What is the Visa Waiver Program?

The Visa Waiver Program is a U.S. Government program, administered by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), allowing passport holders of more than 30 selected countries to enter the United States multiple times for business or tourism purposes without a visa.

The length of each stay should not surpass 90 consecutive days. The great benefit of this option is that applicants may travel freely to and around the U.S., at short notice, without having to apply for an American visa.

Travel to the United States under the Visa Waiver Program

Eligible travelers can apply for an ESTA to the USA under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP). Passport holders with an approved ESTA permit can enter the United States without a visa and stay for up to 90 days.

An ESTA application can be submitted up to 72 hours before departure due to fast processing times. Applicants must have a biometric passport to travel to the USA under the Visa Waiver Program.

What Is the Purpose of the VWP?

ESTA brought about multiple advantages for travelers and the U.S. government.

The U.S. border control institutions now have a more precise idea of the number of international visitors that will cross its frontiers and, therefore, can better prepare for this demand.

ESTA also allows U.S. authorities to keep better track of who is crossing their borders.

ESTA is not a visa, it simply assesses the eligibility of foreign nationals to participate in the VWP program and travel to the U.S. visa-free.

The final decision regarding entry to the U.S. is up to the American border control officers. However, the ESTA allows travelers to know that they are eligible to travel and do not need to make an appointment at a U.S. embassy to lodge a paper visa application.

Please note that a valid ESTA is required of visa-free travelers.

When Was the Visa Waiver Program Introduced?

ESTA was launched in 2008, although at the time, it was not mandatory for passengers to register. It was originally free of charge but since then, application fees have been introduced.

The ESTA authorization became obligatory on the 12th of January 2009 and since 2010 airlines have been obliged to ask their passengers to present the ESTA at check-in. Should airlines fail to do so, they will be fined.

How Many Countries Are in the Visa Waiver Program?

Currently, there are 39 countries (including all 27 EU member states) participating in the ESTA Visa Waiver Program. These include:

Not all citizens from the above countries are eligible to register with ESTA. British nationals whose passport indicates abode status, for example, cannot apply for an ESTA visa waiver and will have to obtain a B1/B2 non-immigrant visa instead.

Also, citizens of the new countries of Curacao, Bonaire, St Eustatius, Saba, and St Maarten (the former Netherlands Antilles) are not eligible to travel to the United States under the Visa Waiver Program if they are applying for admission with passports from these countries.

Changes to ESTA Visa Waiver in 2016

The implementation of the Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015 saw the rules change for some foreign nationals.

Since 2016, dual citizens of Iran, Iraq, Syria, or Sudan (regardless of their other nationality) have been unable to enter the United States under the visa waiver program. Instead, they must apply for a regular tourist visa at their nearest U.S. embassy or consulate.

VWP nationals who have been present in Iran, Iraq, Sudan, or Syria (or have traveled to any of these countries) on the 1st of March 2011 or after, are also no longer eligible to apply for ESTA.

Exceptions apply to those who traveled to the above-mentioned countries for diplomatic or military purposes in the service of a VWP country.

Visa Waiver Program Restrictions

The short processing times and the ability to move freely within the U.S. for up to 90 days without applying for a visa make ESTA a convenient and flexible travel permit.

However, not everything is allowed on an ESTA visa waiver, which comes with its conditions and limitations:

An approved ESTA does not guarantee entry into the U.S.

As mentioned before, the final decision on allowing a foreigner into the country is always up to the American Customs and Border Protection officers, who can turn back ESTA holders should they consider them a threat to national security. This decision cannot be appealed or reviewed.

ESTA does not allow for extensions

Unlike many visas, an ESTA cannot be extended. There are ways in which ESTA holders can request to stay longer in the country once their permit has expired but the ESTA authorization cannot be extended in itself.

An ESTA authorization allows for travel to contiguous countries

ESTA holders can visit Mexico, Canada, and the Caribbean. ESTA travelers can leave the U.S. to enter these countries but while they are abroad, their permit will not ‘pause’ — they will not be granted a further 90 days on return to the U.S., but only the time remaining on their original permit.

ESTA is not a work visa

Some employment-related activities can be carried out in the U.S. For example, ESTA holders can participate in meetings and conferences related to the job they hold back in their home country.

Some professional services performed in the U.S. for non-U.S. employers may also be allowed. However, the vast majority of ‘gainful employment’ activities are not.

Visa Interview Waiver Program

The Visa Waiver Program allowing some passport holders to travel to the U.S. visa-free should not be confused with the Visa Interview Waiver Program.

U.S. President Donald Trump ordered the State Department to suspend the American Visa Interview Waiver Program on January 27th, 2017.

The executive order stated the Visa Interview Waiver Program should be suspended to ensure conformity with section 222 of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA). According to INA, all non-US citizens, applying for a standard nonimmigrant visa, are required to sit through an in-person interview.

The Visa Interview Waiver Program had excused some foreign citizens from interview requirements when applying for a new visa of the same category.

Those traveling under the Visa Waiver Program were not affected by the signing of the executive order.

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