The Visa Waiver Program allows citizens of 39 countries to travel to the United States for business or tourism purposes without a visa for up to 90 days. These purposes must be the same as those for the B1 visa or the B2 visa.
The program is administered by the Department of Homeland Security and was created to improve security for the people who visit the United States and also so that US citizens can travel to the other 39 countries freely. It brings mutual benefits and most importantly, makes traveling a lot safer.
If you fulfill the necessary criteria and you are from countries with which the US has good relationships with, you will not need to apply for a visa. The only document you will need to go into the US is the stamp on your passport which states that you are part of the Visa Waiver Program (VWP).
What Are the 39 Visa Waiver Countries?
The 39 Visa Waiver Countries are the following:
|Andorra (1991)||Australia (1996)||Austria (1991)|
|Belgium (1991)||Brunei (1993)||Chile (2014)|
|Czechia (2008)||Denmark (1991)||Estonia (2008)|
|Finland (1991)||France (1989)||Germany (1989)|
|Greece (2010)||Hungary (2008)||Iceland (1991)|
|Ireland (1995)||Italy (1989)||Japan (1988)|
|South Korea (2008)||Latvia (2008)||Liechtenstein (1991)|
|Lithuania (2008)||Luxembourg (1991)||Malta (2008)|
|Monaco (1991)||Netherlands (1989)||New Zealand (1991)|
|Norway (1991)||Poland* (2019)||Portugal (1999)|
|San Marino (1991)||Singapore (1999)||Slovakia (2008)|
|Slovenia (1997)||Spain (1991)||Sweden (1989)|
|Switzerland (1989)||Taiwan (2012)||United Kingdom (1988)|
*Poland has joined the Visa Waiver Program in November, 2019, thus becoming the 39th nation part of the program.
Do I Qualify to Travel to the United States Under the Visa Waiver Program?
In order to qualify for the US Visa Waiver Program, you must fulfill the following criteria:
- Be a citizen of the 39 allowed countries.
- Have a visa waiver ESTA approval.
- Have an e-passport.
- Prove that you will return to your home country after your VWP stamp expires.
The Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) is an electronic program that the US has developed to make applying for the Visa Waiver much faster. The only step you need to take is go to its website and enter your personal information and you will get a response on whether you qualify for the Visa Waiver or not
The e-passport is a document which you need in order to apply for the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) under the VWP. The e-passport is different from regular passports in two ways:
- It is Machine Readable, which means that in the page with your personal information, there are also various number at the bottom (See Picture 1 below)
- It has chip and it is distinguished by a symbol in the front cover (See Picture 2 below)
IMPORTANT: Changes to the Visa Waiver Program in 2016
In 2016, the US Department of Homeland Security started implementing a change in the Visa Waiver Program under the “Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015”. Since then, certain travelers would no longer be eligible to travel to the United States under the Visa Waiver Program.
The following groups of people are affected by that change:
- Nationals of visa waiver countries who have been in Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Syria, Libya, Somalia or Yemen since March 01, 2011. It should be noted that there are some exceptions for diplomats and military personnel.
- Nationals of visa waiver countries who also hold a nationality of Iran, Iraq, Sudan, or Syria.
What Documents Do I Need to Travel under the Visa Waiver USA?
The only documents you need to have to get the Visa Waiver stamp on your passport is the ESTA approval and the e-Passport. Your e-Passport must be valid for at least 6 months after your planned departure from the U.S.
After you get the Electronic System for Travel Authorization approval, you can start making travel arrangements to the United States.
Benefits and Limitations of Travelling Under the VWP
The benefits of the Visa Waiver Program are many. You will not be required to apply for a visa, which takes time, effort, and a lot of documents. With minimal effort on a computer, you can get approved for the VWP and be on your way to making your travel arrangements for the US. You will avoid the long processing times too, so if you are travelling for business and need to be in the US as soon as possible, you can do so with the VWP.
Additionally, if you enter the United States with a VWP, you can also visit Canada, Mexico and other nearby islands for the time that your VWP is valid. So if you reenter the United States during the timeframe that the VWP is valid, you will not have any problems. You are not allowed to do so with other visas.
What if I cannot get a Visa Waiver?
If for any reason, you are not eligible for a Visa Waiver or have had you Electronic System for Travel Authorization application denied, then you have one other option. You can apply for a regular US visa, such as the B1/B2 visa. If you are denied the visa too, then you have to check your eligibility and make sure that you qualify for a visa to the US. You will save much more time by applying for the B1 visa or the B2 visa.
Another instance where you cannot get a Visa Waiver is if you are travelling on a non-VWP approved air or sea carrier or a private aircraft.
Can I get a Green Card on an American Visa Waiver?
The Visa Waiver only gives you the right to enter the United States for tourism or business and stay for a maximum of 90 days. Additionally, you have to prove that you will return to your home country. Because of this, it is very difficult, if not impossible to get a Green Card while on a Visa Waiver.
The only possible ways to get permanent residence is if you have family in the United States and you apply to join them, or if you marry a US citizen. Even if you find a job in the US, you will not be able to change your status to a different visa which allows you dual intent.
Can I bring my dependents with a USA Visa Waiver?
Each Visa Waiver that is given is individual and does not apply to a group of people. So if you and your family, such as spouse and children want to travel to the United States together, you must each be eligible for the Visa Waiver and get one for each member.
Even toddlers must fulfill the criteria for the Visa Waiver and must have a valid passport to be able to get the Visa Waiver. Therefore, you cannot bring your dependents to the United States with only one Visa Waiver, but must get one for each individual.
How Does a Country Join the Visa Waiver Program?
To become part of the Visa Waiver Program, a country must meet these conditions:
- Issue e-passports.
- Have enhanced law enforcement and security data sharing with the United States.
- Report stolen and lost passports.
- Have a less than 3% refusal rate of B visas.
- Have good counterterrorism, border control, law enforcement, and other security standards.
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