Visa Waiver Program (VWP): The Latest Changes

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.

Which countries are part of the ESTA Visa Waiver Program?

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:

  • They must be traveling for business or tourism purposes, but not as a member of the media or traveling on federal government business
  • The visit must be less than 90 days in total, including any time spent in Mexica, Canada and adjacent islands including the Caribbean
  • They must have a valid machine-readable passport showing an e-passport symbol on the cover

In some cases, further requirements may apply, including proof that:

  • The passport holder is eligible for the VWP and has complied with conditions on previous visits under the VWP
  • They do not have a criminal record
  • They have arrived by sea or air on an approved commercial carrier and are holding a return ticket to a destination outside the USA and adjacent islands
  • Those arriving by land must demonstrate they intend to stay for 90 days or less and have sufficient funds to support their stay
  • They are travelers who have been admitted under the VWP and made short trip to Mexica, Canada or the adjacent islands and now wish to be readmitted under the original VWP term
  • Supporting Documentation for Travel under the VWP

    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:

    • Proof of a permanent residence in your home country that you intend to return to
    • Evidence of permanent ties with your home country, such as employment, business or family commitments
    • Proof of departure, such as return flight tickets
    • Proof of ongoing travel to another country after visiting the US
    • Sufficient funds to support yourself and any dependents traveling with you during your visit
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