The Visa Waiver Program, Explained
Navigating ESTA for entering the United States
What Is the Visa Waiver Program?
The Visa Waiver Program allows citizens of 39 countries to enter the United States without a visa and stay for up to 90 days. Travelers can apply for travel authorization and enroll in the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) program before they enter the United States. This allows them to stay for 90 days or less without the need for a visa.
Whether you’re planning a vacation or a short business trip, if you’re not a U.S. citizen or permanent resident, then you will generally need to apply for a visa to enter and legally stay in the United States. If you’re only hoping to see a few sights, visit some friends, or go to a business conference, however, there’s good news: you may be able to enter through the Visa Waiver Program, or VWP.
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Visa Waiver Program: Reasons for Travel
You can enroll in the Visa Waiver Program if you are planning to transit through the United States to another country. Other activities you can do through VWP include:
- A vacation
- Visiting friends or relatives
- Medical treatment
- Social events
- Participation in musical or sports events, if you’re not being paid to participate
- Enrolling in a short recreational course, for example, a cooking class
- Consulting with business associates
- Attending a scientific, educational, or professional conference
- Short-term training where you are not paid by a U.S.-based source. Expenses generally do not count as income.
- Negotiating a contract
The Visa Waiver Program has the same purposes for travel as the B-1/B-2 visa.
Visa Waiver Program Eligibility
If you want to enter the United States through the Visa Waiver Program, you must meet all of the following requirements to be eligible:
- You are a citizen of a Visa Waiver Program country
- You do not have a Visitor Visa
- You are planning to stay in the United States for 90 days or less
- You are traveling to the United States for business or tourism purposes
You will also need an e-passport to participate in the VWP. An e-passport has an electronic chip embedded in it that gives your document extra security.
The Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) program
Before you travel to the United States, you must enroll in the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) program. You can do this online through a secure website run by the Department of Homeland Security and CBP.
To apply, you will need:
- A valid passport from a Visa Waiver Program country
- A valid email address
- Your home address and phone number
- The phone number and email of an emergency contact
You can pay for your ESTA online with a credit card or PayPal. The current fee is $14, including a $4 processing fee and a $10 authorization fee. If your ESTA is not approved, you will only be charged the processing fee.
If you have a Global Entry ID number or a point of contact in the United States, you may have to enter that information too.
Filling out the application should take less than 30 minutes. You can apply for the ESTA as soon as you know you have plans to come to the U.S..
The ESTA is valid for two years, or until your passport expires, whichever comes first. You can use it for multiple trips.
Your ESTA may be denied for a number of reasons. For example, even if you are eligible, if you have traveled to North Korea, Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Syria, Yemen, Libya or Somalia after 2011, your ESTA may not be approved. In this case, you can apply for a visa to travel to the United States.
You should apply for a new ESTA if you get a new passport, you change your name, you change your gender, your country of citizenship changes, or if your answers change to any of the questions on the ESTA application.
You cannot extend your stay if you enter the United States on the VWP. You can always leave and re-enter, but you will need to prove that you are not trying to live in the U.S..
While both the ESTA and a B-1/B-2 Visitor Visa can be used by travelers entering the United States for tourism or business, not everyone is eligible for the ESTA.
Unlike the ESTA, the B-1/B-2 Visitor Visa is valid for up to 180 days. And while the B-1/B-2 visa is not a green card and does not give you permanent resident status, you are allowed to enter the United States on the B-1/B-2 visa and change your visa status inside the U.S..