The Visa Waiver Program (VWP) and ESTA

The Visa Waiver Program (VWP) enables citizens from around 39 nations to travel to the United States for business or tourism and stay for 90 days or less without obtaining a visa. In exchange, governments of VWP countries must reciprocate by allowing US citizens to visit their countries at an equal period. However, VWP travelers must obtain an approval to travel by submitting an application to the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA). ESTA is an automated system that determines the eligibility of each visitor to travel to the United States under the VWP. ESTA applicants must submit an online application form for approval at least 72 hours prior to their departure on an air or sea carrier to the United States.

ESTA Travel Purpose Must be Permitted on a Visitor (B) Visa

The Visa Waiver Program (VWP) allows citizens of participating countries to travel to the United States without obtaining a visa, for stays of 90 days or less for tourism or business. Transiting or traveling through the United States to Canada or Mexico is generally permitted for VWP travelers. The following are examples of activities permitted while in the United States on the VWP.

Business Purposes

  • consult with business associates
  • attend a scientific, educational, professional, or business convention or conference
  • attend short-term training (you may not be paid by any source in the United States with the exception of expenses incidental to your stay)
  • negotiate a contract

Tourism Purposes

  • tourism
  • vacation (holiday)
  • visit with friends or relatives
  • medical treatment
  • participation in social events hosted by fraternal, social, or service organizations
  • participation by amateurs in musical, sports, or similar events or contests, if not being paid for participating
  • enrollment in a short recreational course of study, not for credit toward a degree (for example, a two-day cooking class while on vacation)

Examples of Travel Purposes Not Permitted on Visa Waiver Program

These are some examples of activities not permitted on the VWP and require visas for travel to the USA:

  • study, for credit
  • employment
  • work as foreign press, radio, film, journalists, or other information media
  • permanent residence in the United States

Nationals of VWP Designated Countries

You must be a citizen or national of VWP-participant country. The following 39 countries are Visa Waiver Program participants. The year beside the country name denotes the year of acceptance to the Visa Waiver Program.

Andorra (1991) Australia (1996) Austria (1991)
Belgium (1991) Brunei (1993) Chile (2014)
Czech Republic
(2008)
Denmark (1991) Estonia (2008)
Finland (1991) France (1989) Germany (1989)
Greece (2010) Hungary (2008) Iceland (1991)
Ireland (1995) Italy (1989) Japan (1988)
South Korea (2008) Latvia (2008) Liechtenstein (1991)
Lithuania (2008) Luxembourg (1991) Malta (2008)
Monaco (1991) Netherlands (1989) New Zealand (1991)
Norway (1991) Poland (2019) Portugal (1999)
San Marino (1991) Singapore (1999) Slovakia (2008)
Slovenia (1997) Spain (1991) Sweden (1989)
Switzerland (1989) Taiwan (2012) United Kingdom (1988)

To qualify for the Visa Waiver Program you must be a citizen of any of the above countries, you must have an e-passport ESTA approval, and you also need to prove that you will return to your home after your time elapses.

A country must have enhanced law enforcement and share security data with the USA to be part of the Waiver Program. The member states need to report stolen or lost passports, issue e-passports and have a less than 3% refusal rate for non-immigrant visitor visa applications for the previous two years. The country should also have excellent border control, law enforcement, counter-terrorism, and other necessary security standards.

ESTA Passport Requirements

While traveling to the USA via VWP, e-passport is an essential document required when applying for an ESTA and is distinguished in the following ways;

  • On the page with your details, there are several numbers at the bottom, which makes it machine-readable.
  • It has a chip and a distinguishing symbol on the cover that can be scanned to show the personal information of the owner.

Your e-passport must have the specified security features for you to travel under the VWP program. Ensure that it complies with the set standards of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). Once you obtain your ESTA approval, you can start making travel arrangements.

Additionally, if you plan for a departure from the United States, ensure the passport is valid for at least six months beyond the period of your intended stay. However, if you are from either of the countries listed on the six-month club update, the six months rule doesn’t apply. Note that each VWP eligible traveler will need an approved ESTA.

If you are planning to enter the United States using a temporary or emergency visa, the VWP program recommends that it should also be an e-passport. While transiting through the states via the VWP, you must be approved for travel through the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA).

Updating your ESTA

If you want to travel without a visa, you need ESTA authorization before boarding the USA bound sea or air carrier. It has two years validity, but you need to obtain a new ESTA if you;

  • Change your country of citizenship.
  • Change your gender.
  • Obtain a new passport, be it an emergency or temporary visa.
  • Change your name.
  • Need to change your responses on the yes or no questions on the ESTA application.

To apply for ESTA you need a valid passport from a Visa Waiver Program country, your email, home address, and phone number. You are also required to provide details of an emergency point of contact email and phone number.

ESTA Ineligibility

Some travelers may be restricted from entering the USA via the VWP, for instance, if you have violated the terms of previous admissions into the United States under the VWP. You might also be ineligible for ESTA if you have any criminal record of arrests, even if it did not result in a criminal conviction. You are ineligible if you pose any security threat, although the Department of Homeland Security may waive the restriction on a case-by-case basis. You are also restricted if you are planning to work, have a permanent residence, or engage in federal government business.

According to the Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015, travelers from Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Korea, and Syria must obtain a visa before traveling since they are no longer eligible to go through VWP. If you are a citizen of VWP countries but have moved to Korea, Somalia, Sudan, Libya, Iran, Iraq, or Yemen on or after 1st March 2012, then you are not legible for the program. The restrictions don’t apply to travelers who visited the countries at the period for military services or to carry out official duties as an employee of a VWP country.

When traveling to the United States via sea or air, ensure you have a round trip ticket on a carrier that is in agreement with the VWP. When using private means such as a private aircraft, it should also maintain a valid deal with VWP and also guarantee deportation out of the United States if found inadmissible. You should give an outline of your intended stay within the 90 days if you arrive by land and demonstrate enough funds that will sustain you.

Permitted and Prohibited Travel Under the Visa Waiver Program

With the program, you can go to the USA and negotiate contracts, settle estates, or consult with business associates. You can also attend conferences, educational, business, and professional events, or undertake independent research activities. You are allowed to go on a vacation, tour various cities, and even visit friends and family. Participate in social events hosted by multiple organizations or other contests related to sports and music. Also, you can enroll in short study courses if you won’t receive credit, for instance, cooking classes or if you intend to visit the country for medical check-ups.

However, you aren’t allowed to become a full-time student, perform any paid shows, or work in press or journalism. You are also restricted from engaging in any form of employment, joining the crew of any ship or aircraft, nor seek permanent residence in the United States.

Benefits and Drawbacks for Traveling Under the VWP

For the business or leisure visitors of a country participating in the VWP, you don’t need to apply for a visa in the US consulate abroad, which requires lots of documentation, time, and effort. With minimal hassle on a computer, you can make travel plans using the ESTA while avoiding long visa processing timelines, especially if you are traveling for urgent reasons. Additionally, if you enter the USA using VWP, you can visit Canada, Mexico, and other neighboring islands for the time your VWP is valid, which may not be allowed with other visas.

However, the program has some disadvantages in that travelers are unable to extend the duration of their stay while traveling on an ESTA. Furthermore, ESTA travelers cannot switch from an ESTA to a visa while in the country. This would potentially impact tourism and business travelers who experience unexpected issues during their stay in the United States. Thus, visitors are advised to plan accordingly for their U.S. travel purposes and needs.