How ESTA Saved My Summer

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I’ve always wanted to travel to the United States of America and in the winter of 2015, I received the opportunity of a lifetime. The offer was to “work in a summer camp during the summer of 2016. After camp, you’re allowed to travel for 30 days”. I jumped at the chance! I remember thinking straight-away, “Oh my, I can finally travel to all of those places I’ve seen in the movies! YES! YES! YES!”

Fast-forward to the Summer of 2016. I arrived at Manchester Airport for my connecting flight down to London at six in the morning. From London, I had to race across the airport to make it to my ten o’ clock flight to JFK.

With my adrenaline pumping and my chest tightening vigorously, I ran through the terminal like a crazed squirrel. Turns out I was stupidly early. I guess you could say relieved was an understatement. Unfortunately this wasn’t to be the last time that I would have travel dilemmas or problems on my journey…

I arrived in New York at noon. I’d drunk a satisfying amount of gin and tonic on the plane. I mean, it was free, and the flight attendant kept gifting it to me. Who was I to refuse? Anyhow, this leads to my next incident. Arriving in the US, somewhat dazed and inebriated, caused a little bit of chaos in my mind. Was I a little bit too drunk to enter the country? I managed to pull myself together and answer the questions of why I was walking through the immigration desks. Safe. Sound. Sorted. “Let’s get to camp,” I thought.

As a side note, I would add to anybody reading this that if you are ever in a position to travel to the US and work in a summer camp for an entire summer, do it. Without a shadow of a doubt, it was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had the pleasure of being a part of. The children at the camp were wonderfully pleasant; the local staff were welcoming and polite. Everything about the experience was simply amazing.

Anyway, back to the travelling mishaps…

So, when you sign up to travel to the camp, you have to obtain a J-1 Visa. For those of you that don’t know, that allows you to “work or study” within the US for a set amount of time. I was allocated three months. After the three months are up, you’re allowed a thirty-day grace period, during which you can travel around the country and do as you please. But you must leave the country by the day that grace period expires. What you’re not told is that if you leave the country during the grace period, you cannot re-enter.

So fast-forward again. I had finished camp and embarked on a journey around the US. I was having the time of my life, quite literally. I had visited multiple cities. New York City, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Chicago, San Francisco, Yosemite, L.A., San Diego. Chicago and San Diego are on a different level, for two very different reasons. They are places you have to visit in the US.

Anyway, whilst in San Diego, the hostel that I was staying in offered a free trip to Mexico. I’m pretty sure that’s a common occurrence; I signed up for it – sounded really good in my head. That was until the owner of the hostel kindly pointed out that I had a grace period on my visa. If I were to leave, I wouldn’t be able to come back into the country.

Thankfully though, he knew about ESTA. If you don’t know, ESTA stands for “Electronic System for Travel Authorisation”. It’s a resource created by the US to speed up the flow of traffic in airports and seaports across the US. It also allows for the government to screen everybody when they apply.

The ESTA is a wonderful resource. It only costs $14 and you can travel to the US an unlimited amount of times within a two year period, as long as you do not stay for more than ninety days per visit. Luckily the application process is completed all online and only takes around half an hour, too.

So that was that. I had my ESTA and the grace period no longer mattered, and the potential disaster of being stuck in another country without the right paperwork was averted. I could come and go as much as I wanted. Perfecto.

After all that, the trip to Mexico wasn’t really worth the hassle, but at least the bureaucracy was dealt with. And it might just make your trip.

If you want to apply for an ESTA, visit the official site

Reporting by Josh Hobson