What is the Visa Waiver Program?

The Visa Waiver Program is a U. S. Government controlled program, administered by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), allowing passport holders of 39 selected countries to enter the United States multiple times for business or tourism purposes. 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., on a short notice, without having to apply for an American visa.

Travel to the United States under the Visa Waiver Program

Travellers can apply for an ESTA Visa Waiver (Electronic System for Travel Authorization) under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) and obtain a permit, allowing them to enter multiple times in the United States for a short period of up to 90 days per single stay.

An application can be made at any moment, prior to leaving for the U.S., due to the short processing time (up to 24 hours).

As of the 1st of April 2016, the passport requirements regarding the Visa Waiver Program have changed – applicants must have an e-passport in order to travel under the Visa Waiver.

Е-passports have enhanced security, which facilitates the safety of international travels.

What Is the Purpose of the VWP?

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

The U.S. border control institutions have now 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 what individuals cross their borders and when.

ESTA is not a visa although many foreigners may get confused on the subject. ESTA 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 into the U.S. will be up to the American border control officers. However, the ESTA allows travelers to know that they’re eligible and also avoids long queues at U.S. embassy and consulates to lodge a paper visa application.

When Was the Visa Waiver Program Introduced?

ESTA was first introduced 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 for a copy of a valid ESTA to their passengers 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, the 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.

ESTA holders who are dual citizens of Iran, Iraq, Syria, or Sudan (regardless of their other nationality) have seen their visa waiver revoked in 2016 and now need to 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 travelled to any of these countries) on the 1st of March 2011 or after, are ineligible to apply for ESTA.

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. The final decision regarding allowing a foreigner into the country is always up to the American Customs and Border Protection officers, who can turn back ESTA holders. This decision cannot be appealed or reviewed.
  • ESTA does not allow for extensions (like some regular visas do). There are ways in which ESTA holders can request to stay longer in the country once their permit has expired — for example, by applying for asylum or marrying a U.S. citizen — but the ESTA authorization cannot be extended in itself.
  • An ESTA authorization allows for travel to contiguous countries. These include Mexico, Canada, and the Caribbean. ESTA holders can leave the U.S. to visit these countries but while they’re abroad, their permit won’t ‘pause’ — they will not be granted further 90 days upon return in 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.

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