On May 26, 2021, the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) released a news alert warning about fraudulent and misleading websites aimed at foreign travelers, including some that mimic U.S. government websites. There are also third-party companies that charge fees to help travelers who are applying for U.S. programs. While not illegal, some of these companies fraudulently market themselves as “official” websites affiliated with or operating on behalf of the U.S. government.
CBP officers have observed a rise in the number of third-party companies, websites, and email scams claiming to assist foreign travelers with the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA). ESTA is an automated system that determines eligibility to travel to the U.S. under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), which is the U.S. implementation of a reciprocity agreement between the U.S. and 39 countries that permits citizens to travel without a visa for business or tourism stays of up to 90 days at a time. Foreign nationals from one of the 39 countries must use ESTA to obtain authorization to travel to the U.S. under the VWP, and can do so through the official U.S. government website at https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov. The cost is $14, and travelers must have a valid e-Passport from a VWP country.
CBP does not work with or endorse any businesses or websites that purport to assist with the ESTA application process for an additional fee. In fact, CBP advises anyone who has used a third-party site to check the status of their application on the ESTA website and confirm that their information was accurately submitted to CBP. The U.S. government will not reimburse or refund any money paid to a third-party website. According to Matthew S. Davies, Executive Director at CBP Office of Field Operations, “the best way to avoid ESTA fraud is by applying only through the official ESTA website.”
ESTA does not provide travelers with a visa, and an approved ESTA application cannot serve in lieu of a U.S. visa when a visa is required. Individuals traveling on a valid U.S. visa are not required to apply through ESTA, as the VWP. Neither a valid visa nor an approval from ESTA guarantee entry into the U.S., as that determination is made by CBP at the port of entry or pre-clearance facility. Approved ESTA applications are valid for a period of two years—or until the traveler’s passport expires, whichever comes first—and can be used for multiple trips to the U.S. without the traveler having to re-apply. For more information on ESTA and VWP, visit the ESTA website.