The immigration law office of Fong & Chun in Los Angeles receives many inquiries from travellers from Visa Waiver Program (VWP) countries about the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) program. The ESTA program is ONLY for citizens of countries who do NOT need actual visas to enter the USA. If you are a citizen of another country, you should not register with ESTA.
ESTA registration is for citizens of Visa Waiver countries who wish to enter the USA using the Visa Waiver. If the traveller is using another visa, such as F-1, H-1b, L-1, E-2, or any other nonimmigrant visa, ESTA registration is not required.
ESTA was put into place to allow the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to pre-screen travellers coming to the USA who are citizens of countries who do not need visas to enter the USA: the so-called Visa Waiver Countries. The entire application process is conducted online and operated by DHS.
This pre-screening allows DHS to check to see if the traveller is on a security watchlist, has a criminal record, has a warrant for his/her arrest, or is the subject of some other concern.
An ESTA registration is NOT a visa or "electronic visa," NOT a guarantee that the traveler will be admitted upon arrival in the USA, and NOT an assurance that border guards will not hassle you at the immigration checkpoint. Remember: Even if your ESTA registration is "accepted" by the DHS computer, you have NO assurance of admission -- or even civil treatment at the border -- to the USA.
There are a number of for-profit websites who claim to be able to help you with an ESTA registration. These sites imply that by using their services, you will somehow have an easier time of entering the USA. This is NOT true.
If you have any ESTA questions, please contact us. --jcf