This is the procedure for entering the USA with ESTA

The decision is made – it’s off to the USA!

There are many reasons to travel: vacation, business, visiting family or friends – as different as the reasons are, so you need to prepare differently depending on them. You have decided to travel to the USA? Nice! However, there are some things to consider here. So that you can start your trip carefree, we have created a guide for you, which describes the typical process of an entry into the USA.

Apply for ESTA now in just a few minutes:

Before departure

A USA flag waving in the wind

Visa or ESTA?

Whether you need a visa or an ESTA entry permit to enter the U.S. depends on your citizenship, purpose of travel and length of trip.

The advantages of ESTA are obvious:

  • the application can be submitted online
  • You will usually receive an answer within a few minutes about whether it is approved or not
  • it is always cheaper and time-saving than applying for a visa

The ESTA entry permit is valid for two years and can be used for multiple entries into the USA.

Before you can use ESTA, however, you must check whether you are eligible for it at all. If not, it is necessary to apply for a visa.

Requirements and passport

Basically, you can use ESTA for vacation or business trips – as long as you are a citizen of one of the 39 countries participating in the so-called Visa Waiver Program – Germany, Austria and Switzerland are among them. The trip may not exceed 90 days in this case. If, on the other hand, you would like to work in the USA or stay there longer than 90 days, then an ESTA approval is no longer sufficient.

Also, an ESTA application can only be submitted with an electronic passport (e-passport).

Before you apply for ESTA, check if you have an electronic passport. You can recognize this by the small, golden symbol on the front of the passport (in the middle, at the bottom). Also check the validity. An ESTA entry permit is normally valid for two years – but if your passport expires before then, the ESTA permit will also expire on the same date as your passport.

Otherwise it is sufficient for German passports, if the passport is valid for the duration of the stay in the USA.

Especially with children you have to be careful, because with a children’s passport it is not possible to apply for ESTA! The same goes for temporary passports.

Apply for ESTA

Once you have determined that you meet all the requirements for ESTA, you are ready to submit your ESTA application. Ideally, you should do this six to eight weeks before your departure, otherwise you will have enough time to arrange for a U.S. visa in the unlikely event of cancellation.

At the very latest, however, you should have made the request three days before departure. In most cases, an ESTA application is approved within a few minutes, but it can also take up to 72 hours.

The application can be submitted online. You can do this quickly and easily via the following link: ESTA application. You can also apply directly on the website of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, but your data will not be checked manually and there is no customer service available. Normally, the application process takes no more than 20 minutes. You will need your passport and, if applicable, your address of residence in the USA.

We will send you the ESTA approval by e-mail as soon as it has been confirmed. As soon as you have them, it is best to print them out for your records so that you have them at hand for your trip.

It is better not to buy airline tickets until you have an ESTA entry permit. Although 98% of ESTA applications are approved, in the unlikely event that you are denied, you will have spent a lot of money on a ticket that you will not be able to use.

A well-packed suitcase for the trip to the USA, in which also an ESTA application and the passport should not be missing

Tickets, hotel, rental car.

Once you have received your entry permit, you can start planning your trip. When booking your flight tickets, make sure that you enter the same information as in your ESTA entry permit, so that there are no problems later when retrieving your ESTA when you depart.

Compile documents& Pack your suitcase

You should prepare your documents a few days before your trip. This includes your passport, ESTA authorization, airline tickets, hotel vouchers, etc..

If you are traveling with suitcases, make sure that you lock them either with no lock at all or with a special TSA lock. The TSA (Transportation Security Administration), which controls the suitcases, is authorized to open suspicious suitcases, and if necessary, also by force. The so called TSA locks can be opened by the security check without any damage.

Travelers must be informed if their suitcase has been searched. If this was the case for you, you will know later that there is a note from the TSA in your suitcase.

Online Check In& API Data Form

Usually from one week before departure you can already check in. Please take your passport with you, as you will be asked to provide your passport details once again. If there should be problems here, for example, because allegedly no ESTA is available: Stay relaxed and check once again whether you have entered the data correctly. Do the passport data also match the one on the permit? Maybe a typing error has crept in now? If everything is correct, it is best to contact the responsible airline. In most cases there is no reason to panic, some airlines already pick out some people who have to attend the security check at the ground counter. Accordingly, these people can not do the online check-in.

Most of the time you have to fill in the API data form at the online check in. Here your passport and also residence data in the USA will be requested once again. The data will then be forwarded by the airlines to the US aviation security authority TSA.

Perhaps you have also heard of “Secure Flight”. The “Secure Flight” data must also be forwarded by the airlines to the U.S. authorities and consists of name, date of birth and gender. But you don’t have to worry about this, the data is automatically taken from your booking data by the airlines and forwarded like this.

Departure and flight

The airport check-in counter before finally boarding the plane to the USA

At the check-in counter

Finally, the time has come and your trip to the U.S. begins. When traveling to the U.S., it is recommended to be there two hours before departure if you have checked in or even three if you have not yet done so. Depending on whether you have already checked in online and whether you have luggage with you, you must now check in here and hand over your suitcases.

Second Security Check (SSSS)

If you have the four lettersSSSS (for “Secondary Security Screening Selection”) on your boarding pass, you have unfortunately been selected for the second security check. The reason for this may be that you have been classified as untrustworthy by Homeland Security, for whatever reason. This may be the case if you only have a one-way ticket, or if you booked the flight at very short notice. Suspected terrorists are to be discovered better in this way.

At the second security check you will be sorted out from the other passengers, scanned again and searched more closely than normal. So if you have these four letters on your boarding pass, be sure to allow more time than the usual three hours.

Customs declaration

On the plane you will be given a customs declaration form. This is filled out by each passenger individually, but for families traveling together it is sufficient to fill out only one customs declaration. You have to hand in the customs declaration at the airport.

In the customs declaration you must indicate whether you are carrying dutiable or prohibited goods. If you check “yes” in one of the boxes, you will have to go to customs inspection. You must indicate, among other things, if you have food with you (strictly prohibited)!), or carry more than 10,000 US $ with you.

If you have already traveled to the U.S. since 2008, you can fill out the customs declaration at the APC machine at the airport and do not need to do so on the plane. More about this later.

Landing in the USA

A plane landing in the USA

Procedure upon arrival

Once the plane has landed in the U.S., you will have to go to the Immigration Hall with the other travelers. Depending on whether you can and want to use an APC machine, go directly to one of the machines or to the respective counter – there is one for US citizens and one for foreigners.

Note that the use of cell phones is strictly prohibited in the immigration hall, at baggage claim and also at customs. You should not check your smartphone, even if the waiting times can be extremely long, especially at some airports.

A man is being questioned by an immigration officer at passport control about his entry into the United States

Without APC machine

Because of the security checks, you may have to wait a very long time for passport control. At the counters there are Immigration Officers who will check your passports and usually ask you some questions. You will also be digitally fingerprinted and a photo will be taken.

While you are waiting, you should have your passport, the completed customs declaration form and your return flight ticket ready.

Since there may be questions about your trip, for example, whether you have enough funds, you should be able to show hotel vouchers, your credit card, and other things you need for the trip if necessary.

After the procedure is completed, the immigration officer will staple a departure record into your passport, indicating how long you are allowed to stay in the USA.

A woman has her passport scanned at an APC machine

With APC machine

You can avoid the long waiting time at the counters if you use one of the APC machines. There you enter your personal data (about yourself and your trip), scan your passport and take a photo of yourself. The language can also be set to German. The requirements, for using the vending machines:

  • You are participating in the Visa Waiver Program, i.e. traveling with an ESTA entry permit
  • Have already sailed to the U.S. at least once since 2008

Once you have followed all the instructions and provided the required information, a confirmation will be printed and you can proceed directly to the exit of the Immigration Hall and show the confirmation to an Immigration Officer located there. The immigration officer may ask you a few more questions and staple the entry declaration to your passport.

However, there may be a big X on the confirmation. This means that you will have to go to the counter once more. While this is unnerving, you don’t have to worry about it just yet. There doesn’t always have to be a reason for this – sometimes people are just picked out at random and have to appear at the counter.