The Visa Waiver Program (VWP) allows citizens of 35 nations (as at January 2009) to seek admission to the United States for short term tourist and business purposes (B1/B2), up to 90 days at a time.
Information on the visa waiver program is available from the State Department and Wikipedia. The law itself is mainly contained in section 1187 of U.S. Code Title 8, Chapter 12, Subchapter II, Part II. Regulations are contained in the Code of Federal Regulations.
Citizens of Canada, Bermuda (British Overseas Territory) and the three Pacific nations in Free Association with the U.S. (Federated States of Micronesia, Marshall Islands and Palau) are admitted to the United States under different arrangements.
There are a number of requirements in order to be admitted to the U.S. under the VWP. The first two are standard for all visitors, even those with a tourist visa, others are specific to the VWP.
- The VWP gives 90 day admission, compared to the 180 days that tourist visa holders normally obtain
- U.S. immigration will not like it if you try to spend too much time in the U.S. as a tourist
- The general rule is spend at least as much time outside the U.S. as you do inside it
- Assessment is made by the U.S. Immigration Officer on entry
- If you leave the United States to go to Canada, Mexico or an "adjacent island" and then return, you will not generally obtain a new 90 day admission period, unless you are a legal resident of that jurisdiction.
- You must be admissible to the United States. See Inadmissibility-United_States
- In particular, criminal convictions and official admissions of guilt (such as cautions) may mean that you are inadmissible, and in some cases, may not even be eligible for a tourist visa.
- An arrest in itself does not render you inadmissible but the advice from most U.S. Embassies is to apply for a tourist visa. the I94-W form asks about arrests and if these involve a "crime of moral turpitude" it is probably better to deal with a visa officer than a border agent.
- The same activities as under standard B1/B2 classification (Short term visits and business meetings) are also acceptable under the VWP
- However, certain special activities such as aircrew (D visa) or journalism (I visa) are not acceptable and a U.S. visa must be obtained in advance.
Prior visits to the United States
- You must have complied with the conditions of all previous admissions to the United States under the visa waiver scheme. An overstay or breach of your visa waiver conditions means that you are obliged to obtain a U.S. tourist visa and cannot use the VWP.
- An overstay or breach of conditions if you had a U.S. visa does not make you ineligible to use the VWP (so long as you did not overstay long enough to cause a 3 or 10 year ban to be imposed, and the ban is still in force) but you may want to avoid the risk of problems on arrival by obtaining a U.S. tourist visa. Of course, applying for a tourist visa does carry a risk of refusal.
- A previous refusal of admission or a U.S. visa does not mean you are ineligible to use the VWP. However, if the reasons for such refusal are not addressed, you will likely have problems at the port of entry. The official advice from U.S. Embassies is normally to apply for a tourist visa.
Return or onward ticket (not applicable at the land frontier)
- You must arrive on a carrier with an agreement with the State Department (almost all commercial carriers, but not necessarily private or general aviation, or yachts ... )
- You must have a return or onward ticket.
- If your onward ticket terminates in Canada, Mexico or an "adjacent island" you must be a "legal resident" of that country or territory.
- If you are planning to arrive in the United States any other way, such as a one way ticket, or private aircraft, you need a U.S. tourist visa.
Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) (not applicable at the land frontier)
- You must obtain pre-clearance through ESTA before leaving
- Advised to do this well in advance as if you are denied, you must obtain a tourist visa
- Once granted, ESTA authorization is valid for 2 years, provided none of your circumstances change.
- ESTA authorisation should be obtained at least 72 hours in advance. In actuality, it may be obtained sooner but if it is refused, it is necessary to apply for a U.S. tourist visa which may take weeks to process.
Fee (only at the land frontier)
- There is a fee of US$6 at the land frontier, normally U.S. dollar cash only.
- Air and sea travellers have this built into the ticket price.
- If you re-enter the U.S. on the same I-94W form (after a short trip to Canada for less than 30 days, if you choose to retain your I-94W) the fee is not levied again.
- You must be a citizen of the participating nation
- Those who hold resident documents, or "alien passports" are not eligible for the VWP
- United Kingdom passports must say British Citizen for nationality
- There are many Irish born residents of the United Kingdom who have British Subject passports. These passports are not eligible for the VWP.
- As a minimum, your passport must be a Machine Readable passport
- If your passport was issued on or after 26 October 2005, the photo must be a digital photo printed directly on the paper, not a print glued to the page
- If your passport was issued on or after 26 October 2006, it must be a Biometric passport
- In particular if your passport was issued at an overseas embassy, it may not meet these requirements.
- Children must have individual passports.
- If your passport does not meet these requirements, a U.S. tourist visa is required.
- British passports do not need to be valid for 6 months. Passport must only be valid for intended visit to the United States.
What does the "Waiver" mean?
- If you enter the U.S. under the VWP, you "waive" all rights to appeal or contest a decision of the Immigration Officer to refuse admission.
- For that reason, it is often safer to enter the U.S. on a tourist visa.
- Usually, citizens of VWP nations do not find it easy to get a tourist visa unless they have a good reason for needing one (such as needing to enter the U.S. by private jet, or retired persons wishing to spend more than 90 days in the U.S.) and you have strong ties to your country of citizenship or permanent residence.
- In some cases, those who are technically eligible for the VWP (such as those who have been arrested, but not convicted) are encouraged by the State Department to apply for a visa instead. The visa application process is a hassle but if granted, the visa gives a better basis to travel to the U.S. than the VWP.