If you want to travel to the U.S., you might be allowed to enter the country through the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) instead of having to obtain a visa.
If you are a citizen of one of 40 countries, you may be eligible to apply, especially if your country is an objectively well-developed country, with a high-income economy, and a very high Human Development Index score.
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Why the Visa Waiver Program Exists
The aim of the VWP and the reason it exists is to easily facilitate and promote tourism and business travel to the USA.
As the program, that is operated by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), streamlines the entry process, it eliminates the need for a traditional visa application while reducing administrative burdens for both travelers and immigration authorities.
If your application is successful, under the USA Visa Waiver Program you will be granted an electronic travel authorization (ESTA) that will allow you to visit the USA for up to 90 days without having to obtain a visa.
To obtain an ESTA under the VWP, you must meet certain criteria.
- Duration of Your Stay: Under the Visa Waiver Program, you are generally allowed to remain in the USA for 90 days per visit.
- Passport Validity: You must hold a valid passport that is valid for at least six months beyond the planned departure date. Additionally, your passport should be machine-readable to ensure the entry process at border control checkpoints is a quick and efficient one. In other words, you must have an e-passport that is embedded with an electronic chip.
- Purpose of Your Travel and Activities Allowed: Under the VWP, you will be allowed to travel for tourism and business purposes, though you will not be allowed to engage in any activities that fall outside this scope.
To apply for the VWP, you must also be a citizen of an eligible country, which we cover below.
As mentioned earlier, eligible countries are generally highly developed, with high-income economies and a very high Human Development Index.
As it stands, there are 40 countries that are eligible for visa-free entry into the United States:
- Czech Republic
- New Zealand
- San Marino
- South Korea
- United Kingdom
The VWP allows you entry to all 50 U.S. states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Benefits of the Visa Waiver Program
There are several benefits to both travelers and the USA through the Visa Waiver Program.
- Simplified Application Process: Instead of having to go through the traditional route of applying for a visa where you would have to visit a U.S. embassy or consulate for a visa interview or complete extensive paperwork, you can enjoy a streamlined entry process instead.
- Shorter Processing Time: ESTAs offer much faster processing times than traditional visas. It’s not uncommon to have your ESTA approved in a matter of minutes after applying.
- Visa-Free Travel: An ESTA means that no visa is necessary, regardless if you are traveling for tourism or business purposes.
Applying for an ESTA
What you’re applying for under the VWP is really an ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization).
An ESTA is an online system that allows you to apply for travel authorization before your flight.
You are required to fill out an online application form that assesses your eligibility to enter the USA.
ESTA Application Process
The process of applying for an ESTA is simple and straightforward.
- Visit the official ESTA website: Visit the official ESTA website, which is the designated platform for submitting your application.
- Provide your personal and travel information: Fill out the required fields, including your personal details, passport information, and travel itinerary.
- Answer eligibility questions: You will be asked a series of eligibility questions related to your health, criminal history, immigration violations, and other relevant factors. You must answer these questions honestly.
- Review and submit your application: Before you submit your application, you will have a chance to review the information you provided to make sure that it is complete and accurate.
- Pay the application fee: You will also need to pay an application fee, which should come to $21 USD. This includes a $4 processing fee, and if your application is approved, you must pay an additional $17 authorization fee.
- Wait for Approval: Once you have submitted your application, you will receive a confirmation of its submission. Thankfully, approval should come soon after. Often in just a matter of minutes, your application can be approved.
Frequently Asked Questions
How long is an ESTA valid for?
An ESTA is valid for two years.
If you receive a new passport, change your name, gender, country of citizenship, or need to change your responses to any of the “yes” or “no” questions on the ESTA application, you must apply for a new ESTA.
How many times can you use an ESTA to enter the USA?
There is no limit to the number of times you can enter the U.S. with your ESTA, though frequent trips can arouse suspicion.
What can I do if my application was denied?
If your application was denied, it could be because you have previously traveled to Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Sudan, Syria or Yemen.
For a full list of reasons, we recommend reading our article: eTA Denied: 10 Common Reasons and What to Do Next
What if you want to travel to Canada, Mexico, or nearby islands?
You are allowed to take a short trip to Canada, Mexico, or a nearby island and still be readmitted to the United States for the remainder of the original 90 days you were granted.
Is it possible to extend your stay?
According to the rules of the Visa Waiver Program, you are not allowed to extend your stay beyond the initial admission period under the Visa Waiver Program.
What is the difference between an ESTA and the B-1/B-2 Visitor Visa?
While both visas will allow you to enter the USA, the B-1/B- visa is valid for up to 180 days.
A B visa has a longer and more complex application process, including an in-person interview, and has an application fee of $185, too.
Ella Dunham, a Freelance Travel Journalist and Marketing Manager, boasts an impressive career spanning eight years in the travel and tourism sectors.
Honored as one of "30 Under 30" by TTG Media (the world’s very first weekly travel trade newspaper), a "Tour Operator Travel Guru" and "Legend Award" winner, Ella is also a Fellow of the Institute of Travel, a Member of the Association of Women Travel Executives, has completed over 250 travel modules, and hosts travel-focused segments on national radio shows where she provides insights on travel regulations and destinations.
Ella has visited over 40 countries (with 10 more planned this year).