Thought I would post this with a descriptive title and with the whole text from the best link that another poster found for us. It might be best to use this post to point people in the right direction.
ESTA - Electronic System for Travel Authorisation
Visitors may be aware that the USA is changing its entry procedures for travellers to the USA under the Visa Waiver Program and has introduced ESTA. This programme is voluntary until Jan 12th 2009 at which point, online completion will become mandatory for all Visa Waiver Programme travellers to the USA.
The old I-94 system for entry into the USA is decades old and an important reason behind the changeover is to bring the program into the 21st century, automate the procedure and, wherever possible, get rid of the paper. There are also other obvious benefits for visitors in that once ESTA is fully implemented you will no longer have to fill in an I-94W form every time that you enter the USA. It also means that travellers will know before they leave their country of origin / arrival in the US, that they should be OK for entry (but not guaranteed). Leaving the green departure record accidentally on departure in the traveller’s passport also becomes a problem of the past. Also, currently there is no fee involved.
US Government Legislation
This new system has been mandated by US Government legislation, following 9/11 and is very much based on a similar system called ETA that has been working successfully in Australia for some years.
ESTA applications should be submitted as soon as travel arrangements are made. It is recommended that the application is submitted at least 72 hours before departure, however the system will accommodate last minute travel. You can apply directly from the ESTA site. Submit an ESTA application.
ESTA Supplementary Information
Use of ESTA is currently voluntary. After Jan 12th 2009 online completion will become mandatory for all Visa Waiver Programme travellers to the USA provided that the airline used is capable of receiving and validating ESTA data. If the airline does not have this capability, then the I-94W will continue to be used. Although on test until January 12th, approved ESTA applications before that date will still last 2 years before renewal. Use of the old manual I-94W form will still be mandatory up to January 12th, with use of the ESTA online version being voluntary.
When to apply?
The online version is available for use now. It is recommended that application be completed at least 72 hours before departure – applications can be made after that but they run the risk that approval may not be received ahead of travel.
What happens to ESTA applications?
Once the online application has been completed and, assuming it is satisfactory, the system will normally respond with an approval very quickly. Travellers should make a note of the ESTA approval number in case they need to access their application later – such as updating a travel itinerary. Some applications may take up to 72 hours to approve whilst data is checked. Currently there is no charge for an ESTA application and no more information is sought than has been required under the I-94W system.
Change of name or marital status?
In order to register a change of name or marital status, a new ESTA application must be completed.
Who can complete ESTA?
Each family member travelling is required to complete an ESTA application and third party entry of data into ESTA is permitted – whether a relative or not. However the third party must be completely certain as to the accuracy of such entries. Any inaccuracies will be taken up with the applicant - NOT the third party and the applicant remains totally responsible for their own records.
Don’t know the US destination address or flight details yet?
ESTA applications can still be made without a full address and flights. In the short term flight details are not required and a generic address only will suffice. E.g. City and State. Applicants should register full address & flight details once known.
Repeat Visits? Change of Itinerary?
Updating ESTA data for repeat visits within the 2 year ESTA duration is recommended but is not mandatory. I.e. Upon entry into the USA, the Customs and Border Protection Officer may ask additional questions if a traveller’s current itinerary differs from information submitted in the ESTA application. Updating ESTA with new arrival and first night’s stay data could save time at the point of entry and result in fewer questions.
APIS and ESTA?
Travellers who have been to the USA before, will know that additional information, called APIS, is already required relating to the traveller’s journey. As ESTA & APIS data cover two different requirements, both systems have to run independently. At some point the two may be merged so that duplicate information does not have to be provided but currently there is no planned date for such a change.
Experience to date confirms that ESTA has not created additional refusals to travel over current levels – currently ESTA refusals are less than 0.5%. Any applicant receiving a refusal and still wishing to travel to the USA will need to apply to the US Embassy for a Visa.