The Visa Waiver Program is an agreement entered into by 38 countries and the USA. It allows citizens of these countries to apply for ESTA, which is a form of travel authorization used for tourism or business.
The ESTA application process is easy; it is filled in and submitted completely online, and applicants receive a response within 24 hours. Nevertheless, there are certain aspects of the Visa Waiver Program and the ESTA application that can cause confusion. As a traveler to the USA under this program, it’s important to understand these aspects to avoid any problems or doubts when traveling.
Here we will take a look at eight of the most important things you should know about the VWP.
Once you have filled in your online ESTA application, you will receive an email within 24 hours informing you of the status of your application. The vast majority of applications are approved, in which case this email will tell you how long your ESTA is valid for. In most cases, this will be exactly two years from the date of approval. However, this is not always the case. If your passport expiry date falls within this two-year period, then your ESTA will be valid until this date.
This is because your ESTA is directly linked to the passport details used for your application. When you renew your passport, some of the key information on it changes (the number, effective date, etc.). As a result, your original ESTA would not be linked to your new passport, and you would need to apply for a new one (as you cannot update the passport details on your ESTA). It’s perfectly easy to apply for a new ESTA, but it’s generally a good idea to make sure your passport is valid for the full two-year period, for the sake of convenience.
Your ESTA essentially comes with a 90-day timer which begins whenever you are in the USA. In order to comply with the conditions of the Visa Waiver Program you must never outstay this period. If you do, you would be much less likely to be granted re-entry into the USA in the future, or to be approved for future ESTA applications. If for any reason you expect to spend more than 90 days in the USA on any given trip, you must apply for a US visa instead of ESTA.
This 90-day timer resets whenever you enter the USA, with a couple of exceptions. If you travel into Mexico or Canada as part of your American trip, the time you spend there contributes to these 90 days (though these countries have different travel authorization systems in place as well). Although this timer does reset in most cases, it’s important to be aware that US Border Patrol Agents will soon catch on if it looks as though you are breaching the conditions of the VWP. If you are frequently returning to the USA for 90 days at a time, this will be flagged up by border patrol and you may not be allowed to re-enter.
It might seem rather confusing, but your ESTA actually only needs to be valid upon arrival in the USA. This means that your ESTA can expire during your time in the States, and you won’t have any problems upon leaving the country. That said, you are still adhering to the conditions of the Visa Waiver Program, and so the 90-day timer is still valid. It is also not possible to apply for a new ESTA when you are already in the USA, or for any other kind of travel authorization.
Your ESTA is what you need to arrive at a US port of entry, however the final decision as to whether or not to grant you entry into the country lies with US Border Patrol Agents. As you hand over your passport at border control, the agent is likely to ask you a few questions about your time in the country, what you will be doing, where you will be staying, and sometimes more personal questions about your profession and family – this is simply to ensure that you are not trying to migrate to the US in search of work. These questions can seem a little intimidating at the time, but just answer politely and honestly to speed up the process. Equally, you may not be asked anything!
As the name of the Visa Waiver Program implies, the ESTA is not a type of visa. Instead, when you receive ESTA approval, you are being approved to travel to the USA without the need for a visa. The countries that form part of the Visa Waiver Program are deemed to be ‘high value, low risk’, and therefore their citizens can be screened using an automated vetting process (which is what the ESTA actually is – the Electronic System for Travel Authorization). A US visa is a different type of travel authorization, and is a much lengthier and costlier procedure. Applying for a US visa entails in-person meetings at a US embassy or consulate, and the whole approval process can take several weeks.
The ESTA has nothing to do with a US visa, and being unapproved for the ESTA simply means that the Visa Waiver Program is not applicable to you. In this case, you would need to apply for a visa in order to travel to the USA. In other words, not being approved for ESTA does not jeopardize your chances of getting a visa. The vast majority of ESTA applications are approved, however there are cases in which they are not. With this in mind, it’s always a good idea to apply for ESTA as soon as you know you are going to travel. If you won’t be traveling for a couple of months, this gives you time to apply for a visa if you are not approved.
Every person traveling to the USA under the Visa Waiver Program needs to have his or her own ESTA approval. This topic tends to come up when parents are traveling with their young children. In this case, you need to fill out a separate ESTA application on behalf of your child. You are allowed to fill in an ESTA application for any third party, but of course all of the information included needs to be accurate.
As you know, the Visa Waiver Program is in place to allow citizens of certain countries to travel to the USA for business or pleasure, for periods of up to 90 days at a time. However, there are a few additional reasons for which you can travel to the USA with ESTA. For example, you are allowed to travel with ESTA for short-term medical treatment, or to attend academic courses that do not constitute academic credit. It’s also worth clearing up what is meant by ‘business travel’. Essentially, this means that you can travel to the USA to attend a meeting or a conference, for example, but you cannot go to seek work or take on a job position. If you are going to the USA to work there, you will need a US visa in advance.
Hopefully these clarifications here will help you better understand the ESTA and the Visa Waiver Program. Aside from anything else, they should help you to determine whether or not the ESTA is suitable for your particular travel needs, or whether a visa would be more appropriate for your trip. As we have mentioned, it’s highly advisable to apply for your ESTA as soon as you know you will be traveling, just in case you are not approved. That said, most ESTA applications are approved almost instantly. And despite all of the points above, don’t forget that the ESTA is designed to be simple, and so once approved you will hardly have to think about it!