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What you should know about ESTA and the Visa Waiver Program

If you’re going to be in the United States for less than 90 days, and you’re going on vacation, to visit friends or family, to conduct business, or to participate in recreational events, you can get approved to travel without a visa.

The visa waiver program (VWP) is in place for multiple countries, enabling easier international travel to the United States under certain conditions. But if you start reading about the VWP and the electronic system for travel authorization (ESTA) with no prior experience, the terminology and specific requirements can get confusing.

What exactly is the VWP? What is an ESTA? And what’s the best way to navigate this system if you want to travel to the United States?

The basics of VWP and the ESTA
The United States Department of State, Bureau of Consular Affairs, provides a simple overview of the VWP on its website: “The Visa Waiver Program (VWP) enables most citizens or nationals of participating countries* to travel to the United States for tourism or business for stays of 90 days or less without obtaining a visa.”

In other words, if you’re going to be in the United States for less than 90 days, and you’re going on vacation, to visit friends or family, to conduct business, or to participate in recreational events, you can get approved to travel without a visa.

Additionally, “Travelers must have a valid Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) approval prior to travel and meet all requirements […] If you prefer to have a visa in your passport, you may still apply for a visitor (B) visa.”

Why does the VWP Exist?
Why does this system exist? Generally speaking, it’s to make travel to the United States easier for certain international travelers without increasing any security risks. Electronic travel approvals for qualifying applicants are much faster, with fewer possible hiccups. 

This makes international relations much more amicable and boosts the tourism industry at the same time.

Core requirements
To be approved for an ESTA through the VWP, you must meet a few requirements:

  • Travel intentions. As stated before, to qualify for the VWP, you’ll need to be traveling to the United States for less than 90 days. If you’re going to be in the United States for more than 90 days, you’ll need a visa. Your travel must also qualify under one of a few different categories; if you’re traveling for tourism or business, you’ll likely be fine.
  • Citizenship or national status from an approved country. Many countries are approved for travel under the VWP, but you must be a full-fledged citizen or a national of at least one of them. These countries include: Andorra, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brunei, Chile, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Monaco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Republic of Malta, San Marino, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, United Kingdom.
  • An updated passport. You also need to have a passport from your originating country that’s valid for at least six months after your planned U.S. departure. Every member of your family must also have a passport. Your passport must meet a number of other requirements; for example, your passport needs to be updated with an electronic chip and must be machine-scannable.
  • Eligibility under the Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015. Under the Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015, you may be refused admission to the United States if you’ve traveled to or have been present in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, or Yemen on or after March 1, 2011. There are exceptions in place if you’ve traveled there for diplomatic or military reasons.
  • An updated ESTA. After getting an ESTA, it will remain valid for two years. However, you will need to obtain a new ESTA if you experience any major changes to your identity or national status. For example, if you get a new passport, if you change your name, if you change your gender, or if your answers to any other ESTA questions have changed, you’ll need to get a new ESTA.

Future VWP countries
The list of countries approved for travel to the United States under the VWP is being updated regularly. For a country to be added, it must comply with the following, among other requirements:

  • It must share law enforcement and security data with the U.S.
  • It must issue electronically upgraded passports to citizens.
  • Its visitor visa refusal rate needs to be less than 3 percent.
  • It must be prompt when reporting blank, lost, and stolen passports.
  • It must maintain high standards of counterterrorism, law enforcement, document security, and border control.

Overall, the VWP makes it much easier for people to travel to the United States. However, it pays to spend some time researching the finer points of the ESTA so you can be prepared when you apply (and eventually travel).

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