What Is the Visa Waiver Program?
The Visa Waiver Program allows citizens from eligible countries to stay in the United States for 90 days without getting a visa. It applies to those traveling for business or tourism. This article will explain how the Visa Waiver Program works, who qualifies for it, and how it compares to a B-1 or B-2 visitor visa. If you qualify, you can save yourself time and money on your trip to the U.S., but you should also be aware of a few drawbacks.
Written by Jonathan Petts.
Updated November 1, 2022
How Does the Visa Waiver Program Work?
The Visa Waiver Program (VWP) allows citizens of certain countries to visit the United States without obtaining a visa. The VWP permits stays up to 90 days for business or travel purposes in the U.S. Eligible tourism activities include vacations, visiting friends and family, getting medical treatment, attending social events, enrolling in short recreational courses, or participating in unpaid music or sports events. Eligible business activities include consulting with your associates; attending an educational, professional, or scientific conference; obtaining unpaid short-term training; or negotiating a contract.
The countries whose citizens are eligible for the VWP can vary over time. The United States makes VWP agreements with countries whose citizens tend not to overstay their U.S. visas and have a low U.S. immigration law violation rate. U.S. immigration law includes the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) of the United States Code (USC). The complete list of these countries frequently changes, so you should review the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) website to see if you qualify.
If you travel with a nonimmigrant visa, you’ll need to stop by your local U.S. embassy or consulate to obtain your visa. The VWP is an alternative to nonimmigrant visas, such as the B-1 and B-2 visitor visas. You must meet the eligibility requirements outlined in this article to travel through the VWP instead of getting a tourist visa. You’ll also need to prepare in advance to travel under the VWP.
How to Travel Under the VWP
You must take specific steps when traveling under the VWP. The program requires that you:
Obtain a valid passport from your home country, with an expiration date at least six months after your stay in the U.S. Your passport must include a scannable electronic chip containing your biometric information. This chip makes your passport an e-passport, a machine-readable passport.
Buy a return travel ticket to your home country or another foreign country. If you are traveling with an eligible private carrier (a private aircraft or ship), you won’t need to purchase a return ticket in advance. Eligible private carriers must be signatory VWP carriers.
Provide evidence that you have enough funds to cover your travel and living expenses while in the U.S. You won’t be able to accept a U.S. job while in the country.
Apply for the U.S. Department of State’s Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) before leaving for your trip. The State Department must also authorize your application. More on this below.
If you arrive at a land border port of entry, pay a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) fee.
What Are the Visa Waiver Program Eligibility Requirements?
To obtain a visa waiver, you must meet the following program requirements:
You are a foreign national from one of the Visa Waiver Program countries. The U.S. Department of State lists all VWP countries on its website. There are currently around 40 VWP countries.
You have never violated any past U.S. nonimmigrant visa rules. If you have previously overstayed a visa or become inadmissible to the United States, you are ineligible for the Visa Waiver Program. You might become inadmissible if you contract certain diseases, abuse drugs, or commit particular crimes or security violations while in the U.S.
You don’t intend to hold permanent residence in the United States.
You only want to visit the United States for no more than 90 days for tourism or business.
You won’t be traveling by an air or sea carrier that is not approved by the VWP. CBP maintains a list of approved carriers.
You have never traveled to North Korea, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, or Yemen on or after March 1, 2011. Limited exceptions to this rule for diplomatic travel or military purposes apply.
You have never traveled to any country the State Department designates as supporting terrorism on or after March 1, 2011.
You are not a national of North Korea, Iran, Iraq, or Syria.
What Is the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA)?
Before traveling to the United States with a visa waiver, you must first enroll in the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) program. This program is managed by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP).
To enroll, you’ll need a valid passport from a Visa Waiver Program (VWP) country, your email address, home address, phone number, and an emergency contact phone number. ESTA has a fee of $14 (a $10 authorization fee and a $4 processing fee). If the U.S. government doesn’t approve your ESTA application, they will only charge you the processing fee.
Completing your ESTA application should take no more than 30 minutes. It is valid for two years or until your passport expires. If approved, you may use it for multiple trips to the United States.
Common reasons for ESTA denial include past travel to, or citizenship of, North Korea, Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Syria, Yemen, Libya, or Somalia since 2011. If you have past connections to one or more of these countries, you should instead apply for a travel visa.
Waiver Program vs. a B-1 or B-2 Visa
There are advantages and disadvantages to both the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) and B-1 or B-2 visas. Sometimes, someone eligible for the VWP instead chooses to apply for a B-2 tourist visa, which offers longer stays and other benefits. The B-1 and B-2 visas are valid for up to 180 days. To assess your options, review past visa refusal rates for your country on the State Department’s website. For the VWP, the U.S. offers only limited exceptions to the 90-day stay rule, such as a medical emergency or another emergency.
B-1 and B-2 visa holders are entitled to certain protections that VWP visitors are not. Suppose the U.S. government attempts to deport a B-1 or B-2 visa holder during their stay. In that case, the visa holder has the right to a hearing before an immigration judge of the Executive Office of Immigration Review. B-1 and B-2 visa holders may also request an extension on their visa or change their visa status to another nonimmigrant visa category within the United States.
If you become an immediate relative of a U.S. citizen (most likely by marriage) during your stay, you may be eligible to apply for a green card after your visit. However, applying for a green card must not have been your original intention when entering under the VWP. If eligible, you may undergo a similar green card application process as a B visa holder.
Applying for your green card can be complicated, but help is available. If you are eligible, our free web app will walk you through the green card process and help you prepare and file your application with the U.S. government. If our app isn’t a good fit, we may be able torefer you to an experienced immigration attorney to help. Click "Get Started" to see how we can help make your American dream come true!