In a hypothetical scenario, you are a VWP national who has managed somehow to arrive at a US entry point, by air, without an ESTA. I know it shouldn't happen. Maybe the airline made a mistake. The reason doesn't matter.

My question is: assuming that there is no other reason to deny you entry to the US under the VWP, can or will the border guard deny you entry simply for not having an ESTA? Do they check? Do they care?

EDIT: As npl points out, there are entry points to the US at Canadian airports, and you can easily reach them without having a valid ESTA. Will they turn you away?

  • That's an interesting question. What works it to fly to the US on an ESTA and get admitted on a visa. So one could try to get on an airplane showing a visa and ask to be admitted under the VWP. – npl Jul 28 '18 at 19:05
  • Related question: If you travel by air from Canada to the US, do you need an ESTA? I guess the answer is "yes", even though you seek admission before boarding the plane. – npl Jul 28 '18 at 19:09
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    Regarding your edit: I wouldn't bet on "you can easily reach them without having a valid ESTA", as the airline most likely won't issue you a boarding pass. – npl Jul 28 '18 at 19:17

ESTA is one of the statutory requirements for using the visa waiver program; it is specified at 8 USC 1187(a)(11).

The previous paragraph, 8 USC 1187(a)(10), requires VWP carriers to transmit data to the government before bringing the paassenger. The system they use to do that includes a check of ESTA status, so getting to the US without ESTA will be virtually impossible in practice.

The fact that those arriving at the land border are exempt from ESTA appears to be regulated by omitting the mention of land borders in 8 CFR 217.5.

  • It might be possible to trick the airline by claiming you're a US citizen during online check in and then hoping nobody notices. But the odds are indeed slim. – JonathanReez Jul 29 '18 at 21:49
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    @JonathanReez they send US passport data to CBP for verification as well, so that's very unlikely to work. I am a US citizen, and I can assure you that I've never boarded a flight to the US without someone personally inspecting my passport. I am on vacation at the moment but I intend to add some more information about the advance passenger information system when I have some quality time with a decent internet connection. – phoog Jul 29 '18 at 22:44
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    It is not true that "getting to the US without ESTA will be virtually impossible in practice". For instance, you might have a Visa which is still valid (according to the date printed on it), but you cannot use it any more since e.g. the reason for which you got it is no longer valid. I doubt that the airline would know that (or even could know that) -- in my experience they just have a look at the visa -- so you should be able to get on the plane with said visa. (To give a concrete example, you might have a J1 but the you have terminated the appointment for which it was issued early.) – npl Aug 7 '18 at 23:23

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