Visa Waiver Program

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The Visa Waiver Program (VWP) is a program of the United States Government which 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 U.S. states as well as the U.S. territories of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands in the Caribbean, with limited application to other U.S. territories.

All of the countries selected by the U.S. government to be in the program are high-income economies with a very high Human Development Index that are generally regarded as developed countries.

Eligible countries[edit]

  The United States and its territories
  Visa free countries
  Visa Waiver Program countries
  Countries currently under a temporary entry ban (expires April 27, 2017) - not enforced as of February 3, 2017

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).[1] 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, as well as ongoing compliance with the immigration law of the United States.

Citizens of 38 countries and territories are eligible for visa-free entry into the United States under the VWP:[2][3][4]

Notes
  1. ^ – Including Greenland and Faeroes.
  2. ^ – Including Åland Islands.
  3. ^ – Including Aruba, Bonaire, Curaçao, Saba, Sint Eustatius and Sint Maarten.
  4. ^ – Including Azores and Madeira.
  5. ^ – British nationals with British Citizen status only.[5]
  6. ^ – Citizens with Taiwanese national ID number only.

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.

As of January 2016, the visa waiver does not apply in cases where a person had previously traveled to Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria or Yemen on or after 1 March 2011 or for those who are dual citizens of Iran, Iraq, Sudan or Syria.[8] Certain categories such as diplomats, military, journalists, humanitarian workers or legitimate businessmen may have their visa requirement waived by the Secretary of Homeland Security.[9]

Nominated and roadmap countries[edit]

Countries nominated for status in the Visa Waiver Program are in between "road map" status and eligibility to participate. Nomination kicks off 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.[10] Of the original 19 countries, 10 have been admitted to the VWP. The remaining nine countries are:

Eligibility for the visa waiver may be withdrawn at any time. Usually this may happen if the United States feels 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.[15]

The European Union has been pressuring the United States to extend the Visa Waiver Program to its five remaining member countries that are not currently in it: Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Poland, and Romania.[16] All of these are "road map countries" except Croatia, which only recently joined the EU in 2013. In November 2014 Bulgarian Government announced that it will not ratify the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership unless the United States lifted visas for its citizens.[17]

Admission rate[edit]

Number of admissions into the United States per VWP country under the program (including the Guam and Northern Mariana Islands Visa Waiver Program):[18][19]

Country FY 2014[18] FY 2015[19]
Andorra 1,383 1,117
Australia 1,361,886 1,371,960
Austria 226,493 214,185
Belgium 309,125 301,206
Brunei 1,251 1,130
Chile 50,241 163,928
Czech Republic 88,700 93,076
Denmark 323,271 335,515
Estonia 19,110 19,040
Finland 159,338 156,160
France 1,940,779 1,890,609
Germany 2,242,202 2,165,844
Greece 55,446 56,848
Hong Kong* 3,065 2,824
Hungary 70,386 73,132
Iceland 51,044 50,305
Ireland 466,584 472,906
Italy 1,255,976 1,204,574
Japan 3,917,113 3,733,997
Latvia 17,195 17,799
Liechtenstein 2,125 2,088
Lithuania 23,813 25,622
Luxembourg 15,039 14,408
Malaysia* 264 211
Malta 5,589 5,341
Monaco 1,019 1,076
Nauru* 18 11
Netherlands 755,094 737,861
New Zealand 290,241 307,124
Norway 313,382 305,752
Papua New Guinea* 208 182
Portugal 177,873 172,895
San Marino 723 834
Singapore 144,351 137,229
Slovakia 40,914 42,337
Slovenia 22,940 24,119
South Korea 1,366,599 1,561,508
Spain 935,775 934,205
Sweden 568,765 578,672
Switzerland 456,711 445,366
Taiwan 300,310 335,729
United Kingdom 4,323,416 4,461,216
Total 22,305,757 22,419,941

* Only for Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands.

Adjusted Visa Refusal Rate[edit]

  United States
  Visa exempt countries
US B visa refusal rate in 2016, over than:
Under 3% 3% 5% 10% 20% 30% 40% 50%

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.[20] Due to time constraints, adjudicators profile applicants.[20] Certain demographics, such as young adults, those who are single and/or unemployed, almost never receive visas.[20] Adjudicators are evaluated on how fast they carry out interviews, not the quality of adjudication decisions.[21] The validity of B visa decisions is not evaluated.[21]

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%.[22] 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 barred Hong Kong and Macau) (Until 4 April 2016, Argentina charged $160 to U.S. citizens to enter.)

In the table below, eligible countries are in bold, with their flag depicted and linked to their relevant individual article on Wikipedia. The Adjusted Visa Refusal Rate for B visas were as follows:

Overstay rate[edit]

A number of visitors from the Visa Waiver Program countries overstayed the 90-day maximum. The Department of Homeland Security published a report for 2015 that lists the number of violations made by passengers who arrived via air and sea. 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.[27]

Country Number of
suspected
in-country
overstays
In-country
overstay rate
(against
total number
of expected
departures)
Andorra 3 0.24%
Australia 3,964 0.30%
Austria 2,694 1.28%
Belgium 1,477 0.51%
Brunei 10 0.87%
Chile 6,553 2.14%
Czech Republic 1,422 1.46%
Denmark 1,812 0.56%
Estonia 191 0.49%
Finland 747 0.49%
France 11,973 0.68%
Germany 21,394 1.02%
Greece 1,333 1.87%
Hungary 1,860 2.45%
Iceland 199 0.39%
Ireland 1,797 0.40%
Italy 17,661 1.49%
Japan 5,603 0.19%
Korea, South 7,120 0.63%
Latvia 273 1.46%
Liechtenstein 12 0.59%
Lithuania 480 1.81%
Luxembourg 75 0.53%
Malta 44 0.80%
Monaco 4 0.44%
Netherlands 7,723 1.09%
New Zealand 1,451 0.40%
Norway 1,423 0.39%
Portugal 3,822 2.01%
San Marino 16 2.28%
Singapore 481 0.29%
Slovakia 1,043 2.09%
Slovenia 278 0.99%
Spain 12,559 1.21%
Sweden 2,782 0.42%
Switzerland 2,402 0.48%
Taiwan 1,888 0.33%
United Kingdom 18,950 0.43%
TOTAL 153,166 0.73%

Recent events of the program[edit]

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.[28][29] 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[30] 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,[31] 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 remains the only Central European country that is not a participating nation in the VWP as of 2017, 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."[32]

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.[33] 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.[34] The bill would have changed the nonimmigrant visa refusal rate threshold - from 3% - to 10%, thus making (as of 2010) 28 countries[35] 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.[36]

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.[37] "It is a removal of the last relic of Communism and the Cold War", said Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek.[38]

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 30 December 2008.[39]

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.[40]

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.[41]

Greece officially joined the program on April 5, 2010.[42][43]

President Obama promised that Poland would be added to the program, in a meeting with Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski in December 2010; however no date has been set for when Poland will be added.[44] Organizations such as the Federation for American Immigration Reform and the Center for Immigration Studies still oppose Poland's admission both due to its continued high visa refusal rate, as well as its being a major source of illegal immigrants; the CIS also criticized South Korea's admission to the program on these grounds.[45]

On October 2, 2012, Secretary Napolitano announced the inclusion of Taiwan into the program effectively as of November 1, 2012.[46] 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.[47] 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.[48]

The only European microstate that is not a member of the program is the Vatican City.

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.[49] 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.[50] On May 16, 2013, a bipartisan amendment bill was passed by the Senate Judiciary Committee but not ratified into law. On 10 August 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.[50]

History[edit]

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 16 December 1988.[51] 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.[52]

On 1 April 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 30 September 1997, Slovenia was added. On 9 August 1999, Portugal, Singapore and Uruguay joined the program, although Uruguay was subsequently removed in 2003.[53]

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 1 October 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 26 October 2004, with the exception of Belgian citizens, as there were concerns about the security and integrity of Belgian passports.[54]

The US government originally planned to require all visitors to the US under the Visa Waiver Program to hold a biometric passport starting from 26 October 2004 if their passport was issued on or after that date. However, after the requirement to have a machine-readable passport was postponed to 26 October 2004, the biometric passport requirement subsequently had its implementation date moved to 26 October 2005, only to be further postponed by another year to 26 October 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.[55]

Starting on 26 October 2006, travellers entering the US 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.[56]

In November 2006, the US 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.[57]

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[58] 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[59] 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.[60] Australian government policy in this respect is similar to U.S. policy, which similarly requires Visa Waiver Program participants to apply for an ESTA.[citation needed]

Visa waiver programs of Guam and Northern Mariana Islands[edit]

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.[61][62] The Guam-CNMI Visa Waiver Program, first enacted in October 1988 and periodically amended, permits nationals from twelve countries in Asia, Europe and Oceania to enter the Northern Mariana Islands and Guam as tourists for up to 45 days without the need of obtaining a U.S. visa or an ESTA. A parole agreement enacted in 2009 provides two more countries visa-free access to the territories for 45 days:[63][64][65][66][67]

1 - under a separate parole agreement.
2 - for Northern Mariana Islands only.
3 - Must present a valid Hong Kong Permanent Identity Card on arrival.
4 - 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.
5 - 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.

Travelers with B-1/B-2 visa or ESTA are admitted to the territories in accordance with the terms of ESTA or visa.

Travelers utilizing the program or the parole are required to complete an I-736 form, hold a machine-readable passport and nonrefundable return ticket, and are not permitted to travel onwards to the contiguous United States. Because of special visa categories for the Northern Mariana Islands foreign workers, traveling between Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands still requires a full immigration inspection, and all visitors departing Guam or Northern Mariana Islands are inspected regardless of final destination.[68]

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.[69][70]

In the past, the government of the Northern Mariana Islands had issued Visitor Entry Permits (VEP) instead of visas. Citizens of all countries in the federal visa waiver program were exempt from the VEP requirement, as were citizens of Taiwan and holders of Hong Kong Special Administrative Region passports and British National (Overseas) passports.[71][72][73] Under the islands' previous immigration policy, citizens of the following countries or jurisdictions were prohibited from entering the CNMI: 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.[74]

American Samoa[edit]

American Samoa entry stamp

U.S. visa policy does not apply to the territory of American Samoa, as it has its own visa requirements and maintains control of its own borders.[75] Hence, neither a U.S. visa nor an ESTA can be used to enter American Samoa. U.S. citizens and nationals may enter and remain indefinitely, while nationals from the following countries are not required to obtain a visa for visits not exceeding 30 days:[76][77]

1 - for British citizens only.

Nationals of other countries require a visa, which cannot be obtained from an U.S. diplomatic mission, but from the Attorney General's Office of American Samoa.[78]

Requirements for the visa waiver program[edit]

The requirements for the visa waiver program are as follows:

Biometric Passports[edit]

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.[79]

Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA)[edit]

All incoming passengers who intend to take advantage of the Visa Waiver Program 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.[80] The electronic authorization, which is valid for a two-year period,[81] 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.[82]

Passport validity[edit]

The standard requirement for passport validity is six months beyond the expected date of departure from the United States. However, the US has signed agreements with a number of countries to waive this requirement.[83]

Return or onward ticket[edit]

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.

Other eligibility requirements[edit]

Applicants for admission under the Visa Waiver Program:

  • Must have complied with the conditions of all previous admissions to the United States.
  • 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 8 September 2010, a fee of USD $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. tourist visa from an 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[edit]

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 US citizen or (2) an application for asylum.[84] 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.[85]

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 US for a non US employer, and persons installing, servicing and repairing commercial or industrial equipment or machinery pursuant to a contract of sale.[86] 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.[87]

Applicant should display social and economic ties which bind them to their country of origin or may be refused entry.[88]

Citizens of foreign contiguous territories and adjacent islands[edit]

Separate from the Visa Waiver Program, 8 U.S.C. § 1182(d)(4)(B) permits the Attorney General and the Secretary of State (acting jointly) to waive visa requirements for admission to the United States in nonimmigrant status for nationals of foreign contiguous territories or adjacent islands or for residents of those territories or islands who have a common nationality with those nationals. The regulations relating to such admissions can be found at 8 C.F.R. 212.1.[89]

Until 2003, this visa waiver was granted not only to citizens of those countries and territories, but to permanent residents of Bermuda and Canada who were citizens of Commonwealth of Nations countries or of 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.[89]

Citizens of the Bahamas[edit]

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.[90]

Citizens of Canada[edit]

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,[91][92] but under different legislation from the Visa Waiver program.[93] This does not preclude them from meeting the requirements of the appropriate status they wish to enter in, for example, while a Canadian does not require a F-1 visa to study in the U.S., they are still required to be in F-1 status, not requiring a visa simply allows a Canadian to obtain the status at the Port of Entry.[94]

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. Canadian visitors are also not issued an I-94, and US 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,[95] although CBP usually considers six months to be the maximum permitted per calendar year, except under unusual circumstances (such as medical treatment).

Before 23 January 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 23 January 2007, Canadian and U.S. citizens were required to have passports when entering the U.S. by air only.

As of 1 June 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.[96][97]

Certain British Overseas Territories Citizens[edit]

Bermuda[edit]

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.[98] 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. In addition, they must present a Bermudian passport which fulfils the following criteria:

  • The front cover has printed on it "Government of Bermuda\
  • 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[edit]

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.[99]

Cayman Islands[edit]

Whilst residents of the Cayman Islands, as British Overseas Territories Citizens, are eligible automatically to register as a full British citizen under Section 4(A) of the British Overseas Territories Act 2002, thereby able additionally to enter the United States under the Visa Waiver Program, they can alternatively enter visa-free using their Cayman Islands passports. To qualify under the 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 one entry.[100][101] 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.[102] 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[edit]

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.[103] 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[edit]

Under the Compact of Free Association, citizens of the Federated States of Micronesia,[104] the Republic of the Marshall Islands,[105] and the Republic of Palau[106] (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) for permanent residence, employment, educational pursuits, or for general visits in or to the United States. Time spent in the United States does not count towards permanent residency status, and those wishing to emigrate to the United States must obtain an immigrant visa prior to arriving in the country.

See also[edit]

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External links[edit]