What is the Visa Waiver Program?

The Visa Waiver Program is a US Government 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.

Nationals of visa waiver countries may travel to the US 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 US visa-free, and can apply with short notice.

Travel to the United States under the Visa Waiver Program

Travelers 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 the Unites States multiple times in the United States for a short period of up to 90 days per stay.

An application can be made at any moment prior to leaving for the US, due to the short processing time (often within 24 hours and almost always within 3 business days).

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 travel.

What Is the Purpose of the VWP?

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

The US 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 US authorities to screen the individuals crossing their borders and monitor where and when they enter the country, improving security practices and making travel to the US safer than ever before.

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

The final decision regarding entry into the US 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 US 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 Dutch overseas territories 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) were removed from the Visa Waiver Program in 2016 and now need to apply for a regular tourist visa at their nearest US embassy or consulate.

VWP nationals who have traveled to Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, or Yemen (or have traveled to any of these countries) since March 1 2011, are ineligible to apply for ESTA.

Visa Waiver Program Restrictions

The short processing times and the ability to move freely within the US for up to 90 days without applying for a visa make the ESTA a convenient and flexible travel permit. However, the ESTA visa waiver comes with its conditions and limitations:

  • An approved ESTA does not guarantee entry into the US 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 US citizen — but the ESTA authorization cannot be extended itself.
  • An ESTA authorization allows for travel to contiguous countries. These include Mexico, Canada, and the Caribbean. ESTA holders can leave the US to visit these countries but while they are abroad, their permit will not ‘pause’ — they will not be granted further 90 days upon their return to the US, but only the time remaining on their original permit.
  • The ESTA is not a work visa. Some employment-related activities can be carried out in the US with the ESTA. For example, holders can participate in meetings and conferences related to the job they hold back in their home country. Some professional services performed in the United States for non-American employers may also be allowed. However, the vast majority of gainful employment activities are not.

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