Thinking of travelling to the US or even just transiting through a US airport? Then you need to think ESTA (The US Electronic System for Travel Authorisation). Our friend Josh is an expert and he runs an informative website. He’s written a guest post for us about his experiences in the US and how ESTA ultimately saved the day!
Over to Josh!
In early 2016, I decided that before my next year of university in the UK began in October, I would travel to the United States to work at a summer camp – something I would seriously recommend.
A summer camp is a place for young people to spend the summer in the outdoors learning new skills, having fresh experiences and meeting a variety of people.
In my opinion, the experience that you have working in a summer camp is phenomenal. You meet so many wonderful people, you’re able to work with amazing children and you make friends for life, but, more importantly, you are able to travel after camp has finished.
I was so excited to have the opportunity to travel around the US afterwards; I spent months planning my route before I had even arrived in The States! Fortunately, I was in a day camp in New Jersey, this meant that during the week I worked from 6am to 6pm, and on Saturdays, I would work 9am to 2pm. That meant that from Saturday afternoon until Sunday evening, you could go where you liked and do what you wanted.
My camp in New Jersey was situated 1 hour away from New York City, 2 hours from Atlantic City, 2 hours from Philadelphia and 3 hours from Washington D.C.- perfect! Most weekends would see international and local staff taking trips to these and various other locations.
Equally, if you wanted to relax and take a day off, staying in New Jersey was rather cool. Finding yourself walking around a huge Wall Mart or even the Mall feels quite surreal in the suburbs. If that didn’t take your fancy, you could always relax at the International staff house and take a swim in the pool. Moreover, the local staff would host parties for the international staff and allow us to visit for a BBQ. Great fun!
After spending 12 weeks at the summer camp it was finally time for me to head on a 3-week adventure. I decided to do an anti-clockwise loop of the country that would certainly see my mental and physical strength tested!
From the camp in New Jersey, I travelled to Penn State College in Pennsylvania via coach (4 hours) where some of my friends from camp were attending college. From Penn State, I also travelled to Ohio State College just outside of Columbus via coach (8/9 hours), again to visit some of my friends who attended the college.
I then travelled on to Chicago via coach (10 hours) and, in my opinion this was where the real travelling began. I was travelling on my own, doing my own thing and following my feet. And what a city to arrive into; Chicago was probably my second favourite place to go, it’s a must see city in the US.
From Chicago, I flew to San Francisco (3-4 hours). This city was just amazing and the Golden Gate Bridge is something that MUST be cycled over. I’ve never witnessed a more majestic sight in my entire life.
From San Francisco, a few friends and I drove down to Yosemite (4 hours) and
this was the only national park that I visited. I wish I had visited more because this was an outstanding area of natural beauty.
From Yosemite, we drove down to LA (4 hours), and to be honest, I didn’t really like it. I’m not sure if it was because the Airbnb that we had selected was a little bit sketchy or because of the general vibe and copious amount of homeless people. I just didn’t really enjoy it that much, apart from Santa Monica and Venice Beach. After one day, we decided to head to San Diego (2 hours) via coach.
San Diego was hands down my favourite place. If you’re planning on heading to the US, make sure San Diego is on your list of places to see. The atmosphere was super-chilled, and the same can be said for the people. The food was fantastic, the nightlife incredible and the weather heavenly.
Whilst working in the US at a summer camp, you are required to obtain a J-1 visa. This visa ensures that you have 90 days’ access to the country during which you can complete your programme. After the 90 days, you are given a 30 day grace period, in which you are allowed to travel around the country; however, you must leave the country before that grace period expires. Furthermore, if you leave the country during the grace period, then your allotted time expires too, and you cannot return.
That is exactly what happened to me. Whilst at my hostel in San Diego, there was a free excursion to Tijuana, Mexico. I jumped at the chance, whilst somehow forgetting that I was currently using my grace period to travel!
Luckily, somebody at the hostel informed me about the ESTA (The US Electronic System for Travel Authorisation). The ESTA is a resource that allows tourists or business persons to travel around the US for up to 90 days per stay. You can travel the US as often as you like and it is valid for 2 years. The ESTA application is completed solely online and takes roughly 25-30 minutes to complete. Once you have completed the ESTA form, you will receive an email within 72 hours (usually minutes) that lets you know if the request has been granted or not.
If I had not known about this, then I probably would not have been able to return to the US, as my visa would have been void. The ESTA programme saved me a lot of money and stress. When entering the US from Mexico, they scanned my electronic passport and away I went. Easy as you like.
I must point out, that if you’re travelling somewhere via the US, like Mexico or South or Central America on a connecting flight, even though you won’t be leaving the airport, you still need an ESTA for when you land. Failure to possess an ESTA will mean you will not be allowed access to your onward flight.
There are 38 countries eligible for ESTA. To find out if you can apply click here.
Thanks Josh, for a very informative post about the ESTA. We had to get one when we went to Mexico in 2012 as we were transiting through Dallas airport. It was an easy and cheap process and obviously essential – unless we fancied spending 2 weeks eating MacDonald’s in Dallas airport rather than exploring Mayan ruins and swimming in cenotes!