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I arrived in the US on September 2, on an ESTA. I got my (European) passport stamped as admitted under the Visa Waiver Program as a tourist (WT), valid for 90 days, until November 30th. My original plan was to leave the US on November 25.

On October 11th, I left the US for a short visit to Europe; I returned to the US on October 22nd. To my surprise, my passport was stamped again with a WT status for 90 days, valid until January 19, 2019.

Now I'm trying to figure out whether I can stay in the US until December 5th. The situation looks a bit contradictory:

  • December 5th is more than 90 consecutive days of my first admission, so NO.
  • I was away for 11 days, so by December 5th I will not have been in the US for 90 days, so YES, but I think the limitation is about consecutive days, so NO.
  • I have a stamp in my passport saying I can stay until January 19th, and the previous admissions are irrelevant. So YES.

What's the correct way to think about this?

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    Previous visits irrelevant. If you visit too frequently however you can be turned away and banned. – user 56513 Oct 29 '18 at 5:25
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    @ggambett You do not have a visa, you have leave to enter the US under the Visa Waiver Programme cbp.gov/travel/international-visitors/visa-waiver-program You can stay until January 19th this trip if you wish, but as the comment from Honorary World Citizen indicates, you should be careful about the frequency of your visits under VWP and the total time you are spending in the US compared with time in your country of residence / elsewhere. – Traveller Oct 29 '18 at 9:45
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    You left and went back to Europe. Your previous admission is no longer relevant. – Michael Hampton Oct 29 '18 at 13:59
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December 5th is more than 90 consecutive days of my first admission, so NO.

This line of reasoning does not apply. Your first period of admission ended when you traveled to Europe. In some cases it's possible to be readmitted for the balance of your first period of admission, but if that had happened the second stamp would have shown November 30th on the until line. Furthermore, the circumstances under which that could happen require you not to have traveled outside North America and the Caribbean.

I was away for 11 days, so by December 5th I will not have been in the US for 90 days, so YES, but I think the limitation is about consecutive days, so NO.

You're right, the limitation is about consecutive days. Therefore days in your previous period of admission do not count, and this line of reasoning does not apply.

I have a stamp in my passport saying I can stay until January 19th, and the previous admissions are irrelevant. So YES.

This is in fact the correct line of reasoning. You were admitted under the visa waiver program until January 19th, so you are allowed to stay until January 19th. You can confirm this by checking your I-94 record at https://i94.cbp.dhs.gov. Follow the link for get most recent I-94.

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Your passport is stamped for a stay until January 19 of next year so you can stay until then. By leaving the USA to a country outside the immediate vicinity, your timer reset. Your status is valid for that duration so you don’t have to be worried about being considered an overstayer.

If you’re worried that your passport was mistamped with the wrong date you can look up your I94 record here and make sure it corresponds with what you have: https://i94.cbp.dhs.gov/

The only concern with your long stay is if you plan to travel much again to the USA in 2019. If you do stay through December, you’ll have been in the USA for four months. If you try to come again in 2019 for a multi-month stay, you may get questioned how you can afford to stay away from your home country so long, whether you’re trying to work in the USA, and so forth. For safety’s sake, it’d be good to have a gap of 6 months to a year before you decide to visit the USA again for multiple months.

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