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Here's my situation: I'm a UK citizen. I have an H-1B visa to work in the US as of 1 August. I also have a valid ESTA.

I would like to go to the US in July for a holiday, immediately prior to beginning my work. The holiday would be at the other end of the country from my work.

I can't enter with the H-1B as I can only enter the US on that visa 10 days prior to starting work.

Specific question: Would it be possible to visit the US in early July on the VWP, visit Canada/Mexico for a few days in late July, and re-enter the US with my H-1B visa?

General question: Is it possible to visit the US on the VWP, leave briefly, and re-enter on a different status (e.g. H, F, J, K, etc), without ever returning to one's home country?

I have posted this in Travel rather than Expatriates because, although in my specific case I have an H-1B visa, my question is more generally about VWP and travel, and I believe that it is applicable to travellers with non-immigrant visas.

There's a similar question here, although that's about going to the US and before having the H-1B visa.

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The possible snag with that plan is that in order to enter as a VWP traveler by air, you're supposed to have a round-trip ticket whereby you will end up somewhere that is not Canada or Mexico.

Based on the anecdotal evidence available to us, this rule is not really enforced consistently. However, it does provide an impeccable ground for the border officer to deny you entry if he doesn't like the color of your shoes. And it is possible that the airline will refuse boarding you if you have neither a valid visa nor a round-trip ticket.

If you do attempt this plan, you should expect that the border officer will notice the future visa in your passport, and be prepared to convince him that (a) you're not going to start work before you're allowed to, and (b) you will actually make the visa run later, because the rules do not allow you to change from VWP to H-1B status while in the US. At the least, bring documentation of your job offer with its start date, and preferably also tickets for the short trip to Canada or Mexico.

  • Would it make sense to carry a detailed itinerary? Including any hotel or car reservation receipts? – mkennedy Mar 18 '17 at 22:25
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    @rturnbull: For the US, the actual legal rules require specifically a "round-trip ticket". (This is in contrast to, for example, the Schengen rules that just ask for having the "means" to leave the area afterwards). So if the US border guards let you through despite knowing you don't have an actual round-trip tickets, they would directly be breaking the rules. If you look sufficiently white, it is quite possible that you won't get asked for your return arrangements -- but once they do ask, they will not have any legal way to be lenient. – Henning Makholm Mar 21 '17 at 10:15
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    @HenningMakholm the regulations define "round-trip ticket" to include tickets for onward travel, and the departure can be, oddly enough, as much as one year in the future. – phoog Jul 4 '18 at 2:12
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    I've entered the US three times on VWP with onward tickets rather than round-trip tickets. There wasn't any issue. Each time, the CBP officer asked me a couple of questions about my intended stay, had a look at my onward reservation and sent me on my way. – user67108 Jul 4 '18 at 7:57
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    @phoog: My source is 8 CFR 217(2)(c)(1), which allows tickets for onward travel only "as long as the trip does not terminate in contiguous territory or an adjacent island". So Canada or Mexico is not enough, at least by the rules-as-written. – Henning Makholm Jul 4 '18 at 10:36

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