwards to a destination in Canada, the Caribbean or Mexico – you will also need to obtain an ESTA to enter the US. When travelling back home to the UK via the US, your ESTA will still be valid to re-enter the country, provided the total number of days of your trip does not exceed 90. 

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.