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Visa Waiver Program (VWP) for Visa-Free US Travel

Visa Waiver Program (VWP) for Visa-Free US Travel

If you want to travel to the US on a short-term basis for business or tourism, before looking at the visa options, you should first consider your eligibility to travel visa-free under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP).

To travel under the Visa Waiver Program you must first be granted ESTA.

ESTA stands for ‘Electronic System for Travel Authorization’. It is an online pre-screening process designed to ease the administrative burden on US authorities in processing short-term visa entry applications.

Given the time and cost demands of applying for a US visa, for most visitors, it is preferable to travel without the need to obtain a visa. However, travelers will need to meet all of the qualifying requirements under the VWP to be eligible for visa-free travel.


Who is eligible for the VWP?

Under the VWP, citizens of visa waiver countries may be permitted entry to the US for up to 90 days for business or tourist purposes, or for transit, without having to apply for a US visa.

You must hold a valid e-passport from a visa waiver country, and the passport must contain an embedded chip to be able to apply for ESTA.

Travel restrictions affecting VWP travelers have become more stringent in recent years, and it will be important to confirm your eligibility and ensure ESTA is in place before you travel to the US by air or sea.

If you enter the US by land from Mexico or Canada, ESTA is not required, but entry will be expedited if you have ESTA. If you do not have ESTA, you will be required to complete form I-94W at the land border.


Which are the US visa waiver program countries?

At the time of writing, the VWP encompasses 40 countries:

  • Andorra (1991)
  • Australia (1996)
  • Austria (1991)
  • Belgium (1991)
  • Brunei (1993)
  • Chile (2014)
  • Croatia (2021)
  • 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)
  • Korea, Republic of (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) (British citizens only with the unrestricted right of permanent abode in England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man)

Citizens of these countries are permitted to make an ESTA application, provided they meet the remaining eligibility criteria.


What is the ESTA application process?

The ESTA application is made on the Department of Homeland Security’s ESTA website.

You will also need to pay the ESTA application fee of $21 per applicant.

When completing the application, make a note of the unique ESTA application number, which can be used to check the progress of your application.

You should apply for ESTA at least 72 hours before your intended time of travel, to allow for any potential delays with the application. In most cases, the decision is given straight away. If there is a delay in the response, this may be due to additional information being required. You should receive a response within 72 hours.


ESTA eligibility questions

When applying for ESTA, you will be asked the following questions:

1) Do you have a physical or mental disorder; or are you a drug abuser or addict; or do you currently have any of the following diseases (communicable diseases are specified pursuant to section 361(b) of the Public Health Service Act):

  • Cholera
  • Diphtheria
  • Tuberculosis, infectious
  • Plague
  • Smallpox
  • Yellow Fever
  • Viral Hemorrhagic Fevers, including Ebola, Lassa, Marburg, Crimean-Congo
  • Severe acute respiratory illnesses capable of transmission to other persons and likely to cause mortality

2) Have you ever been arrested or convicted for a crime that resulted in serious damage to property, or serious harm to another person or government authority?

3) Have you ever violated any law related to possessing, using, or distributing illegal drugs?

4) Do you seek to engage in or have you ever engaged in terrorist activities, espionage, sabotage, or genocide?

5) Have you ever committed fraud or misrepresented yourself or others to obtain, or assist others to obtain, a visa or entry into the United States?

6) Are you currently seeking employment in the United States or were you previously employed in the United States without prior permission from the US government?

7) Have you ever been denied a US visa you applied for with your current or previous passport, or have you ever been refused admission to the United States or withdrawn your application for admission at a US port of entry?

8) Have you ever stayed in the United States longer than the admission period granted to you by the US government?

9) Have you traveled to, or been present in Cuba, Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia or Yemen on or after March 1, 2011? Or are you a dual citizen of Iran, Iraq, Sudan or Syria?

Where you do not meet these criteria, you will be required to apply for the appropriate nonimmigrant US visa.


Do children need ESTA to travel?

All individual travellers must have applied for and been granted ESTA. This includes children, who must each have their own ESTA in order to travel.


If you are granted ESTA

If you are granted ESTA, you will be permitted to travel to the US visa-free, provided your reason for travel is within the permissible activities and that you do not remain for longer than 90 days.

If you obtain a new passport or change your name, gender or country of citizenship, you will be required to update your ESTA travel authorization.

This is also required if one of your answers to any of the VWP eligibility questions changes.


How long does ESTA last?

An approved ESTA is valid for whichever is the earlier date:

  • two years after approval, or
  • the date of your passport’s expiry.

Regardless of the expiry, travelers are allowed to remain in the US for a maximum stay of 90 days under the VWP per visit.


Does ESTA guarantee entry to the US?

With ESTA authorization, you will continue to be subject to admissibility checks after the ESTA has been approved. At the border, you may be subject to immigration checks by officials, as a result of which you may not necessarily be granted admission to the US. If you are found to have submitted false information in your ESTA application and are subsequently refused entry at the border, this will be logged on your immigration record and is likely to affect future US immigration applications.


ESTA permissible and excluded activities

Permissible activities include, among others, business, tourism, medical visits, transit.

Notable exclusions include:

  • business travellers and tourists who wish to stay in the US more than 90 days,
  • airline crew members,
  • students,
  • interns,
  • exchange visitors,
  • temporary workers
  • intra-company transfers,
  • treaty traders,
  • performers and artists,
  • representatives of the foreign media who will work in their profession as media or journalists while in the US are not permitted to travel on the VWP (or indeed the B visa), and must instead apply for the US Media I visa.


What if your ESTA application is denied?

If you are not eligible for the VWP, or your ESTA application is denied, you may wish to consider alternative visa options available to you. For example, are you eligible to apply for the B1 or B2 visitor visa? 

NNU Immigration can advise on all aspects of the VWP, specifically in relation to eligibility, applications, notification of personal changes and consideration of alternative immigration options.

We can also provide specialist advice on the nonimmigrant visa options available to you where the VWP is not available or appropriate for your circumstances.

This article does not constitute direct legal advice and is for informational purposes only.


Founder & Principal Attorney Nita Nicole Upadhye is a recognized leader in the field of US business immigration law (AILA) and trusted adviser to large corporates through to SMEs, providing strategic immigration and global mobility advice to support employers with both US and UK operations to meet their workforce needs through corporate immigration.

Nita successfully acts for corporations and professionals, entrepreneurs, artists, actors, and athletes from across the globe, providing expert guidance on all aspects of US visa and nationality applications, and talent mobility to the USA.

Nita is an active public speaker, thought leader, immigration commentator, and immigration policy contributor and regularly hosts training sessions for employers and HR professionals

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