Travelling under the US Visa Waiver Program
Are you eligible for visa-free short-term entry to the US under the Visa Waiver Program?
If you want to travel to the US on a short-term basis for business or tourism, before looking at the available visa options, you should first consider your eligibility under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP).
Under the program citizens of Visa Waiver nations are permitted entry to the US for up to 90 days for business or tourist purposes, or for transit, without having to apply for a US visa.
To travel under the Visa Waiver Program you must first seek ESTA approval.
ESTA stands for ‘Electronic System for Travel Authorization’, a program designed to ease the administrative burden on US authorities in processing short-term visa entry applications.
Which are the Visa Waiver countries eligible for ESTA approval?
As at December 2019, the VWP encompasses 38 countries:
- Czech Republic
- Republic of Korea
- New Zealand
- San Marino
- United Kingdom (British citizens only with the unrestricted right of permanent abode in England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man)
Citizens of these countries are permitted to make an ESTA application where they meet the eligibility criteria.
ESTA eligibility questions
The eligibility questions are as follows:
1) Do you have a physical or mental disorder; or are you a drug abuser or addict; or do you currently have any of the following diseases (communicable diseases are specified pursuant to section 361(b) of the Public Health Service Act):
- Tuberculosis, infectious
- Yellow Fever
- Viral Hemorrhagic Fevers, including Ebola, Lassa, Marburg, Crimean-Congo
- Severe acute respiratory illnesses capable of transmission to other persons and likely to cause mortality
2) Have you ever been arrested or convicted for a crime that resulted in serious damage to property, or serious harm to another person or government authority?
3) Have you ever violated any law related to possessing, using, or distributing illegal drugs?
4) Do you seek to engage in or have you ever engaged in terrorist activities, espionage, sabotage, or genocide?
5) Have you ever committed fraud or misrepresented yourself or others to obtain, or assist others to obtain, a visa or entry into the United States?
6) Are you currently seeking employment in the United States or were you previously employed in the United States without prior permission from the US government?
7) Have you ever been denied a US visa you applied for with your current or previous passport, or have you ever been refused admission to the United States or withdrawn your application for admission at a US port of entry?
8) Have you ever stayed in the United States longer than the admission period granted to you by the US government?
9) Have you travelled to, or been present in, Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia or Yemen on or after March 1, 2011? Or are you a dual citizen of Iran, Iraq, Sudan or Syria?
Where you do not meet these criteria, you will be required to apply for the appropriate nonimmigrant US visa.
What is the ESTA application process?
Make your application online here. You must hold an e-passport containing an embedded chip to be able to apply for ESTA.
There are processing and authorization fees to pay.
Note down your unique ESTA application number, which can be used to check the progress of your application.
You should apply for ESTA at least 72 hours before your intended time of travel.
You must hold an approved ESTA at the point of travel to the US, by air or sea. If you enter the US by land from Mexico or Canada, ESTA is not required, but entry will be expedited if you have ESTA. If you do not have ESTA, you will be required to complete form I-94W at the land border.
Do children need ESTA authorization to travel?
Minors are each required to hold their own approved ESTA prior to travel to the US.
What is your ESTA application is refused?
If you are not eligible for the VWP, or your ESTA application is rejected, you may wish to consider the visa options available to you. For example, are you eligible to apply for the B1 or B2 tourist visas?
Important factors for Visa Waiver Program travellers
An approved ESTA is valid for whichever is the earlier date:
- two years after approval, or
- the date of your passport’s expiry.
With ESTA authorization, you will continue to be subject to admissibility checks after the ESTA has been approved. This means you will not necessarily be granted admission to the US, for example if you fail a subsequent immigration check.
Duty to notify
If you obtain a new passport or change your name, gender or country of citizenship, you will be required to update your ESTA travel authorization.
This is also required if one of your answers to any of the VWP eligibility questions changes.
Permissible and excluded activities
Permissible activities include, among others, business, tourism, medical visits, transit.
Notable exclusions include:
- business travellers and tourists who wish to stay in the US more than 90 days,
- airline crew members,
- exchange visitors,
- temporary workers
- intra-company transfers,
- treaty traders,
- performers and artists,
- representatives of the foreign media who will work in their profession as media or journalists while in the US are not permitted to travel on the VWP (or indeed the B visa), and must instead apply for the US Media I visa.
You will not be eligible for ESTA authorization if you overstayed on a previous Visa Waiver Program visit.
Do you have a question about the visa waiver program?
Travel restrictions affecting VWP travellers have become more stringent in recent years, and it will be important to confirm your eligibility and ensure ESTA authorization is in place before you travel to the US.
NNU Immigration can advise on all aspects of the VWP, specifically in relation to eligibility, applications, notification of personal changes.
We can also provide specialist advice on the nonimmigrant visa options available to you where the VWP is not available or appropriate for your circumstances.
This article does not constitute direct legal advice and is for informational purposes only.
Last updated: 13 December 2019