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News: ESTA Application Process Change, Dec 2022

Long avoided because it was buggy and unreliable, the passport scanning feature within the ESTA application process is now mandatory - and the user experience is just as awful as you'd expect.

Today we look at this feature, where it goes wrong, and how to handle it to increase your odds of success.

It's actually a great idea, in theory.

Rather than having to type in all your passport information when applying for an ESTA, you instead take a photo (or upload an existing image) of the information page, from which it extracts the data and imports it into your application. 

A useful, timesaving tool! 

Except it isn't. 

Because it never worked - at least not properly. 👎

By the time:

  • the import had failed repeatedly
  • you'd switched to another browser
  • ...or a different device entirely
  • and it had eventually imported some data, but nothing useful (because the text recognition was akin to software from 2008)'d inevitably wasted at least ten minutes. 

Therefore our advice - and our own behaviour - was to skip it. 

It was quicker (and distinctly less rage-inducing) to type in all the information manually - and certainly a great deal more accurate.

So when I heard that this 'passport scanning' had been made a mandatory step in the ESTA application process, my heart sank. 

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December 2022 - Mandatory Passport Scanning 😭

The Government agencies responsible for the ESTA process, and the IT used to power it, are notoriously non-communicative.

No press release was issued about the sudden change and the reasoning behind it wasn't explained, so we can only speculate. 


Why Is It Now Mandatory?

Are they collating a database of passport scans? Maybe they just think the tool works well & they're trying to help us. Perhaps it *does* work well with passports from other nations, and it's just British passports that make it spin out like a F1 car making an unplanned track exit! 


All we know for sure is that starting immediately, all ESTA applicants must at least attempt to complete their personal information using this feature. 

I say 'attempt', because I can tell you with almost 100% certainty that it will fail! 😆 

It will absolutely, without a doubt, make an absolute dogs dinner of recognising and importing your passport data. 

ℹī¸ Updated to add: I've now spoken to 100+ ESTA applicants who have experienced this new process - without exception, it misread their data across multiple fields. During my own application, it misread the data in almost every field.

I can only speculate that there's something about the format of data within British passports, particularly within the MRZ, that the software just can't cope with - but we'll likely never know! 

Tips & Tricks for Success! ✨

I wish I could tell you a specific device, browser or method to make this frustrating tool perform even close to reliably.

But unfortunately, the trial & error of those I've helped with the process, plus anecdotal reports from followers and in multiple Facebook groups, has only highlighted sheer inconsistency with regards to what works and what doesn't.  

ESTA Application Process - Scan an ID pop up

However, we have at least uncovered some tips that make a successful upload more likely - you can then fix the nonsense data in the next step!  đŸ™Œ

What do I mean? 

Many people are finding it incredibly difficult to successfully either take a photo of their passport or upload an existing image - the process fails repeatedly.

So the main aim here is to find ways to make this part of the process as speedy as possible...

...BUT accept that however you do it, the data imported into your application will include multiple errors and know that it needs checking, double-checking and triple-checking before submission!

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📸 Tips: Taking the Photo

  1. Make sure you're working in a well lit environment, ideally with plenty of natural light (rather than using a light or lamp to illuminate the passport)
  2. Experiment with the angle that you hold your passport and/or camera at, to try to reduce or even eliminate shadows & reflections, so the image is as clear as possible. 
  3. Keep the whole page within the frame - don't crop anything out. 
  4. Hold your camera steady - any wobbles or shakes can cause blurriness, and the system much prefers sharp, in focus images

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đŸ’ģ Tips: Uploading the Photo

  1. Accept that it's not an exact science and you may need to experiment a little.
  2. Overall people seem to have more success on a tablet or mobile phone, rather than a laptop, with Apple devices working the best but the Chrome browser being more reliable than Safari - BUT a smaller percentage report the exact opposite...
    1. You can save your progress and log into your application on a different browser or device at any point. 
    2. Start with whatever you're most comfortable with - your most used device and regular browser - only start to experiment if you experience upload issues. 
    3. Try to only change one element at a time - switch from Chrome to Safari on your iPhone for example, rather than changing both browser and device simultaneously. 
  3. Make sure your device and your browser are running the latest version - install any updates if you're having issues. 
  4. Try both options - taking a new photo, or uploading an existing image.
  5. If you start to feel the rage or panic rising, step away for a while - try again later, or the next day. 
    In this state of mind you're far more likely to make a mistake when checking or inputting data, and errors on an ESTA application can have significant implications. It's just not worth it - give yourself a break!

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⚠ī¸ The Single Most Important Step ⚠ī¸

Once your image is uploaded, the data extracted from the Machine Readable Zone (MRZ) of your passport will WITHOUT DOUBT be incorrect, with mistakes likely in many, if not most of the fields. 

It is therefore absolutely crucial that you carefully check this data multiple times. Even better, have someone else check it too! 

DO NOT get excited here because the feature has worked and race through the next step, missing a mistake.

A misspelled name, incorrect passport number or wrong expiry date could mean you need to pay for a second application or, in the worst cases, result in a denial of ESTA - meaning the time, cost & inconvenience of a visa application. 


Check the extracted data in every single box once, twice, even three times, and fix all the mistakes. You could even delete all the data and retype it - I did this with my own application, as so much was wrong I didn't trust my eyes to catch every mistaken digit. 


Everything Else ESTA...

Stuck? Questions? Get In Touch. 👋

If you're having issues with your ESTA application that you just can't resolve, or you have questions about ESTAs and visas, feel free to reach out at (for free - I'm happy to help and have no paid services!)

No question is ever a stupid question, but certainly not when it comes to ESTAs. 

Don't be embarrassed! 🤗

Between my own, those of my extended family and those of people I've helped to apply, I've long lost count of how many times I've been through the application process, but I continue to be absolutely nervous every single time - just because the implications of mucking it up are so huge in my life (as a frequent traveller to the USA). 

So don't worry, we all feel bloody terrified when it's our turn to apply again, even me!

Anyone who says it doesn't get to them is either lying, or doesn't care that much about being able to visit the USA any time soon... 

As always, when we talk about ESTAs - be careful. 

⚠ī¸ The ONLY site where you should apply for an ESTA is the official CBP site, at ⚠ī¸

Any other site claiming to take applications, or offering a mythical "rapid turnaround" service, are simply third party sites who gather your info and use it to apply on the correct site 'on your behalf'...and charge you royally for doing so!

An ESTA costs $21, and no rapid turnaround service exists. (Not that it's needed - you'll get a decision within 72 hours maximum, in the vast majority of cases within 6 hours, and often within 1-2 hours)

There is zero benefit to using third party sites (though they are, frustratingly, legal) but there are several sizeable downsides - including your ESTAs costing you significantly more money for the exact same product.

There's also the fact that a third party would get all your most personal information and passport data - an identity thief's dream...