The program was established to eliminate unnecessary barriers to travel, stimulating the tourism industry, and permitting the Department of State to focus consular resources in other areas.
VWP eligible travelers may apply for a visa, if they prefer to do so. Nationals of VWP countries must meet eligibility requirements to travel without a visa on VWP, and therefore, some travelers from VWP countries are NOT eligible to use the program.
VWP travelers are required to have a valid authorization through the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) prior to travel, are screened at the port of entry into the United States, and are enrolled in the Department of Homeland Security's US-VISIT program.
Which countries participate in the Visa Waiver Program (VWP)?
Currently, 36 countries participate in the Visa Waiver Program, as shown below:
Andorra Hungary New Zealand
Australia Iceland Norway
Austria Ireland Portugal
Belgium Italy San Marino
Brunei Japan Singapore
Czech Latvia Slovakia
Denmark Liechtenstein Slovenia
Estonia Lithuania South Korea
Finland Luxembourg Spain
France Malta Sweden
Germany Monaco Switzerland
Greece Netherlands United Kingdom
Which travelers may use the Visa Waiver Program to enter the United States?
Nationals of the 36 countries participating in the Visa Waiver Program may use VWP if:
They have received an authorization to travel under the VWP through the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA)
They present the appropriate type of passport valid for six months past their expected stay in the United States (unless country-specific agreements provide exemptions). This is a requirement in addition to other passport requirements for all categories of passports - regular, diplomatic, and official -- when the traveler is seeking to enter the United States for business or tourist purposes, for a maximum of 90 days;
The purpose of their stay in the United States is 90 days or less for tourism or business purpose of travel. (If in doubt, travelers should check with the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate to verify that what they plan to do is considered tourism or business.) Transit through the United States is generally permitted.
Which travelers may use the Visa Waiver Program? (cont'd)
Important Notice: Foreign media representatives planning to engage in that vocation in the United States are not eligible for VWP travel, as the purpose of their stay does not qualify as "business". These professionals must obtain a nonimmigrant visa for members of the media (incl. journalists), I-visa. Note also that travelers planning to work or study cannot travel on VWP, and they must obtain the appropriate visa to travel to the United States.
If arriving by air or sea, they are traveling on an approved carrier and have a return trip ticket to any foreign destination;
They can demonstrate the intent to stay 90 days or less in the United States and demonstrate sufficient funds to support themselves while in the United States.
What About Short Trips from/to the U.S. While on VWP?
VWP travelers who have been admitted under the Visa Waiver Program and who make a short trip to Canada, Mexico or an adjacent island generally can be readmitted to the United States under the VWP for the balance of their original admission period. See the Department of Homeland Security's Customs and Border Protection (CBP) website for additional details. Also VWP nationals resident in Mexico, Canada or adjacent islands are generally exempted from requirements to show onward travel to other foreign destinations.
When Can a Traveler No Longer Use the ESTA / VWP ?
A visa MUST be requested if the traveler:
Wants to remain in the United States for longer than 90 days, or envisions that they may wish to change their status (from tourism to student, etc.) once in the United States;
Wants to work or study in the United States, travel as a working foreign media representative, come to the United States for other purposes not allowed on a visitor visa, or intends to immigrate to the United States;
Is a national of one of the VWP countries not listed above AND DOES NOT have a machine-readable passport (MRP)(depending on the date the MRP was issued, renewed, or extended, it may also need to contain a digital photograph or an integrated electronic chip);
Has a criminal record or other condition making them ineligible for a visa.
Has been refused admission to the United States before, or did not comply with the conditions of previous VWP admissions (90 days or less stay for tourism or business)
I was denied a visa on a recent visa application, may I use the VWP?
A recent visa denial for any reason could result in denial of an authorization via ESTA, additional questioning at the port of entry, or denial of admission to the United States.
Applicants who are uncertain of whether they qualify for VWP travel may choose to apply for a visa.
New ESTA Fee: Effective September 8, 2010, all Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) registration applications or renewals on or after that date will require a $14.00 fee payment by credit or debit card. Existing ESTA registrations remain valid through their expiration date. For more information, please visit the ESTA webpage on the Department of Homeland Security, Customs and Border Protection website.
ESTA is Required: Effective January 20, 2010, the Department of Homeland Security is transitioning to enforced compliance of the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) requirement for VWP travelers. Therefore, VWP travelers who have not obtained approval through ESTA should expect to be denied boarding on any air carrier bound for the United States.
Additional resources provided by the author
Learn more about ESTA. ESTA applications may be completed online at the official DHS website, which is: https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov/