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I wish to travel to the US and think I am eligible to do so under the Visa Waiver Program. I found a lot of information out there but am still having some trouble understanding how this works.

What is the US Visa Waiver Program? What is an ESTA?

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What Is the US Visa Waiver Program?

The US Visa Waiver Program (VWP) allows travellers of certain nationalities to visit the US for tourism or business purposes without the need for a visa, for a maximum of 90 days. This is a bilateral agreement, meaning that all countries participating in the VWP must allow US citizens to visit for tourism or business purposes without the need for a visa, for a maximum of 90 days.

To date 38 countries participate in the VWP:

  • Andorra (1991)
  • Australia (1996)
  • Austria (1991)
  • Belgium (1991)
  • Brunei (1993)
  • Chile (2014)
  • Czech Republic (2008)
  • Denmark (1991)
  • Estonia (2008)
  • Finland (1991)
  • France (1989)
  • Germany (1989)
  • Greece (2010)
  • Hungary (2008)
  • Iceland (1991)
  • Ireland (1995)
  • Italy (1989)
  • Japan (1988)
  • Korea, Republic of (2008)
  • Latvia (2008)
  • Liechtenstein (1991)
  • Lithuania (2008)
  • Luxembourg (1991)
  • Malta (2008)
  • Monaco (1991)
  • Netherlands (1989)
  • New Zealand (1991)
  • Norway (1991)
  • Portugal (1999)
  • San Marino (1991)
  • Singapore (1999)
  • Slovakia (2008)
  • Slovenia (1997)
  • Spain (1991)
  • Sweden (1989)
  • Switzerland (1989)
  • Taiwan (2012)
  • United Kingdom** (1988)

** British citizens only with the unrestricted right of permanent abode in England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man.

Passport Requirements

Travellers wishing to benefit from the VWP must have a machine readable e-Passport with a digital photograph printed on the document. All countries participating in the VWP must, and do, issue these passports to their citizens. If you don't have an e-Passport to date, you'll have to apply for one.

What Is the Electronic System for Travel Authorization?

The Electronic System for Travel Authorisation (ESTA) is a fully automated process which allows visitors to verify if they are eligible to travel to the US under the VWP. The ESTA is not a visa. The ESTA is not a guarantee that visitors will be admitted entry to the US. Obtaining an ESTA simply means that the applicant meets the requirements of the VWP. Namely:

Who You Are:

  • You are a citizen or eligible national of a Visa Waiver Program country.
  • You are currently not in possession of a visitor's visa.
  • Your travel is for 90 days or less.
  • You plan to travel to the United States for business or pleasure.
  • You want to apply for a new authorization for one person or a group of applications for two or more persons.

In the words of CBP themselves:

Q: What is the Electronic System for Travel Authorization?

A: The Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) is an automated system that assists in determining eligibility to travel to the United States under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) and whether such travel poses any law enforcement or security risk. Upon completion of an ESTA application, a traveler is notified of his or her eligibility to travel to the United States under the VWP.

Who Needs to Apply for ESTA?

Travellers can apply for an ESTA online. Travellers who normally would require a visa to enter the US should apply for a visa and not for an ESTA. Travellers who are eligible to visit the US under the VWP must obtain an ESTA prior to travelling to the US, if travelling by air or sea. This includes travellers who will only transit in the US on their way to somewhere else.

Quoting from the CBP FAQ page:

Q: Who is required to apply for ESTA?

A: All eligible nationals or citizens of VWP countries who plan to travel to the United States for temporary business or pleasure under VWP are required to receive an authorization through ESTA prior to boarding a U.S.-bound airplane or vessel. The term "United States" refers to the continental United States, Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Guam, the Virgin Islands of the United States, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.

Accompanied and unaccompanied children, regardless of age, are also required to obtain an independent ESTA approval. A third party, such as a relative or travel agent, is permitted to submit an ESTA application on behalf of a VWP traveler.

Q: Do nationals or citizens of countries that participate in the VWP require an ESTA if they are only transiting the United States en route to another country?

A: Yes. Eligible nationals or citizens of countries that participate in the VWP require either an ESTA or a visa to transit the United States. If a traveler is only planning to transit through the United States en route to another country, when he or she completes the ESTA application, the traveler should enter the words "In Transit" and his or her final destination in the address lines under the heading “Address While In The United States.”

Is ESTA required/sufficient to enter the US by land from Canada or Mexico?

Nationals of VWP countries seeking entry into the US by land do not need to apply for an ESTA. An ESTA is required only for travellers seeking entry by air or sea (boat from Vancouver/Victoria BC to Washington State counts as land). Trains, such as the Amtrak Cascades do not count as land and you will need an ESTA.

While ESTA is not needed, VWP-eligible travellers need to complete an I-94 upon entering the US. This will require you to get out of the car and into the border checkpoint to fill out the form, which will take some time (15min-1h). Anecdotally, it appears that smaller border crossings off peak hours have faster processing times.

How Long Is my ESTA Valid For?

Once approved, an ESTA is valid for two years, and can be used multiple times, provided the reason for the multiple visits to the US remains within the scope of the VWP: business or tourism. If the applicant's passport has less than two years validity left, the ESTA expires when the passport expires.

My ESTA Expires Halfway into my Trip in the US

An ESTA has to be valid at the moment of entry in the US. It does not need to be valid for the entire duration of stay in the US. Therefore, there is no need for a traveller to apply for a new ESTA if their existing one expires whilst they are visiting the US.

Can I Renew/Extend my ESTA?

No. ESTA's cannot be renewed nor extended. The traveller will have to submit a new application, either before or after their existing ESTA expires. In both cases the new ESTA, if granted, will replace the old one.

Can I Extend my Stay in the US if I Entered under the VWP?

No. One cannot extend your stay if you entered the US under the VWP. Renewing an ESTA will not extend one's authorised stay period. If a traveller enter the US under the VWP they can stay for a maximum of 90 days. The date the authorised stay expires will be marked on the I-94 form under Arrival-Departure Record.

  • 1
    I got it slightly wrong. Immediate family members can't extend their stay, but they can adjust status to permanent residence, which most VWP travelers can't do. This seems to have been true only for the last few years. See uscis.gov/sites/default/files/files/nativedocuments/…. Also there are emergency extensions available, but these are obviously going to be applicable only in exceptional cases. – phoog Apr 15 '16 at 19:01
  • Rolled back an edit with an unsourced claim. – fkraiem Mar 21 '17 at 11:07

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