There are many websites and email scams attempting to mislead international travelers and members of the public into thinking they are official U.S. government websites. Officers at U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) have noticed an increasing number of third-party sites claiming to help foreign travelers apply for the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA).
Third-party companies who charge a fee to assist travelers in registering under ESTA or other government programs like Global Entry do not operate on behalf of the U.S. government. While all of these companies are not illegal, some have gone so far as to mimic the CBP website. Note that U.S. government websites can be identified by the “.gov” domain. Also, CBP does not work with third-party companies and cannot guarantee the legitimacy of these companies or the safety of travelers’ privacy.
CBP is committed to its privacy obligations and has taken steps to safeguard the privacy of all travelers. Information submitted by applicants through the ESTA website is subject to strict privacy provisions and controls. Access to such information is limited to those with a professional need to know. The website is operated by the U.S. government and employs technology to prevent unauthorized access to the information entered and viewed. Information is protected and governed by U.S. laws and regulations, including, but not limited to, the Federal Information Security Management Act.
“These businesses and websites are not endorsed by, associated with, or affiliated in any way with U.S. Customs and Border Protection or the U.S. government,” said CBP Office of Field Operations Executive Director, Matthew S. Davies. “The best way to avoid ESTA fraud is by applying only through the official ESTA website.”
Travelers who have used a third-party site are advised to use their reference number to confirm the application on the ESTA site to ensure that the application information is correct in the system, and to avoid delays upon arrival in the United States. The U.S. government cannot refund the money paid to a third-party website.
Travelers can easily apply for or renew an ESTA on their own for $14 through the ESTA website. The traveler must have a valid passport from a Visa Waiver Country, and have a valid email address, telephone number, and home address. Additionally, the traveler must have an emergency and U.S. point of contact with contact information.
ESTA is an automated system used to determine the eligibility of visitors to travel to the United States under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), and whether such travel poses any law enforcement or security risk. ESTA is not a visa, and does not meet the legal requirements to serve in lieu of a U.S. visa when a visa is required. Travelers who possess a valid U.S. visa may travel to the United States on that visa for the purpose it was issued, and are not required to apply for an ESTA. In the same way that a valid visa does not guarantee admission to the United States, an approved ESTA is not a guarantee of admission to the United States.