Currently, many nationals enjoy visa-free travel to and within the European and Schengen area. However, with the introduction of the ETIAS, these visa-free travellers will soon need to obtain ETIAS approval before embarking on any European travel.
ETIAS stands for European Travel Information and Authorisation System and is being introduced to strengthen European security as it will determine if an intending visitor poses a criminal, terrorist or health risk to the EU and Schengen member states. The new travel authorisation system is due to commence in the middle of 2022 for an initial six-month trial period. ETIAS approval will not be mandatory during this time but will become so from early in 2023.
As is the case with the European ETIAS, the American ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization) is also a security measure introduced to prevent unwanted or undesirable visitors from entering U.S. territory.
Neither ETIAS nor ESTA are visas which were once the norm for many visitors to America and Europe. ETIAS or ESTA approval is electronically linked to a passport and the holder is then entitled to visit the relevant destination country. European and American authorities maintain a list of countries whose citizens are eligible to apply for travel approval. The EU currently lists about 60 countries while the American version includes around 40. Many of the countries on the American list are European nations, including the United Kingdom, which also appears on the European version.
Whereas a visa is a physical document an ETIAS or ESTA, while basically performing a similar function, is an electronic link to a passport which can be scanned to check on the status of the approval. This makes electronic authorisation easier and faster to check and more secure than a visa. Another advantage to electronic approval is the speed at which a passport holders details can be checked and updated as circumstances change while a visa cannot be as easily checked for updates in status.
In order to obtain either an ETIAS or ESTA an applicant must fill out an online application form which requires a lot of personal information including details regarding criminal or terrorist links or convictions.
The prime motivation behind the introduction of ESTA and ETIAS is to prevent terrorist attacks and screen out those convicted or suspected of involvement with terrorism. ESTA has been operational since 2010 and implements recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007. Although the Twin Towers attack occurred in 2001 it took almost ten years for the American government to finally introduce this pre-screening of intending visitors to the United States. It is now a mandatory requirement and a traveller's ESTA will be checked at airport and seaport terminals before departure to America. The possession of a valid ESTA does not, however, guarantee a visitor's right to enter America. This is determined by U.S. Customs and Border Protection personnel who can refuse entry if the person is deemed a risk to American security despite holding an ESTA.
The same basic principle applies to an ETIAS. Although it will soon become mandatory, possession of a valid ETIAS does not ensure automatic access to Europe or countries within the EU and Schengen zone. A country's border security personnel have the power to refuse an ETIAS holder entry if there are grounds to believe that person poses a security, terrorist, criminal or health risk.
Different Acceptance Thresholds
While the application process for ESTA and ETIAS are very similar the American authorities are extremely security conscious and even the smallest question mark about an applicant may result in a refusal. It is much easier to acquire ETIAS approval with a criminal record than it is to secure an ESTA. This will, of course, depend on the seriousness of the crime committed and the length of sentence served. A criminal record for minor offences with short sentences served is unlikely to pose a real problem on an ETIAS application form but the American ESTA officials will probably take an entirely different view.
Similarly, a past history of visits to areas of conflict, or with links to terrorism, will raise serious red flags with American security agencies while it may result in no more than further questions from the ETIAS screening board.
Intending travellers who have severe medical or mental problems or suffer from contagious or transmittable diseases may also fall foul of the U.S. authorities. HIV/AIDS was only removed from the ESTA list of disqualifying conditions in 2009.
Similar Application Process
The application process for both ESTA and ETIAS are extremely similar and both are carried out online not in person at an embassy or consulate as is the case with a visa. The application form in both cases is basically a questionnaire which must be completed fully and honestly.
Standard information and details required for ESTA and ETIAS application includes:
- Full name, address, nationality, date and place of birth.
- Passport details, date of issue and expiry, passport number, country of issue.
- Contact details including email address and phone number.
- Both ETIAS and ESTA application forms also include sections related to:
- Previous travel history and countries visited.
- Criminal record and details of convictions and sentences served.
- State of health and details of certain listed conditions or diseases.
Providing false or erroneous information will most likely be quickly detected as all applications are thoroughly checked against numerous security and criminal databases and, should these checks return a “hit”, the application could be rejected immediately. Refused applicants have an immediate right to appeal but this may not succeed if the incorrect information pertains to criminal or terrorist activity or the existence of serious medical conditions on a specified list.
Validity and Cost
An ESTA is a current requirement for eligible to the United States but an ETIAS to travel to Europe is not yet mandatory. This situation will change in 2023 when ETIAS will be required for travellers entering the ETIAS countries without a visa.
As previously explained, the application process is very similar for both ESTA and ETIAS but there are varying requirements, periods of validity and costs.
- Applicants must possess a current, valid passport with an expiration date no less than six months beyond the dates of travel.
- Holders are entitled to numerous entries and exits from the European zone but are limited to a total of 90 days in any 180 day period. The 90 days can be used in one block or spread over a number of trips as long as the 90 total is not exceeded.
- The ETIAS is valid for a period of three years from the date of approval.
- A passport must be machine readable (e-passport) and valid for the full stay in the United States.
- ESTA holders may remain in the United States for a maximum total of 90 days, in one block or broken into several visits, commencing on the date of arrival. This regulation also applies to travel to Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean Islands.
- An ESTA holder must state on the application form that he or she agrees that U.S. Customs and Border Protection may take biometric data upon arrival.
- The ESTA is valid for two years commencing on the date of approval.
Although the ESTA is valid for just two years as against the three years allowed on an ETIAS it is significantly more expensive. An ETIAS is anticipated to cost €7 whereas an ESTA currently costs $14. ESTA applicants should be aware that $14 is the official price but many agencies charge multiples of this amount.
The ESTA and ETIAS share several similarities, however they are each unique. The broadest similarity is that they are travel authorisations for short-term visits for the purposes of transit, tourism or business. The ETIAS and ESTA have different pricing points, durations, requirements and of course, eligibility. Yet their main objective is to provide enhanced security capabilities while serving as an additional source of government revenue.