Q I will be travelling by road from Canada into the US. I know British passport holders aren’t obliged to have an “Esta”. But would it cause a delay at the border if I don't have one?
A The scheme under which the vast majority of British travellers can visit the US without a visa is the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), which came into effect nearly 30 years ago. For anyone like you who is travelling by road (or rail) to the US, this simply requires you to turn up with a valid passport and fill in a form known as the I94W. There is no guarantee, however, that you will be admitted. The US waives your obligation to apply for a visa, but in return you waive your right to appeal against being turned away if the border official regards you an undesirable alien.
The Electronic System for Travel Authorization (Esta) is a development of the Visa Waiver Program, aimed specifically at people flying to the US. It is one of the measures put in place by the US in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, and subsequent attempts by terrorists to down aircraft. Besides seeking to thwart acts of terrorism, the authorities also aim to reduce the number of travellers who are denied admission when they land in America and have to be repatriated.
The Esta enables the US authorities to learn more about intending arrivals, and cross-check their details against various watch lists, before deciding whether to grant permission to allow them to board a plane to America. To get one, you must apply online, providing a prodigious amount of information (and paying $14/£10 for the privilege). Arriving by land is whole different matter in the eyes of the American authorities. Overland travellers obviously pose no threat to aviation. And if officials don’t like the cut of your jib, they simply won’t let you in - there is no need to put you on the next plane home.
So is there any advantage in obtaining “pre-clearance” in the shape of an Esta? Well, it could save you filling in a form on the spot. But having crossed land borders to the US many times from both Canada and Mexico, I cannot see any significant advantage. The border official will simply assess you and decide whether or not to let you in.
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