ETIAS and ESTA: Similarities and Differences

etias esta differences

In September 2016, the European authorities announced the introduction of the new ETIAS Travel Authorization System that will streamline and strengthen border controls for the Schengen area. The ETIAS program is expected to come into full force by 2021 and will allow eligible passport holders to visit the Schengen countries visa-free.

The European ETIAS and the US ESTA systems have many aspects in common. They both represent a way to maintain visa-free status for certain nationalities while making sure to optimize document checks and implement border security.

As many international travelers may find this confusing, this page aims to clear potential doubts and explain the differences and similarities between ETIAS and ESTA. On the other hand, users specifically interested in the ETIAS and visas for Europe can find information regarding the differences between ETIAS and Schengen visas here.

The ETIAS Visa Waiver

The ETIAS visa waiver is intended to be a quick, entirely online way to check foreign nationals’ data before they cross a Schengen border. ETIAS travel authorizations are not visas. Simply, applying for an ETIAS visa waiver will become a required step for non-EU citizens to take before traveling to any Schengen country.

ETIAS travel authorizations will allow the holder to spend up to 90 days within a 180-day period in the Schengen zone without a visa, and move freely through as many Schengen countries as they wish.

The ESTA Travel Authorization

The ESTA (Electronic System Travel Authorization) was first introduced in 2009. Similarly to ETIAS, a ESTA authorization represents for its holder a permit to travel to the U.S. without having to apply for a visa.

A valid ESTA is no guarantee of entry. The ESTA holder will have to go through border security checks upon arrival and US border control officers will make the final decision regarding their entry.

How Are ETIAS and ESTA Similar?

ETIAS and ESTA are similar in many ways. Here’s a list of aspects that the two systems share:

  • Online application. Foreign nationals wishing to travel on an ETIAS or ESTA will need to complete an online application form. Both application processes are designed to be quick and straightforward.
  • Requirements. The ETIAS application requirements are expected to be fairly similar to those of ESTA. Applicants will be asked to give personal, passport, contact, and travel plan information.
  • Visa waivers. Both systems are being implemented for international tourists holding a passport from eligible countries who can travel to the U.S. and the Schengen area visa-free. Foreign nationals needing a visa will be required to use a different application system and potentially, visit a relevant embassy or consulate
  • No guarantee of entry. Just like with ESTA, a ETIAS travel authorization is no guarantee of entry. The ETIAS holder will need to print a poof of confirmation and present it to the European authorities upon arriving at the border with the Schengen territory. Border control officers will then decide whether to grant entry.
  • Purpose. As mentioned before, both ETIAS and ESTA travel authorizations aim to simplify document check protocols and strengthen border control. Both the European and US authorities will be able to keep track of international travelers crossing their borders.

Main Differences between ETIAS and ESTA

Although ETIAS and ESTA are very similar, there are some important differences. Here is a short list of expected differences — but it’s possible that more will become apparent once the ETIAS program is fully implemented:

  • Issuing authority and eligibility. While the US government issues ESTA travel authorizations to eligible foreign nationals wishing to visit the US for a short-term visit, ETIAS visa waivers will be granted by European authorities to citizens of more than 60 countries who wish to enter the Schengen area for a limited time.
  • Validity. From the moment it’s granted, the ESTA travel authorization will be valid for 2 years (as long as the holder’s passport does not expire). ETIAS will be valid for 3 years from the moment it’s granted, unless the traveler’s passport expires first. In that case, the ETIAS authorization ceases to be valid.
  • Minors. All travelers from eligible countries will need to apply for ETIAS and ESTA individually, no matter their age. However, minors will be exempt from paying the ETIAS processing fee.