a close up of a passport

Thanks to a presidential proclamation, travel to the United States of America is largely curbed right now, particularly for visitors from Europe, including the United Kingdom. Basically, if you’re hoping to come for tourism and aren’t a US permanent resident, or immediate family member of one, you’re out of luck, for now.

But many people who fall into an accepted category for travel right now, such as essential business or family of a US citizen can still travel to the USA from Europe, and the ESTA, the US travel authorization is the way to do so. It just happens to be a fascinating process right now for those using it to get from the EU or the UK.

a tall monument and a building

ESTA Travel During Covid-19

Most travelers visiting the United States from abroad require an ESTA in advance of travel, the $14 pre authorization from US Customs & Border Protection. That’s by no means new, but it’s worth noting that some applications now take up to 72 hours to process, so if you need to renew, it’s worth doing further in advance.

But traveling on an ESTA originating from Europe or the UK during covid-19 is a far cry from what it was just over half a year ago. It’s a delicate tight rope with added pressure for the traveler in Europe, which involves their ESTA being automatically cancelled, and then reinstated manually. It’s a scary thought, so here’s what you need to know.

Eligibility For US Travel

If you’re traveling on an ESTA and originating from Europe, you need an eligible reason to enter the US right now. If you’re on an ESTA from a country where the US currently does not have any entry restrictions, it’s business as usual. For visitors from the UK and Europe though, you’ll need a noted exception to enter, including…

  • traveling on essential business for work.
  • immediate family member of US citizen – spouse, child, etc.
  • a variety of other exceptions can be found here.

Work Travel On ESTA

If you’re traveling for work, you’ll need an official letter from your employer, and to submit an application to a local US Embassy in the UK or Europe. The US Embassy then furnishes you with a letter of approved travel, which must be shown at flight check in, boarding and upon entry to the United States.

It’s advisable to have an official letter from the employer, and any extra details about the essential nature of the work on hand in addition to the embassy letter, just to help things along. And of course, make sure your ESTA is up to date for the trip beforehand.

Family Exception On ESTA

If a US citizen is traveling with non citizen spouse or children, there’s no need to get a letter of approval from an embassy beforehand. You can effectively just show up, but not without extra paper in hand. it’s also essential that you don’t check in online.

Extra time should also be given to deal with the hassles at check in. Essentially, each person will need to prove their relationship, so it’s important to have a copy of a marriage certificate, or child’s birth certificate to prove a bonafide relationship to the eligible US citizen or permanent resident.

Don’t panic: whether traveling on essential business or as family exemption, in the hours before your flight, your ESTA will almost assuredly be cancelled. But once proof is shown at the airport, the US CBP officials in the terminal – yes, they are there – have an override code to reinstate it for the check in agent.

Additional USA Restrictions And Tips

Obviously, this sort of ordeal can take quite a bit of time, particularly since virtually everyone without a US passport on your flight will need to go through something very similar, so it’s best not to cut it short on departure. Leave enough time for things to go wrong and still make it.

Though the US CDC dropped blanket guidance for all international travelers to enter into 14 days of quarantine upon arrival, some US states still demand this of travelers, including New York. It’s important to confirm any mandatory restrictions on movement before traveling. International travel certainly is not easy right now, but for those who need to, it’s still possible.

Gilbert Ott

Gilbert Ott is an ever curious traveler and one of the world's leading travel experts. His adventures take him all over the globe, often spanning over 200,000 miles a year and his travel exploits are regularly...

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  1. That is ESTA travel from Schengen or UK/RoI – is travelling on ESTA from outside EU any different from what it used to be?

  2. Is this just applicable to EU passport holders travelling from within the EU to USA?

    An EU passport holder can travel to USA on an ESTA provided they haven’t been in the EU for the last 14 days.

    For eg. an EU passport holder residing in Dubai can travel to USA on an ESTA on a direct flight (doesnt connect in EU)?

  3. “Don’t panic: whether traveling on essential business or as family exemption, in the hours before your flight, your ESTA will almost assuredly be cancelled. But once proof is shown at the airport, the US CBP officials in the terminal – yes, they are there – have an override code to reinstate it for the check in agent.”
    Thank you! This is the first time I’ve seen confirmation like this on the web. My impression was the US government passed it off to the airlines, who passed it off to the airlines, and one didn’t know whether one could get through. I have family exemption (91-year-old mother whom I would dearly like to visit), and would like to travel from Paris CDG. Does anyone know if there are US CBP agents in Terminal 2?

  4. Hi Gilbert,
    Thanks for the reply and your blog! Your reply worries me, since leaving from Paris, I would leave in the early morning hours of EST, when normal office hours are closed. Air France customer services seems to be basically clueless about the situation (call the US government, is their answer), and the US embassy in Paris, which is woefully understaffed, says talk to your airline. I’ve been searching the web for experiences of people who have had their ESTA cancelled and then either overridden or not, and I have found 0 in either direction. Could I ask what real-life experiences you know of (airport and departure time!)? Thanks!

  5. Thanks for posting this.

    I’ve done this three times with BA since the proclamation (as a spouse of a US citizen but on a UK passport / ESTA). The first time in early August at LHR I had no issues and the check-in agent issued the boarding card without any intervention. However both subsequent times a call was made at check-in to the US Dept of Homeland Security agents (based at LHR) who then attended and issued the code for me to travel, after some questions to determine who I was and why I was traveling. I had my marriage certificate, a photocopy of my wife’s passport and utility bills to prove her address, which made the process easier. On the first occasion this process took an hour and a half and I only just made the flight. The second time it was quick and easy. So I guess it depends how busy the US guys are at LHR. Then of course there’s the secondary screening on arrival in the US where you have to go through more or less the same process again, but that should just be a formality once you’ve been accepted for travel before boarding.

    One other thing – my children traveled with me the first time, they are not adopted by my American wife, but they WERE allowed to travel even though “step children” are not explicitly allowed as exceptions in the proclamation. I had lots of conflicting advice over this, but it seems that step children are counted as “immediate family” and so are allowed entry.

    Just make sure you have lots of time to spare, and bring as much documentation to prove your relationship as possible..

    1. Nick/ Gilbert – Curious if you know of any further updates/changes to the definition of ‘immediate family’. There’s no reference to stepchildren and it’s stressing me out. I’m confident in my ability to bring my British husband with me to the US (we’ve made this trip once before in the last year – I wish I’d read your article then and saved myself a heart attack when asked to produce our marriage cert!) but we’re attempting to bring my minor stepson (not adopted) with me in August. If I have my marriage cert to prove my relationship to my husband and my stepson’s birth certificate to prove his relationship to his dad (and thereby relationship to me), we should be okay? Any further experiences with this? Thanks so much!

      1. Exactly the same as us, I’m the US Citizen and no idea if my step daughter can visit. My husband is going through the Adjustment of Status so the LPR route is not going to apply. I married her father when she was 14 and she is unmarried and under 21.
        On the CBP Bulletin June 2021 it states
        The suspension of entry under the Proclamation does not apply to:
        o United States citizens (USCs), spouses of USCs, and children of USCs.
        o Lawful Permanent Residents (LPR), spouses of LPRs, and children of LPRs.
        o Siblings of USCs or LPRs, provided that both are unmarried and under the age of 21.
        o Parent or legal guardian of a USC or LPR, provided that the U.S. citizen or lawful permanent
        resident is unmarried and under the age of 21.
        o Child of USC or LPR that is a ward, stepchild, or prospective adoptee.
        o A-1, A-2, C-2, C-3, E-1 (as an employee of TECRO or the employee’s immediate family members),
        G-1, G-2, G-3, G-4, NATO-1 through NATO-4, or NATO-6 visas.
        o U.S. Armed Forces members, spouses, and children.
        o National Interest Exemption waiver holders.

        So as you can see Stepchild of a USC is not banned according to the CBP but the airline is saying otherwise.


  6. Thanks for writing this guide. I’m a UK passport holder and am hoping to travel to IAD with my wife who is a US passport holder. We both are enrolled in the GlobalEntry programme- just wondering if you know if the GlobalEntry would still work upon our arrival in the USA? Or would this have been disabled (at least for myself) owed to the COVID situation?

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