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The Visa Waiver Program: An Overview

The Visa Waiver Program: An Overview

Typically, people who would like to visit the United States for business or as tourists need a B1/B2 visa. Citizens of certain countries are exempt from this requirement and can visit the United States for 90 days without first obtaining a tourist visa. These individuals must also possess a round-trip ticket when they visit the U.S. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security maintains a current list of all countries participating in the Visa Waiver Program.

Currently, 38 countries participate in the Visa Wavier Program, including:

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

Citizens of Bermuda, Canada, the Marshall Islands, and Micronesia do not need a visa to visit the United States as tourists, even though they do not participate in the visa waiver program.

Passport Requirements for Visa Waiver Participants

Visa Waiver participants must have a passport with certain security features, including:

  • Machine Readable Passport: the passport must have a machine-readable area on the biographic page;
  • E-Passport: the passport should have a microchip embedded in the passport capable of storing biographical information. E-passports have a special symbol on the front of the passport.
  • Digital Photograph: Your passport must have a digital photo, not a picture that was glued on or laminated. If your passport does not have a digital photograph, you can still use the Visa Waiver Program under limited circumstances.

If your passport does not meet the above requirements or one of the limited exceptions, then you must apply for a visa.

Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA)

Prior to January 12, 2009, visa waiver participants did not need to register with the U.S. before traveling to the United States; since then, registration with the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) is mandatory for all people planning to use the visa waiver program. ESTA is a screening process and aims to ensure that individuals traveling under the VWP are eligible for the program and that they do not pose a security risk to the United States.

Frequently Asked ESTA Questions:

  • When to Apply for ESTA: Customs and Border Protection recommends applying for ESTA at least 72 hours before your flight; however, ESTA approval typically takes seconds. You do not have to have concrete travel plans to apply for ESTA.
  • How Long is ESTA Valid: ESTA is typically valid for two years or until the traveler’s passport expires, whichever occurs first. You can make multiple visits to the United States within those two years. You’ll have to apply for a new ESTA authorization if:
  • You obtain a new passport;
  • Your name changes;
  • Your gender changes;
  • Country of citizenship changes;
  • Any of your previous answers change.
  • ESTA Responses: After applying for ESTA, you will receive one of three responses: ‘authorization approved,’ ‘authorization pending,’ and ‘travel not authorized.’
  • Authorization Approved: you may travel on the VWP.
  • Authorization Pending: you should check back for updates; a determination should be made within 72 hours.
  • Travel Not Authorized: If your travel is not authorized, you are required to apply for a B1/B2 visa.

If you intend to visit the United States and believe that you need a B1/B2 visa, please contact an immigration attorney who is trustworthy and knowledgeable! Our attorneys at Landerholm Immigration, APC have extensive experience in processing non-immigrant visa cases and waivers. Please feel free to call us at 510-488-1020 to see how we can help!


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