What is the Visa Waiver Program (VWP)?

Published on: Jul 23, 2015, Last Edited: Nov 09, 2019 | Tags: ESTA, Visa Waiver Program

Introduction

There are 39 countries which participate in the Visa Waiver Program (VWP). The program allows citizens from the participating countries to travel to, travel in and pass through to the U.S. as non-immigrants for both business and recreational purposes. The visits are capped at 90 days and there is no need to obtain an additional visa if the individual is traveling under the VWP. Individuals traveling under the VWP must waive their rights to review or appeal when submitting their ESTA applications.

Which countries participate in the Visa Waiver Program?

Andorra, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brunei, Chile, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Monaco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Republic of Malta, San Marino, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, United Kingdom.

What qualifies an applicant to enter the U.S. under the Visa Waiver Program?

Any individual who is a citizen or national holding a passport from one of the participating countries can apply for entry under the VWP. Below is a list of factors that determine traveler eligibility:

  • You are entering the U.S. as a non-immigrant, for no more than 90 days for either business or recreational purposes.
  • You are in possession of a valid VWP passport issued to you by a participating country.
  • You pose no potential threats to the welfare, health or safety of the United States or any of its citizens.
  • You are the holder of a return or onward ticket to a destination outside of United States. The traveler should have plans to return home and their trip should not end in a location near the U.S., or neighbouring Islands. However, if a traveler is a resident of one of those areas, it is permissible.
  • You are able to provide personal information and evidence that will personally identify you as being the VWP eligible traveler, such your passport, fingerprints, and facial images.
  • You have conformed to all the requirements of any previous admission(s) under the VWP.
  • You waive any rights to review or appeal for a decision on your ESTA application.
  • The U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officer will make the final decision at the point of entry.

What do I need regarding my passport in order to travel under the Visa Waiver Program?

  • The passport needs to be machine-readable, with a dedicated readable area in the personal information section. This is identified by the two lines of text with numbers and chevrons (<<<) at the bottom of that page.
  • If the passport was issued to the holder on October 26, 2005, or after - The passport must contain a digital photo of the ESTA applicant.
  • If the the passport was issued to the holder on October 26, 2006, or after - VWP passports issued on or after this date should be an e-passport (electronic) that contains a digital chip. This digital chip should carry unique biometric identifiers of the passport holder.

More information related to VWP passport can be found on the ESTA requirements page.

Are there any exceptions to the passport requirements?

United Kingdom – To qualify for the VWP, applicants who hold British passports yet are not British Citizens, must be permanent residents and be able to prove permanent residency in one of the following countries:

  • England
  • Northern Ireland
  • Scotland
  • Wales
  • The Channel Islands
  • The Isle of Man

Slovenia – Only Slovenian citizens holding the red Slovenian passport are eligible for the VWP.

Electronic passports – As of the 1st July 2009 participating VWP countries’ emergency and temporary passports should be e-passports (electronic). Nationals from the following countries will need to use electronic passports to travel under the VWP:

  • Estonia
  • Chile
  • Czech Republic
  • Greece
  • Hungary
  • Latvia
  • Lithuania
  • Republic of Malta
  • Slovakia
  • South Korea
  • Taiwan[1] - Taiwan passport holders must provide Passport Number and Personal Identification Number (PIN)

When in doubt of passport eligibility, applicants can attempt to submit an ESTA application to determine if the system accepts their passport to travel under the VWP using an approved ESTA.

When should I rather opt for a visa to travel to the U.S? 

  • If your stay in the U.S. will exceed 90 days and does not comply with the requirements for entry into the U.S under the VWP in that your visit is not for short-term recreational or business purposes.
  • If your air carrier you are using to travel to the U.S. is not affiliated with the VWP.
  • If you feel strongly that you do not qualify to enter the U.S. under the VWP as a direct result of Immigration and Nationality Act § 212(a).

Are there drawbacks of using the VWP?

Because you waive your right to review and appeal under the VWP, the following conditions are to be noted:

  • You have no right to appeal a determination as to admissibility if your entry into the U.S. is denied. Meaning you could travel to the U.S. and still not be allowed to enter, but you would have no right to contest the denial of admission.
  • You have no right to review or appeal your removal from the United States, should you break the terms of traveling under the VWP. This does not hold true for those who entered the U.S as asylum seekers.

Your status as a non-immigrant is unchangeable once you are given entry into the U.S. under the Visa Waiver Program.

What if the CBP Officer doesn’t allow me entry into the United States? 

If you are denied entry into the U.S. by a CBO Officer, you will need to return to your home country, or a third country, if you hold a return ticket to the destination. 

Is the ESTA the same as an electronic visa?

No, they’re different as the visa requirements for the B1 and B2 visas require an interview at a U.S. embassy or consulate in the applicant's country of citizenship or residence. The ESTA does not require as much information prior to travel, whereas the application for a visa requires more personal information, travel history, background questions as well as information regarding the applicant’s travel plans. Visa Waiver program participants are not subject to these questions when applying for a travel authorization.

Conclusion

For more information on the Visa Waiver Program, ESTA requirements and Frequently Asked Questions, visit the following links below:

If you hold a passport from a visa waiver country such as the UK, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand or other Western European Country, and wish to obtain an ESTA for tourist, business, medical or transit purposes, get started on your application now:

Apply for ESTA

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