What is the Visa Waiver Program?
There are 40 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 restricted to 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.
When was the Visa Waiver Program created?
The Visa Waiver Program (VWP) was created by the U.S. Congress in 1986. The goal of the program was to enable a greater number of short-term tourist and business travelers as well as reduce the burden of local U.S. State Department resources in processing tourist visa applications. Over the years, the program has evolved to include more member countries as well as include more travel restrictions. This page provides information on the VWP criteria for admitting new member nations, membership history, future membership outlook as well as provide an overview of the ESTA, the electronic travel authorization which allows a VWP country's citizens to visit the U.S. without a visa.
What qualifies a potential country into joining the Visa Waiver Program?
- Countries that can be considered a sovereign state
- Countries with a High Human Development Index (HDI)
- Countries that share security data with the United States
- Countries that are considered to have high-income economies
- Countries with a low level of passport fraud and those that track lost or stolen passports
- Countries with strict passport security requirements by using biometric electronic passports
- Countries with a low number of citizens over-staying their visas and low number of immigration law violators
- Countries with low non-immigrant visa refusal rate, specifically under 3% as specified in Section 217 (c)(2)(A)
- Countries that have established credible counterterrorism, law enforcement, border control, and other security-focused organizations that seek to limit domestic crime and terrorism.
Countries currently participating in the Visa Waiver Program
|Country or Countries
||Date Admitted to VWP
| United Kingdom, Japan
| France, Italy, Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland, West Germany (later Germany in 1990)
| Andorra, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Monaco, New Zealand, Norway, San Marino, Spain
| Portugal, Singapore
| Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Slovakia, South Korea
Countries removed from the Visa Waiver Program
||Date admitted to VWP
||Date removed from VWP
Countries being vetted to join the Visa Waiver Program
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 citizens of VWP countries need to do when visiting the U.S.?
Citizens of VWP countries will need an approved ESTA, or Electronic System for Travel Authorization to visit the United States for short term tourism, business, transit, or medical purposes. ESTA was created to electronically process travel authorization applications online for citizens of VWP countries. By submitting an online application, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) can pre-screen travelers against terrorist and no-fly lists whilst an application is still active in the system. Travelers will need to meet all the necessary ESTA requirements in order to ensure their application will be approved.
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 under the VWP?
If you are denied entry into the U.S. by a CBP 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 and security 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.
Important considerations about ESTA
- An ESTA is not a visa, it is a visa waiver.
- The ESTA is required if arriving by land, air or cruise ship
- An approved ESTA does not guarantee admission as there are continuous checks on an applicant's admissibility after the ESTA is granted.
- Only passport holders of eligible countries can apply.
- The ESTA can be used for tourism, business, transit, medical and other purposes for a period of 90 days. The ESTA allows travelers to carry out business and tourism without applying for a visa. The ESTA is valid for admission in all 50 U.S. states as well as the U.S. territories such as Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands in the Caribbean.
- Travelers wishing to apply for an ESTA should aim to submit their applications online 72 hours before their departure to the U.S. A traveler must have his or her ESTA before embarking in their vehicle, air or sea vessel to the United States.
- Upon approval, an ESTA is valid for two-years or the date of passport expiry, whichever date is sooner.
- Denied ESTA applicants may be still eligible to apply for a B2 Tourist Visa or B1 Business Visa to visit the United States.
- Children and infants must each apply for an ESTA and must have their ESTA applications approved to travel to the United States.
- Individuals who have traveled to Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Sudan, Syria or Yemen on or after 1 March 2011 or those who are current or previous dual citizens of Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Sudan or Syria may no longer be eligible for ESTA and should consider applying for a visa to visit the U.S. if their ESTA is denied.
For more information on ESTA applicant requirements, visit the following page: ESTA Requirements
 "Visa Waiver Program". U.S. Department of State. Retrieved 2017-05-16. https://travel.state.gov/content/visas/en/visit/visa-waiver-program.html
 "TRAVEL ADVISORY; Accord Allows Trips to Japan Without a Visa". The New York Times. 30 October 1988. Retrieved 2017-05-16. https://www.nytimes.com/1988/10/30/travel/travel-advisory-accord-allows-trips-to-japan-without-a-visa.html
 "United States General Accounting Office: Implications of Eliminating the Visa Waiver Program" (PDF). Retrieved 2017-05-16. http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d0338.pdf
 "Visa Waiver Program". Americanlaw.com. Retrieved 2017-05-16. http://www.americanlaw.com/vwpp.html