Visa Waiver Program
The Visa Waiver Program (VWP) is a program of the U.S. federal government that allows citizens of specific countries to travel to the United States for tourism, business, or while in transit for up to 90 days without having to obtain a visa. The program applies to the 50 states and District of Columbia, as well as Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, with limited application to other U.S. territories.
To be eligible for a visa waiver under the VWP, the traveler seeking admission to the United States must be a citizen of a country that has been designated by the U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security, in consultation with the Secretary of State, as a "program country". Permanent residents of designated countries who are not citizens of a designated country do not qualify for a visa waiver. The criteria for designation as program countries are specified in Section 217 (c) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (Title 8 U.S.C. § 1187). The criteria stress passport security and a very low nonimmigrant visa refusal rate, not more than 3% as specified in Section 217(c)(2)(A) of the Immigration and Nationality Act and ongoing compliance with the immigration law of the United States.
- ^ – Citizens with Taiwanese national ID number only.
- ^ – Only British citizens are eligible to participate in the VWP.
- For all countries, citizens with certain countries in their travel history are ineligible (see below)
|Date of addition to Visa Waiver Program|
Argentina was added to the program on July 8, 1996 and removed from the list from February 21, 2002.
Visitors may stay for 90 days in the United States which also includes the time spent in Canada, Mexico, Bermuda, or the islands in the Caribbean if the arrival was through the United States. The ESTA is required if arriving by air or cruise ship. Visa Waiver applies without ESTA for land border crossings, but the VWP does not apply at all (i.e. a visa is required) if a passenger is arriving via air or sea on an unapproved carrier.
Since 2016, the visa waiver does not apply in cases where a person had previously traveled to Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, or Yemen on or after March 1, 2011 or for those who are dual citizens of Iran, Iraq, Sudan, or Syria. Certain categories such as diplomats, military, journalists, humanitarian workers, or legitimate businessmen may have their visa requirement waived by the Secretary of Homeland Security.
Nominated and roadmap countries
Countries nominated for status in the Visa Waiver Program are in between "road map" status and eligibility to participate. Nomination initiates a detailed evaluation by the United States Department of Homeland Security of the nominated country's homeland security and immigration practices. There is no established timeline for how long a country may remain on the nominated list before either being approved or rejected from the program.
Since 2005, the U.S. Department of State has been conducting discussions with countries known as "road map countries," which are interested in joining (or rejoining) the VWP. Of the original 19 countries, 11 have been admitted to the VWP. The remaining eight countries are:
Eligibility for the visa waiver may be withdrawn at any time. This may happen if the United States believes that citizens of a certain country are more likely than before to violate their VWP restrictions, such as working without a permit or overstaying their allowed period of stay in the United States. Accordingly, Argentina's participation in the VWP was terminated in 2002 in light of the financial crisis taking place in that country and its potential effect on mass emigration and unlawful overstay of its citizens in the United States by way of the VWP. Uruguay's participation in the program was revoked in 2003 for similar reasons. While a country's political and economic standing does not directly determine its eligibility, it is widely believed that citizens of politically stable and economically developed nations would not have much incentive to illegally seek employment and violate their visa while in the U.S., risks that the consul seriously considers in approving or denying a visa. Israel has not been included in the VWP reportedly in part because of its strict scrutiny of Palestinian Americans traveling to Israel, thus not fulfilling the mutuality requirement.
The European Union has pressured the United States to extend the Visa Waiver Program to its four remaining member countries that are not currently in it: Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus and Romania. All of these are "road map countries" except Croatia, which only recently joined the EU in 2013. In November 2014, the Bulgarian Government announced it will not ratify the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership unless the United States lifted visas for its citizens.
|Country||FY 2014||FY 2015|
|Papua New Guinea*||208||182|
* Only for Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands.
Adjusted Visa Refusal Rate
The Adjusted Refusal Rate is based on the refusal rate of B visa applications. B visas are adjudicated based on applicant interviews; the interviews generally last between 60 and 90 seconds. Due to time constraints, adjudicators profile applicants. Certain demographics, such as young adults who are single and unemployed, almost never receive visas, unless they articulate a compelling reason. Adjudicators are evaluated on how fast they carry out interviews, not the quality of adjudication decisions. The validity of B visa decisions is not evaluated.
To qualify for the Visa Waiver Program, a country must have had a nonimmigrant visa refusal rate of less than 3% for the previous year or an average of no more than 2% over the past two fiscal years with neither year going above 2.5%. In addition, the country must provide visa-free access to United States citizens and has to be either an independent country or a dependency of a VWP country (which has precluded Hong Kong and Macau from participating in the program). (Until April 4, 2016, Argentina charged $160 to U.S. citizens to enter.)
The Adjusted Visa Refusal Rates for B visas were as follows:
|Country/Region||Fiscal Year 2008||Fiscal Year 2014||Fiscal Year 2015||Fiscal Year 2016||Fiscal Year 2017||Fiscal Year 2018||Fiscal Year 2019|
|Antigua and Barbuda||21.70%||20.80%||20.17%||22.11%||20.50%||19.07%||15.25%|
|Central African Republic||39.60%||46.60%||32.43%||35.12%||44.24%||36.03%||37.45%|
|Democratic Republic of the Congo||36.20%||39.10%||45.62%||45.63%||49.94%||50.56%||53.80%|
|Non-nationality based issuances[a]||n/a||n/a||n/a||28.92%||35.61%||40.27%||43.16%|
|Papua New Guinea||3.40%||7.40%||5.14%||10.56%||9.34%||6.84%||1.74%|
|Saint Kitts and Nevis||25.00%||27.50%||26.60%||28.31%||26.66%||24.98%||21.87%|
|Saint Vincent and the Grenadines||26.40%||24.10%||27.15%||27.46%||20.38%||19.17%||14.55%|
|São Tomé and Príncipe||28.60%||10.70%||5.71%||24.14%||14.81%||26.09%||34.78%|
|Trinidad and Tobago||23.80%||21.20%||25.16%||22.70%||22.46%||19.28%||13.05%|
|United Arab Emirates||10.40%||4.80%||7.10%||4.02%||5.80%||3.75%||5.56%|
- "Non-nationality based issuances" includes individuals presenting travel documents issued by a competent authority other than their country of nationality, including, for example, aliens traveling on a Laissez-Passer issued by the United Nations and refugees residing in another country.
A number of visitors from the Visa Waiver Program countries overstayed the 90-day maximum. The Department of Homeland Security publishes a report that lists the number of violations made by passengers who arrived via air and sea, on Visa Waiver Program, excluding visa holders, for example nonimmigrant students and exchange visitors. The table below excludes statistics on persons who left the United States later than their allowed stay or legalized their status and shows only suspected overstays who remained in the country.
Recent events of the program
After the expansion of the European Union in 2004, both the newly admitted countries and EU agencies began intensive lobbying efforts to include those new countries in the VWP. The U.S. Government initially responded to those efforts by developing bilateral strategies with 19 candidate countries known as the Visa Waiver Roadmap process. The U.S. Government began to accept the possibility of departing from the original country designation criteria – which had been contained within immigration law per se – and to expand them by adding political criteria, with the latter being able to override the former. This development began first with Bill S.2844 which explicitly named Poland as the only country to be added to the VWP, and continued as an amendment to the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2006 (S.2611), whose Sec. 413, Visa Waiver Program Expansion, defined broader criteria that would apply to any EU country that provided "material support" to the multinational forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, the definition of that "material support" would be met again only by Poland and Romania, a fact that was not favorably received by the other EU candidate countries. Ironically, Poland remained the only Central European country that was not a participating nation in the VWP until 2019, due to a visa refusal rate above the critical threshold of 3%.
A June 2007 Hudson Institute Panel stressed the urgency of the inclusion of Central Europe in the VWP: "An inexplicable policy that is causing inestimable damage to the United States with its new Central and Eastern European NATO allies is the region's exclusion from the visa waiver program. As Helle Dale wrote in the spring issue of European Affairs: "Meanwhile, the problem is fueling anti-U.S. antagonisms and a perception of capricious discrimination by U.S. bureaucrats ---and damping the visits to the U.S. of people from countries with whom Washington would like to improve commercial and intellectual ties. Meanwhile, horror stories abound from friends and diplomats from Central and Eastern Europe about the problems besetting foreigners seeking to visit the United States. In fact bringing up the subject of visas with any resident of those countries is like waving a red flag before a bull." Visa waiver must be satisfactorily addressed and resolved at long last."
During his visit to Estonia in November 2006, President Bush announced his intention "to work with our Congress and our international partners to modify our visa waiver program". In 2006, the Secure Travel and Counterterrorism Partnership Bill was introduced in the Senate but no action was taken and that bill, as well as a similar one introduced in the House the following year, died after two years of inactivity. The bill would have directed the Secretary of Homeland Security to establish a pilot program to expand the visa waiver program for up to five new countries that are cooperating with the United States on security and counterterrorism matters. The bill would have changed the nonimmigrant visa refusal rate threshold – from 3% – to 10%, thus making (as of 2010) 28 countries qualify for inclusion in the visa-waiver program: Argentina, Bahamas, Bahrain, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Brazil, Croatia, Cyprus, Hong Kong (HKSAR passport and British National (Overseas) passport), Israel, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Malaysia, Mauritius, Mozambique, Oman, Papua New Guinea, Paraguay, Poland, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Seychelles, South Africa, Swaziland, Taiwan, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, and Uruguay. Note that Cyprus, Malta, Timor Leste, and Vatican City, had already (in 2006) refusal rates less than the original 3%, but were not included in the VWP countries (whereas a year later, some additional countries had this original low level: Cyprus and Taiwan). However, for continued participation, DHS re-evaluates participating countries every two years, as required by Congress. Through this process, two countries, Argentina and Uruguay, now are no longer eligible to participate. Current members will have to fulfill any new requirements to continue their eligibility for membership in the program. The European Union is currently planning to negotiate for participation of all of its members in the Visa Waiver Program.
In October 2008, President Bush announced that the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia and South Korea would be added to the program on November 17. "It is a removal of the last relict of Communism and the Cold War", said Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek.
On December 22, 2008, in a joint press conference at Auberge de Castille, Maltese Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi and U.S. Ambassador Molly Bordonaro announced that Malta would join the program with effect from December 30, 2008.
In January 2009 the first Assistant Secretary (acting as Under Secretary-equivalent) for Policy at the United States Department of Homeland Security Stewart Baker announced that Croatia is expected to join the Visa Waiver program by 2011.
On June 17, 2008, Bulgarian Foreign Minister Ivailo Kalfin and U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff signed an interim agreement under the Visa Waiver Program, the press service of the Bulgarian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
On October 2, 2012, Secretary Napolitano announced the inclusion of Taiwan into the program effectively as of November 1, 2012. Only Taiwanese nationals with a valid passport and National Identification Number can apply for ESTA online to benefit from the country's newly acquired visa-free status.
In 2013 there was conflict over the United States-Israel Strategic Partnership Act of 2013 whose Senate version specifies that satisfaction of the requirements regarding reciprocal travel privileges for U.S. citizens would be subject to security concerns. Many members of the House of Representatives oppose the security language because it seems to validate Israel's tendency to turn away Arab Americans without giving any reason. None of the other 37 countries in the visa waiver program has such an exemption.
The only European microstate that is not a member of the program is the Vatican City.
Hong Kong is the only developed country with a higher Human Development Index than the U.S. which the citizens cannot enjoy the program. The visa refusal rate for the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region has dropped to 1.7% for HKSAR passport and 2.6% for British National (Overseas) passport as of 2012. Hong Kong met all VWP criteria but did not qualify at the time because it is not legally a separate country, despite having its own passports and independent judicial system, monetary system and immigration control. The former Chief Executive of Hong Kong, Donald Tsang, raised the issue with then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during his visit to the U.S. in 2011 and was met with positive response. On May 16, 2013, a bipartisan amendment bill was passed by the Senate Judiciary Committee but not ratified into law. On August 10, 2015, the U.S. Consul General to Hong Kong and Macau, Clifford Hart, said during an interview with South China Morning Post that the visa waiver is "not happening anytime soon", as the Visa Waiver law requires the participant to be a "sovereign state" and Hong Kong is not independent, thus ending the possibility of Hong Kong joining the program. He also denied that the failed lobbying effort of HKSAR government on this issue was a result of the refusal of detaining Edward Snowden in 2013.
On May 11, 2018, the U.S. threatened to remove Hungary from the Visa Waiver Program after multiple cases of passport fraud. An official report discovered a fraud scheme which allowed non-Hungarians to enter the U.S. under false identities.
As of December 2018, ESTA is no longer approved in real-time to qualifying passengers and passengers are required to apply no later than 72 hours before departure.
In July 2019 U.S. Ambassador to Poland, Georgette Mosbacher stated that "Poland would fully qualify for the Visa Waiver Program within 3 to 6 months after September 2019" depending on bureaucratic procedures. On October 4, 2019 U.S. president, Donald Trump confirmed that the Department of State had formally nominated Poland for entry into the Visa Waiver Program. On November 11, 2019 Poland officially joined the Program and became its 39th member.
Congress passed legislation in 1986 to create the Visa Waiver Program with the aim of facilitating tourism and short-term business visits to the United States, and allowing the United States Department of State to focus consular resources on addressing higher risks. The United Kingdom became the first country to participate in the Visa Waiver Program in July 1988, followed by Japan on December 16, 1988. In October 1989, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland, and West Germany were added to the VWP.
In 1991, more European countries joined the Program – Andorra, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Monaco, Norway, San Marino and Spain – as well as New Zealand (the first country from Oceania). In 1993, Brunei became the second Asian country to be admitted to the Program.
On April 1, 1995, Ireland was added to the VWP. In 1996, Australia and Argentina (the first Latin American country) joined, although Argentina was later removed in 2002. On September 30, 1997, Slovenia was added. On August 9, 1999, Portugal, Singapore and Uruguay joined the program, although Uruguay was subsequently removed in 2003.
Following the September 11 terrorist attacks, the George W. Bush administration decided to tighten entry requirements into the United States, as a result of which legislation was passed requiring foreign visitors entering under the Visa Waiver Program to present a machine-readable passport upon arrival starting from October 1, 2003. However, as a number of VWP still issued non-machine readable passports (for example, more than a third of French and Spanish passport holders held a non-machine readable version), the implementation of the new rule was postponed to October 26, 2004, with the exception of Belgian citizens, as there were concerns about the security and integrity of Belgian passports.
The U.S. government originally planned to require all visitors to the U.S. under the Visa Waiver Program to hold a biometric passport starting from October 26, 2004 if their passport was issued on or after that date. However, after the requirement to have a machine-readable passport was postponed to October 26, 2004, the biometric passport requirement subsequently had its implementation date moved to October 26, 2005, only to be further postponed by another year to October 26, 2006 at the request of the European Union, which raised concerns about the number of participating countries which would have been able to make the deadline.
Starting on October 26, 2006, travellers entering the U.S. under the Visa Waiver Program are required to present a biometric passport if their passport was issued on or after that date. When the new rule came into force on that day, three countries (Andorra, Brunei and Liechtenstein) had not yet started issuing biometric passports.
In November 2006, the U.S. government announced that plans for an "Electronic Travel Authorization" program (officially named "Electronic System for Travel Authorization") would be developed so that VWP travelers can give advance information on their travels to the United States. In return, they will be given authorization electronically to travel to the United States, although it does not guarantee admission to the United States. This program is modeled on the Electronic Travel Authority scheme that has been used in Australia for many years.
While all participating nations must provide reciprocal visa-free travel for U.S. citizens (usually ninety days for tourism or business purposes), Australia is the only nation that requires U.S. citizens to apply for an Electronic Travel Authority (ETA), which in fact is a visa that is stored electronically in a computer system operated by the Australian Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC). The ETA has replaced visa-free travel to Australia, and the only nation accorded visa-free travel rights to Australia is New Zealand under the auspices of the Trans-Tasman Travel Arrangement (rather than not requiring a visa, NZ citizens are accorded one automatically upon arrival). A passport holder must apply for and purchase an ETA through an authorized travel agency, airline, or via the official DIAC website before departing for Australia. However, as the ETA process is relatively free of formality, the United States recognizes it as the equivalent of visa-free travel. Citizens of the European Union and other European nations must apply for an eVisitor electronic travel authorization for travel to Australia, which is similar to the ETA program, but free. Australian government policy in this respect is similar to U.S. policy, which similarly requires Visa Waiver Program participants to apply for an ESTA.
Visa waiver programs of Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands
The Northern Mariana Islands had previously been a separate jurisdiction from the United States in terms of immigration control. Under a federalization law passed by the U.S. Congress in 2008, the Northern Marianas' immigration functions were taken over by United States Department of Homeland Security agencies on November 28, 2009. The present Guam-Northern Mariana Islands Visa Waiver Program took effect at that time, replacing previous Northern Marianas' legislation governing entry to the islands and also replacing a previous Guam-specific Visa Waiver Program. That program had included the aforementioned countries as well as Indonesia, Samoa, Vanuatu, and the Solomon Islands, though these countries were removed from the list of eligible nations for the new program.
In the past, the government of the Northern Mariana Islands had issued Visitor Entry Permits instead of visas. Citizens of all countries in the federal visa waiver program were exempt from the Visitor Entry Permit requirement, as were citizens of Taiwan and holders of Hong Kong Special Administrative Region passports and British National (Overseas) passports. Under the islands' previous immigration policy, citizens of the following countries or jurisdictions were prohibited from entering the Northern Mariana Islands: Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Cuba, Egypt, Eritrea, Fujian Province of China, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Myanmar, North Korea, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates and Yemen.
Although the visa policy of the U.S. also applies to the U.S. territories of Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands in general, both territories have additional visa waiver programs for certain nationalities. The Guam–CNMI Visa Waiver Program, first enacted in October 1988 and periodically amended, permits nationals from 12 countries in Asia, Europe and Oceania to enter Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands as tourists for up to 45 days without the need of obtaining a U.S. visa or an ESTA. A parole policy also allows nationals of China visa-free access to the Northern Mariana Islands for up to 14 days.
1 - Up to 14 days, for the Northern Mariana Islands only, under a separate parole policy.
2 - Must present a valid Hong Kong Permanent Identity Card on arrival.
3 - For holders of Taiwanese passports with a National ID number. Must present a valid Taiwanese national identity card on arrival. Must travel on a nonstop flight from Taiwan.
4 - For holders of British Citizen and British National (Overseas) passports only. British Nationals (Overseas) must present a valid Hong Kong permanent identity card on arrival in order to be eligible for the waiver.
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U.S. visa policy does not apply to the territory of American Samoa, as it has its own entry requirements and maintains control of its own borders. Hence, neither a U.S. visa nor an ESTA can be used to enter American Samoa. If required, an entry permit or electronic authorization must be obtained from the Department of Legal Affairs of American Samoa.
U.S. nationals may remain indefinitely in American Samoa. To enter, they must present a U.S. passport, or apply online for an electronic authorization providing a copy of their birth certificate, identification card, itinerary and a fee of 50 USD.
Nationals of Canada, Israel, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Palau and countries in the U.S. Visa Waiver Program[a] may visit for up to 30 days without an entry permit. However, if arriving by air, they must apply online for an electronic authorization called "OK to board" or "OK board", at least 48 hours before travel, providing a biometric passport and itinerary. They must also pay a fee of 20 USD, before travel or on arrival.
Nationals of other countries need an entry permit. To apply, they must have a local sponsor, who must appear in person at the Immigration Office of the Department of Legal Affairs and provide either a deed of private land or signatures of the sponsor's sa'o (head chief) and pulenu'u (village mayor). Travelers must also provide a copy of their passport and itinerary, clearances from the District Court of American Samoa and Lyndon B. Johnson Tropical Medical Center, consent for a background check by the Department of Homeland Security of American Samoa, police and health clearances from the country of origin, and a fee of 40 USD (no fee for children under 5 years of age). The application for an entry permit must be made at least 30 days before travel, and the permit is valid for a stay of up to 30 days. Business travelers may apply for a multiple-entry permit, for a fee of 50 USD per month, up to one year.
Nationals of Samoa may apply for group permits for a stay of up to 7 days (variable fee), or individual permits for a stay of up to 14 days (fee of 10 USD) or 30 days (fee of 40 USD, except for children under 5 years of age). Their application process requires fewer documents.
Transit travelers of any nationality may apply for an electronic authorization free of charge, allowing a stay of up to 24 hours.
Requirements for the visa waiver program
The requirements for the visa waiver program are as follows:
All travelers must have individual passports. It is not acceptable (for the visa waiver scheme) for children to be included on a parent's passport.
All visitors from VWP countries must hold a biometric passport.
Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA)
All incoming passengers who intend to take advantage of the Visa Waiver Program when traveling to the U.S. via air or sea are required to apply for a travel authorization through the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) online before departure to the United States, preferably at least 72 hours (3 days) in advance. This new requirement was announced on June 3, 2008 and is intended to bolster U.S. security by pre-screening participating VWP passengers against terrorist and/or no-fly lists and databases. The electronic authorization, which is valid for a two-year period, mirrors Australia's Electronic Travel Authority system. The authorization is mandatory for participating VWP citizens before boarding flights destined to the United States, but as with formal visas this does not guarantee admission into the United States since final admission eligibility is determined at U.S. ports of entry by CBP officers.
According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's ESTA fact sheet:
An approved ESTA travel authorization is:
• valid for up to two years or until the traveler's passport expires, whichever comes first;
• valid for multiple entries into the U.S.; and
• not a guarantee of admissibility to the United States at a port of entry. ESTA approval only authorizes a traveler to board a carrier for travel to the U.S. under the VWP. In all cases, CBP officers make admissibility determinations at our ports of entry. (For additional information, please visit "Know Before You Go" at www.cbp.gov/travel.)
Currently all travelers from VWP countries are required to obtain an ESTA approval prior to boarding a carrier to travel by air or sea to the United States under the VWP.
The standard requirement for passport validity is six months beyond the expected date of departure from the United States. However, the U.S. has signed agreements with a number of countries to waive this requirement.
Return or onward ticket
If entering the United States by air or sea, additional requirements apply. The traveler must:
- Be traveling on a participating commercial carrier and;
- Be holding a valid return or onward ticket, dated within the 90 days period.
Other eligibility requirements
Applicants for admission under the Visa Waiver Program:
- Must have complied with the conditions of all previous admissions to the United States and have not been found ineligible for a U.S. visa.
- Must never have been convicted of, or arrested for, an offense or crime involving moral turpitude (there is an exemption in some cases for a single offence committed before age 18 and the crime was committed (and the alien released from any confinement to a prison or correctional institution imposed for the crime) more than five years before the date of application for a visa, and also for a single instance if the maximum possible sentence in the U.S. is one year or less in jail, and less than six months was served. However these exceptions cannot be applied by the individual as the question on ESTA is specific) or a "controlled substance," or (two or more) crimes with a maximum aggregate sentence of five years' imprisonment or more, no matter how long ago. National regulations which normally expunge criminal records after a certain length of time (e.g. the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 in the UK) do not apply.
- Must not be otherwise inadmissible to the United States, such as on health or national security grounds.
- Must be intending to visit the United States for a purpose of transit, tourism, or a short-term business visit. Journalists and their accompanying staff cannot use the Visa Waiver Program to file and work on news reports for their news organizations from the United States and must instead apply for an I visa.
- Starting from September 8, 2010, a fee of US$14 is collected. This is payable by credit/debit cards online only, in advance of travel.
Those who do not meet the requirements for the Visa Waiver Program must obtain a U.S. visitor visa from a U.S. embassy or consulate.
Having been arrested or convicted does not in itself make a person ineligible to use the Visa Waiver Program. You are only ineligible if you do not meet the requirements of the program. However, some U.S. embassies advise such persons to apply for a tourist visa even though there is no legal obligation for the individual to do so. There is no right of appeal if a CBP officer decides to refuse entry, unless you hold a visa when an appeal can be made to an immigration judge.
Those previously refused entry to the United States are not automatically ineligible for the Visa Waiver Program, but unless the reason for refusal is addressed, it is likely to reoccur. Hence again, many embassies advise such persons to apply for a tourist visa.
Visa Waiver Program restrictions
A person entering the United States under the VWP cannot request an extension of the original allowed period of stay in the U.S. (this practice is allowed to those holding regular visas). However, VWP visitors may seek to adjust status on the basis of either (1) marriage to a U.S. citizen or (2) an application for asylum. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers determine admissibility upon traveler's arrival. If one seeks to enter the U.S. under the VWP and is denied entry by a CBP officer at a port of entry, no path of appealing or review of the denial of entry is allowed. VWP including ESTA does not guarantee entry to the United States. CBP officers make the final determination of entry to the United States.
Travelers can leave to contiguous countries (Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean), but will not be granted another 90 days after reentry in the United States; instead they are readmitted to the United States for the remaining days granted on their initial entry.
Transit through the United States is generally permitted, if the total time in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, and adjacent islands is less that 90 days. However, if for example the traveler is transiting the U.S. on the way to a 6-month stay in Canada, he cannot use the VWP, as his total time in the U.S., Canada, Mexico and the adjacent islands will be over 90 days. In this case he should apply for a B-1/B-2 visa, or a transit visa.
In particular, a visa must be requested if the traveler has been refused a visa or admission to the U.S. before or has been deported.
There are restrictions on the type of employment-related activities allowed. Meetings and conferences in relation to the alien's profession/line of business/employer in their home country, are generally acceptable, but most forms of "gainful employment" are not. There are however poorly-classifiable exceptions such as persons performing professional services in the U.S. for a non U.S. employer, and persons installing, servicing and repairing commercial or industrial equipment or machinery pursuant to a contract of sale. Performers (such as actors and musicians) who plan on performing live or taping scenes for productions back home, as well as athletes participating in an athletic event are likewise not allowed to use the VWP for their respective engagements and are instead required to have an O or P visa prior to arrival. Foreign media representatives and journalists on assignment are required to have a nonimmigrant media (I) visa.
Applicant should display social and economic ties which bind them to their country of origin or may be refused entry.
Citizens of foreign contiguous territories and adjacent islands
Restrictions on the use of the Visa Waiver Program do not affect this class of travellers unless separately provided for by statute or regulation. For example, a Canadian citizen who has briefly overstayed a previous visit to the U.S. (by less than 180 days) will still not require a visa for future visits, while a VWP national who overstays will become ineligible for the VWP for life and will need a visa for future visits.
Until 2003, this visa waiver was granted not only to citizens of those countries and territories, but also to permanent residents of Bermuda and Canada who were citizens of Commonwealth of Nations countries or Ireland. In 2003, the Immigration and Naturalization Service announced that it would be terminating the visa waiver for non-citizen permanent residents of Bermuda and Canada; thenceforth, those Canadian & Bermudian permanent residents who were citizens of a Visa Waiver Program country could enjoy visa-free entry to the United States under that program, while citizens of other countries would be required to possess a valid advance visa for entry to the United States.
Citizens of the Bahamas
Bahamian citizens do not require a visa to enter the United States if they apply for entry at one of the Preclearance Facilities located in Nassau or Freeport International Airports. Bahamian citizens must not have had a criminal conviction or ineligibility, violated U.S. immigration laws in the past and must be in possession of valid, unexpired passport or a Bahamian Travel Document indicating that they have Bahamian citizenship. In addition to a passport, all applicants 14 years of age or older must present a police certificate issued by the Royal Bahamas Police Force within the past six months. All Bahamians applying for admission at a port-of-entry other than the Preclearance Facilities located in Nassau or Freeport International Airports are required to be in possession of a valid visa to enter the United States.
Citizens of Canada
Canadian citizens do not require a non-immigrant visa when entering the United States, except those Canadians that fall under nonimmigrant visa categories E, K, S, or V, but under different legislation from the Visa Waiver program. However, they must still establish that they meet the requirements of the appropriate status they wish to enter in. For example, while a Canadian intending to study in the U.S. does not need to present Form I-20 at a U.S. embassy or consulate in order to receive an F-1 visa like other foreigners, they must still be issued a Form I-20 and present it at the Port of Entry to establish their eligibility for F-1 status.
Citizens of Canada who enter as visitors are exempted from being fingerprinted or photographed under US-VISIT and do not require a machine readable passport. U.S. Customs and Border Protection decides whether to allow entry based on non-immigrant intent. The maximum permitted length of stay is one year but can be extended, although CBP usually considers six months to be the maximum permitted per calendar year, except under unusual circumstances (such as medical treatment).
Before January 23, 2007, citizens of Canada, (provided they held valid photo identification) were able to enter the United States with only a birth certificate as proof of citizenship and were not required to show a passport. Citizens of other parts of North America, such as Mexico or Bermuda have always been subject to holding a valid Visa stamp or a border crossing card along with their passports. On January 23, 2007, Canadian and U.S. citizens were required to have passports when entering the U.S. by air only.
As of June 1, 2009, Canadian and U.S. citizens are required to present either a valid passport, a NEXUS card, a Free and Secure Trade card (FAST) or an enhanced driver's licence/enhanced identification card when entering the United States by land or water. Canadians entering the U.S. by air are still required to present a valid passport or NEXUS card. A NEXUS card can only be used at designated U.S. and Canadian airports with NEXUS card kiosks. Children under 16, or under 19 while traveling with a school group need to only present a birth certificate or other similar proof of citizenship when entering the U.S. from Canada by land or water.
Certain British Overseas Territories citizens
British Overseas Territories citizens by virtue of their connection to Bermuda can enter the United States visa-free provided they are bona-fide visitors – no I-94 is required. To qualify, they must not have had a criminal conviction or ineligibility, violated U.S. immigration laws in the past and must not be arriving the United States from outside the Western Hemisphere. They can also enter visa-free in order to study in the United States. In addition, they must present a Bermudian passport which fulfils the following criteria:
- The front cover has "Government of Bermuda" printed on it
- The holder's nationality must be stated as either "British Overseas Territory Citizen" or "British Dependant Territories Citizen"
- The passport must contain one of the following endorsement stamps: "Holder is registered as a Bermudian", "Holder Possesses Bermudian Status" or "Holder is deemed to possess Bermudian status"
British Virgin Islands
British Overseas Territories Citizens by virtue of their connection to the British Virgin Islands can enter the neighboring U.S. Virgin Islands visa-free for short business and pleasure. Travelers must possess a valid British Virgin Islands passport and travel directly to the U.S. Virgin Islands in order to qualify for this territory-specific visa waiver arrangement. A visa is required for anyone traveling directly to Puerto Rico or the United States mainland.
Whilst residents of the Cayman Islands, if they are British Overseas Territories Citizens, are eligible to automatically register as full British citizens under Section 4(A) of the British Overseas Territories Act 2002, and then enter the United States under the Visa Waiver Program, they can alternatively enter visa-free using their Cayman Islands passports. To qualify under this latter method, their Cayman Islands passports must confirm their British Overseas Territories citizenship and be endorsed by the Cayman Islands Passport and Corporate Services Office with a Cayman-U.S. visa waiver, issued at a cost of $15–25 and valid for only one entry. They must travel directly between the Cayman Islands and the United States and their Cayman Islands passport must also have a validity of at least six months beyond their intended departure date from the United States. If Cayman Islanders elect to enter the U.S. using the Cayman-U.S. visa waiver, they are not required to apply for an ESTA online, since they are not entering under the VWP.
Turks and Caicos Islands
British Overseas Territories Citizens by virtue of their connection to the Turks and Caicos Islands can enter the United States visa-free for short business and pleasure. To qualify, they must not have had a criminal conviction or ineligibility, not violated U.S. immigration laws in the past and must arrive in the United States on a direct flight from the territory. In addition, they must present a Turks and Caicos Islands passport which states that they are a British Overseas Territory Citizen and have the right to abode in the Turks and Caicos Islands. In addition to a valid, unexpired passport, all travellers 14 years of age or older must present a police certificate issued by the Royal Turks and Caicos Islands Police Force within the past six months. All British Overseas Territories Citizens of the Turks and Caicos Islands who apply for admission at a port-of-entry that does not have direct air service to/from the territory, are required to be in possession of a valid visa to enter the United States.
Citizens of the Federated States of Micronesia, Marshall Islands and Palau
Under the Compact of Free Association, citizens of the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and the Republic of Palau (except for adopted children, citizens wishing to adopt while in the U.S., and citizens from any of these nations who acquired citizenship via an Immigrant investor program) may enter, reside, study, and work indefinitely in the United States without visas. These three sovereign nations hold the distinction of being the only countries in the world whose citizens do not require visas or other required documents (with the exception of a valid passport) in order to visit, study, or work in the United States for an indefinite period of time. However, individuals admitted under the Compact of Free Association do not have U.S. permanent resident status and must apply for an immigrant visa or Adjustment of Status on the same basis as other aliens, such as family ties or employer sponsorship, before they can become U.S. permanent residents. Time spent in the United States under the Compact of Free Association does not count toward the physical presence requirements for naturalization as a U.S. citizen.
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