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The Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) is an automated online system designed to determine the eligibility of travelers from Visa Waiver Program (VWP) countries to enter the United States under the program. Mandated by the Implementing Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007, ESTA USA applies to travelers entering the United States by air or sea for either business or personal travel, but is not required for arrivals by land from Canada or Mexico.
Consisting of a short online application, the ESTA USA process consists of supplying biographical information and information used to evaluate each traveler's VWP eligibility. ESTA applications may be submitted at any time prior to travel, though it is strongly recommended that travelers file their application prior to purchasing airline tickets as ESTA authorization is required for travel under the VWP and passengers without a valid ESTA authorization (underage children included) may be denied check-in. While it is possible to receive an ESTA authorization at the departure airport, filing your application a minimum of 72 hours before travel is advised.
Please note that ESTA authorization exclusively determines travelers' eligibility to utilize the VWP program, and does not guarantee admissibility to the United States. Admission to the United States is evaluated by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers upon arrival at a United States airport or port. The ESTA application processing fee is $14 USD.
While the majority of applications are approved in less than one minute, the U.S. government recommends submitting ESTA authorization applications a minimum of 72 hours prior to travel to the United States. Travellers found ineligible for visa-free travel will need to apply for a visa at a U.S. Embassy or Consulate, a substantially lengthier process which may require an interview with a U.S. Consular officer. Pre-emptive planning around your ESTA authorization can help avoid delays to last-minute business travel. Once authorized, each entry under the Visa Waiver Program is valid for a combined maximum stay of 90 days in the U.S. and surrounding countries. The VWP admission period cannot be extended, and a visa should be acquired for stays longer than the 90-day period.
An ESTA travel authorization is valid for up to two years, but VWP participants will require a new ESTA authorization ahead of the standard expiry if issued a new passport or in the case of changes to his or her name, gender, country of citizenship, or answer to any application eligibility questions. While an ESTA authorization denotes eligibility to travel under the VWP, it does not guarantee entry to the United States. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers make a final determination of admissibility to the United States upon traveler arrival and may cancel or deny an ESTA authorization at any point during travel.
Travel to the United States under the Visa Waiver Program is available to citizens of any country designated by the U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security, in consultation with the Secretary of State, as a "program country"; unfortunately, permanent residents of Visa Waiver countries are ineligible for the program at this time.
Program countries are designated using the criteria outlined in Section 217(c) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (Title 8 U.S.C. §1187), which prioritize countries with strong passport security, a non-immigrant visa refusal rate below 3%, and a strong track record of compliance with US immigration law.
Citizens of Visa Waiver Program countries may also be subject to specific restrictions. As of January 2016, ESTA holders who are dual citizens of Iran, Iraq, Sudan, and Syria are no longer eligible for the Visa Waiver Program, and must apply for a standard tourist visa at a U.S. foreign mission. ESTA holders who have traveled to Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, or Yemen on or after March 1, 2011 must now qualify for a waiver in order to be permitted entry to the United States, but will retain their ESTA authorization at this time.
Any waiver of VWP restrictions is issued by the Secretary of Homeland Security on a case-by-case basis, and requires a determination that said waiver is in the law enforcement or national security interests of the United States. Individuals who may generally be eligible for a waiver include travelers who visited said countries on behalf of international organizations, regional organizations, humanitarian NGOs or sub-national governments on official duty, or as a journalist for reporting purposes.
Visitors found eligible for the Visa Waiver Program may visit the United States for up to 90 days, a term which includes time elapsed in Canada, Mexico, Bermuda, or the Caribbean if initial arrival was through the United States. The VWP applies to travel on an approved air or sea carrier only; no ESTA authorization is required for overland arrival in the United States or ferry travel between British Columbia and Washington State.
The Visa Waiver Program (VWP) is an initiative of the United States government which permits citizens of pre-approved countries to travel to the United States without a visa for the purposes of tourism, business, or transit, so long as the visit lasts less than 90 days. Travel under the VWP may be to any of the 50 U.S. states, the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, or the U.S. Virgin Islands, with limited application to other U.S. territories.
Countries secure nomination to participate in the Visa Waiver Program by establishing and fulfilling "road maps" developed jointly with the United States, and selected countries generally demonstrate high-income economies, a very high Human Development Index, and general characterization as developed countries. Selection is contingent upon a successful evaluation by the United States Department of Homeland Security of each country's security and immigration practices. Once nominated, there is no standard timeline for a country receiving approval or rejection from the Visa Waiver Program.
The Visa Waiver Program was created by Congress in 1986 to facilitate short-term business and tourism visits to the United States and simultaneously refocus US Department of State consular resources upon higher-priority risk vectors. In July 1988, the United Kingdom became the first country to enrol in the Visa Waiver Program, followed by Japan on December 16, 1988. France, Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland, and West Germany joined the VWP roster in October 1989. The program expanded again in 1991, with Andorra, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Monaco, Norway, San Marino, and Spain added to the VWP, alongside its first country in Oceania, New Zealand. Brunei became the second Asian VWP country in 1993.
Throughout the 1990s, Ireland, Australia, Argentina, Slovenia, Portugal, Singapore, and Uruguay were added to the VWP, although Argentina was removed in 2002 and Uruguay in 2003. Entry criteria for the United States were tightened by the George W. Bush administration in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks. In October 2003, new legislation required foreign visitors utilizing the Visa Waiver Program to present a machine-readable passport upon arrival, however the implementation date was delayed until October 26, 2004 as several VWP nations regularly issued non-machine readable passports. This postponement and requests from the European Union delayed a planned requirement for VWP travelers to hold biometric passports to October 26, 2006, even though Andorra, Brunei and Liechtenstein had not begun to issue biometric passports when the requirement came into force.
Plans for the Electronic System for Travel Authorization—ESTA—were announced in November, 2006. Modeled on Australia's Electronic Travel Authority scheme, the system allows VWP travelers to provide advance information on travel plans to the United States and receive quick electronic authorization for travel, although entry to the US is not guaranteed.
All VWP countries are required to provide reciprocal visa-free travel for U.S. citizens under similar terms as the VWP establishes. Australia, however, uniquely requires U.S. citizens to apply through their Electronic Travel Authority scheme, an electronically-stored visa provided by the Australian Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) which has replaced visa-free travel to Australia for every nation excluding New Zealand, which is a signatory to the Trans-Tasman Travel Arrangement.
Since 2005, the U.S. Department of State has conducted discussions with countries interested in joining or re-joining the VWP, commonly referred to as roadmap countries. To date, 10 of the 19 original roadmap countries have achieved admittance to the VWP, with Argentina, Brazil, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Israel, Poland, Romania, Turkey, and Uruguay still holding roadmap status.
A country's demotion to roadmap status from full participating in the VWP may be due to a variety of factors, including a rising likelihood of its citizens violating VWP restrictions such as working without a permit or overstaying the allotted 90-day period of stay. Countries which have had their VWP status revoked include Argentina and Uruguay, whose participation was terminated in 2002 and 2003 respectively for concerns over mass emigration and unlawful overstay of its citizens in the United States during their individual financial crises—paralleling the widely-held belief that citizens of politically and economically stable nations have negligible incentive to violate their U.S. visa terms and visa-issuing consulates' significant consideration of those factors.
Political and economic standing is not a sole determinant of program eligibility: Israel's continued status as a roadmap country has been attributed to its strict scrutiny of Palestinian-Americans traveling to Israel, which violates the VWP's mutuality requirement.
Of the remaining roadmap countries, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, and Cyprus's VWP inclusion is a current subject of EU-US negotiation, as they are the sole EU countries which are not program members excluding Croatia, which only recently joined the EU. In November 2014, the government of Bulgaria declined to ratify the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership unless the United States lifted visa requirements for its citizens.
Participation in the visa waiver program requires each traveler to possess the following:
Each VWP traveler must possess an individual passport. VWP travel eligibility does not extend to children included on a parent's passport. VWP passport requirements for citizens of countries who joined the VWP program before 2008 vary depending on the passport's date of issue:
As of April 1, 2016 it all visitors must hold an e-passport for participation in the VWP.
Any traveler utilizing the Visa Waiver Program to enter the United States is required to submit a travel authorization application via the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) at least 72 hours prior to departure for the United States. Introduced on June 3, 2008, this pre-screening requirement acts to reinforce U.S. border security by consulting no-fly lists and terrorist databases for VWP applicants prior to travel. The ESTA authorization is mandatory in order to board U.S.-bound flights under the VWP program and remains valid for a two-year period. As with a formal visa, an ESTA authorization is not a guarantee of admission into the United States; eligibility to enter the United States ultimately rests with CBP officers at each traveler's U.S. port of entry.
As per the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, an approved ESTA authorization is:
All travelers wishing to utilize the VWP must obtain an approved ESTA authorization prior to boarding their air or sea carrier to travel to the United States.
The base passport validity requirement to utilize the VWP is an expiry date no less than six months after the traveler's expected date of departure from the United States. As the U.S. has multiple signed agreements with VWP countries to waive this requirement, it is advised to confirm specific requirements for your country of citizenship.
Travelers entering the United States by air or sea must:
Travelers wishing to utilize the Visa Waiver Program:
As of September 8, 2010, the VWP requires payment of a $14 USD processing fee, payable online at the time of application by credit or debit card only. If a traveler does not meet the VWP requirements, he or she must apply for a traditional U.S. tourist visa from an American embassy or consulate. Some U.S. embassies advise persons with arrests or convictions to bypass the Visa Waiver Program in favor of a tourist visa. While there is no legal obligation for a traveler to do so and persons with arrests or convictions may still meet the VWP requirements, visa holders can appeal to an immigration judge if denied entry to the U.S. by an immigration officer, whereas VWP travelers have no such right of appeal.
U.S. embassies also advise persons previously refused entry to the United States to apply for a tourist visa rather than utilizing the Visa Waiver Program, as an unaddressed reason for refusal will likely result in another refusal even when travelers are not ineligible for the VWP.
Unlike standard visa-holders, travelers entering the United States through the Visa Waiver Program are not permitted to extend their permitted period of stay in the U.S. outside of such extenuating circumstances as application for asylum or a marriage to a U.S. citizen, at which point their status in the U.S. is altered. Use of the VWP and authorization through ESTA does not constitute a guarantee of entry to the United States; admission to the United States is determined by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers at each traveler's port of entry. If entry is denied by a CBP officer, there is no process of review or appeal under the VWP.
Travelers under the VWP can exit the United States to bordering countries (Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean) but exit and re-entry does not restart the 90-day permitted stay period.
Employment-related activities permitted under the VWP include meetings or conferences that relate to the traveler's employer, business, or profession practiced in their country of residence. Direct forms of gainful employment by an American employer are not permitted under the VWP. Case-by-case exceptions may occur for travelers performing professional services for a non-U.S. employer while in the United States, or travelers installing, servicing, or repairing commercial or industrial equipment pursuant to a contract of sale.
Actors, musicians, or other performers traveling to perform live or taped scenes for international productions or athletes traveling for an athletic event are required to possess an O or P visa, and cannot utilize the VWP. International journalists or media representatives on assignment are likewise required to apply for a non-immigrant media (I) visa. VWP travelers who cannot demonstrate social and economic ties to their country of origin may be refused entry.
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