This story is about how ESTA saved my summer and quite possibly a lot of time and stress. But, I'll get to that eventually.
Rewind to Last Summer
I had just finished the final year of my undergraduate degree. Four long years had passed. It was an emotional time. Classmates I had grown into adults with, were all going our separate ways. I knew I was going back to university though, I had to start my masters in October.
As per the usual British university course - the year is usually over at the end of May. In November, David, an Irish friend of mine was visiting the UK, as he had left to live in the US after working in a summer camp and falling in love with an American.
We met at a well-known coffee establishment and we started talking. "What are you planning on doing this summer?" he asked with a firm and serious tone. I told him that I had not planned anything yet. I knew I didn't want to stay in the UK, I wanted to do something productive. But, what?
David suggested that I should apply to work at a camp over the summer. The cost to apply wasn't substantial, I had a part-time job and I could probably afford it, along with saving up for travel after it.
David and I talked for a while about the benefits of traveling to a summer camp to work. Although, what he didn't warn me about was how unrelenting and exhausting it can be...
I decided that I would apply and lo and behold, I was accepted into a day camp in New Jersey. I was to leave for the US on the 16th of June. Perfect. "I've got 4 weeks after university finishes to work full time and save up", I thought.
Flying to NYC
So, in June, I'm ready to fly. I board the plane from Manchester to London at 6 am. I arrived at Heathrow at 7 am and the flight to New York was not until 10 am. I fell asleep in the terminal and woke up by chance as I was sitting on the end seat, from which I started falling out of.
To my surprise, it was 9:40 and my plane was boarding. Luckily enough, I made the plane and any stress was avoided.
I arrived at New York, JFK, at 12 noon local time and boarded a bus to New York City, which is where my camp was situated. I remember this bus ride well. It had terrible Wi-Fi (better than nothing I suppose) and a ruthless air conditioning unit. The bus driver was quite rude too, he took my bag, took my money and just pointed.
After dropping me off in New York City next to the bus terminal, I met up with another guy from the UK, Andy. We met at a very similar well-known coffee establishment, in fact, it was the same one.
Again, we made our way. This story literally revolves around my friends and I making our way. Bear with it.
My Experience at Camp
Upon arrival, we were met by the other international staff. Camp didn't start for a whole week. Which means we had time to bond and make friends for life. Honestly, a lot of people may be skeptical about making friends for life in regards to people at camp. Let me tell you though, we all meet up in the UK, and the lads even have their own fantasy football league set up!
The first week of camp allowed for us all to acquire different skills; skills to the assignment we had been given for the summer. For example, I was part of the outdoor adventure squad. This meant that I had to keep the children in check and make sure their safety was taken care of as they climbed the rock wall or went down the zip line. Remember: SAFETY OF CHILDREN IS PARAMOUNT. I will never forget that phrase.
The first week of camp (with kids) was tremendously exhausting. David didn't warn me of this. I was only working at a day camp, too. I salute those that go to the US and work in those 'stay-away' camps.
If you're not familiar with 'stay-away' camps... the kids come at the start of the summer and they stay for 6 to 12 weeks. Which means they need looking after continuously. I doubt I would have been able to manage that, to be honest. I was always asleep by 8 pm, even if it was 'free time' every day.
Free Time at Camp
During camp, there were multiple conversations about what to do after camp. As per usual, there was a divide. Not a social divide, but location wise, some of us had different plans and ideas. As we worked in a day camp, the children would only come during the week. Saturdays were for cleaning up camp. Sunday was our own.
This meant that every Saturday evening or Sunday morning, the international staff would visit different locations on the east coast. All the lads drove up to Washington D.C one time, which was a 4-hour drive each way. Another time, all of the internationals took the bus down to Atlantic City. Other times, we went in 2's or 3's, to NYC, Philadelphia, Six Flags Theme Park. We went everywhere.
As we had so many Sunday's to explore the east coast, it quickly transpired that we had finished the majority of the 'MAJOR' things to do and see. We quickly decided that we would head to the west coast to keep our American adventures alive. Although, I had met a girl at camp. Just like David, I fell victim to an American beauty, one that I wasn't keen on leaving.
All the other lads decided that they would drive from New Orleans up to Chicago, before flying to San Francisco. I decided otherwise. I was driving to Penn State College with my American sweetheart. Soaking up the little time we had with each other seemed to be the better alternative.
I do regret not seeing more of the US, however, I was happy to have spent time with someone that I cared about. Overall, no regrets. Was worth it.
After a wonderful week in Pennsylvania, I took an 11-hour coach journey to Ohio, where I would meet Alex, another outdoor adventure guy from camp. Alex was American and studied at Ohio.
From Ohio, I took another 11-hour coach journey up to Chicago, where I met up with the rest of the lads. We had a brilliant couple of days before my real traveling begun. All the lads looked shattered.
Unfortunately, when we booked our flights to San Francisco; we were all booked on two flights, with mine coming 1 hour after the rest of the lads. Thankfully, they waited for me in the airport. From San Francisco, we traveled down to San Jose, Yosemite National Park, Los Angeles and San Diego.
The rest of the lads went on to Las Vegas after San Diego, however, I decided that I'd stay and enjoy the sunshine and beer. No hassle, no stress. If you haven't ever considered going to San Diego, start considering it. Potentially, the best place on the Earth. I've never been to a more chilled out, relaxed and friendly place. Seriously.
Why I Needed ESTA?
Whilst I was in San Diego, the hostel I was staying in offered a free trip to Tijuana, Mexico. I signed up. Why not? Another country to tick off the list and a free trip is always a free trip. I'd have been a fool not to.
What I haven't got into yet is the whole visa situation. When you travel to the United States as a student going to camp, you fly there on a J-1 visa, which allows you to do the activity you've been assigned to, in my case, work in a summer camp.
Now that visa allows 3 months of access into the US, and 30 days grace period thereafter for travel. Perfect. Or, so it might seem. More often than not though, a lot of people don't know this.
If you leave the country whilst you're on your grace period; you cannot re-enter the country, as your visa is classed as expired.
I went on the trip to Mexico, whilst on my grace period. I had no idea of the potential storm of chaos that was about to be cast over me.
I consider myself very lucky, as the hostel manager and I started talking about why I was in the US over a BBQ. He asked if I had sorted out my ESTA. Obviously, I had no idea what he was talking about. He made me aware of the whole situation that I have mentioned above.
I was quite surprised to learn that if I didn't get my ESTA sorted, I wouldn't be able to re-enter the US and board my flight back to New York, thus would miss my flight back to London. How expensive that could have been. I'm so happy, ESTA literally saved my summer from a potential nightmare situation.
Thankfully, I managed to secure an ESTA in a matter of seconds, once I had completed the online application form. Luckily, I had an electronic passport, too.
I was also shocked to discover what you can do with an ESTA. Apparently, you can travel to the US as often as you please for two years.
I thought that perhaps I could go back to work when I was in the US, however, that is not the case. You can only use the ESTA if you're a tourist or you have business to attend to, along with connecting flights that land in the US. They're not for working or studying on.
If you're flying to the US this summer, whether you're flying there as a student on a visa or if you're flying there as a tourist, make sure you check out estaform.org for all the information about ESTA. They've covered everything that you will need to know, along with a helpful video and infographic.
There are 38 countries that are eligible to apply for ESTA, so who knows it might even help you too. If you need to apply for ESTA, visit esta.cbp.dhs.gov/esta/.