The Visa Waiver Program was introduced by US congress in 1986. It was intended to encourage tourism and short business trips to the USA. The first country to join the VWP was the UK, in July 1988.
In 2006, the US government updated the VWP by introducing pre-approval to travel to the US with an Electronic System for Travel Authorization, known as ESTA. This allowed potential travelers to inform the US about their forthcoming visit and gain approval (or refusal) before they depart. ESTA approval allows a visitor to travel to the US, but it does not guarantee that they will be allowed to enter. They must still go before an immigration officer, present their passport and answer questions to confirm that their visit is approved.
From April 1, 2016, applicants for ESTA must have an e-passport which has an embedded chip within its pages. If your passport cover does not include an e-passport symbol, you cannot apply for ESTA and must either get an updated passport or apply to your US embassy for a tourist/business visa. Following a Federal Register Notice dated June 23, 2016, it is likely that the ESTA application will include a question regarding the applicant’s social media identifier in the near future.
There are currently 38 countries within the ESTA program, but these are subject to change. The latest participating countries can be checked online on the ESTA website and are as follows:
Andorra, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brunei, Chile, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Monaco, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, San Marino, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan and the United Kingdom*.
UK passports must have the words “British Citizen” and/or “with unrestricted right of abode in the United Kingdom” to be eligible for the VWP. Other passports stating that the bearer is a British Subject, British Dependent Territories Citizen, British Overseas National or British National (Overseas) are not eligible for the VWP and holders must apply for a B-1 or B-2 visitor visa from their US Embassy.
Eligible VWP citizens must still apply for an ESTA before they travel to the US or they may be refused boarding on a plane or ship bound for the USA. Conditions of the US Visa Waiver Program
Citizens of the above ESTA-approved countries are eligible for the VWP provided the following conditions are met:
In some cases, further requirements may apply, including proof that:
On arrival in the US, travelers are required to have a short interview with an immigration official. You will need to show that you are a temporary visitor, for business or tourism purposes. It is useful to carry supporting documentation that shows you are not intending to stay permanently in the US. Documents to present that establish that fact include: