The VWP, or Visa Waiver Program, is a U.S. government program allowing travellers who are citizens of certain pre-approved countries to go to the U.S. as tourists, on business, or in transit for up to 90 days without a visa. The Visa Waiver program allows travel to any or all of the 50 states of the U.S., as well as the U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico (a U.S. territory), and (with some limits) to other territories held by the U.S.

What are the VWP requirements?

To be eligible for the VWP, you must have:

1. An e-Passport

An e-Passport is now required for all VWP travellers to the U.S. The requirement for an e-Passport went into effect on April 1, 2016. An e-Passport has an electronic chip embedded in it for security purposes. The cover of an e-Passport has a unique international symbol, making it easily identifiable. In general, all travellers under the VWP must have individual passports; this includes children, who cannot travel under the VWP on their parents' passports.

2. A valid passport

An essential VWP requirement for a valid passport is that its date of expiration must be at least six months after the date at which the traveller is expected to leave the U.S. With many countries, however, the U.S. government has agreements which waive the six-months requirement, so the best policy is to check and confirm the expiration requirements for the country of which you are a citizen.

3. An ESTA ("Electronic System for Travel Authorization")

To enter the U.S. under the VWP, you must apply for an ESTA ("Electronic System for Travel Authorization") at least 72 hours before you leave for the U.S. An ESTA is valid for two years, and it is required if you are going to be entering the U.S. by air or sea. The requirement for an ESTA went into effect on June 8, 2008. It allows the U.S. to enhance the security of its borders by pre-screening VWP travellers and checking them against no-fly lists and other databases. An ESTA does not guarantee that you will be admitted to the U.S. (this is also true of a Visa). Customs and Border Protection officers at your port of entry will determine whether you are eligible to enter the U.S.

If you are planning to visit the United States, you may want to check ESTA status.

ESTA facts:

  • An ESTA is valid for two years from the date of authorisation, or until your passport expires, whichever comes first.
  • An ESTA allows you to enter the U.S. multiple times during the period when it is valid.
  • An ESTA does not guarantee that you will be allowed into the U.S. since that will be decided at your port of entry by Customs and Border Protection; it merely allows you to board an airplane or ship travelling to the U.S. You must have an ESTA that is approved before you board an airplane or ship for the U.S. under the Visa Waiver Program.

4. A return/onward ticket

When you enter the U.S. by air or sea under the VWP:

You must have a valid return/onward ticket with a date of departure that is within the time allowed for your stay in the U.S. under the Visa Waiver Program.

You must be travelling on a commercial carrier that is participating in the Visa Waiver Program.

5.Other requirements under the VWP

If you want to travel to the U.S. under the VWP, you must:

  • Be travelling as a tourist, on a (short-term) business trip, or in transit, and for no other reason. If you are a journalist or are a member of a journalist's staff and wish to come to the U.S. to file or put together a report for your news organization, you cannot travel under the VWP; you must apply for an I Visa.
  • Have complied with all VWP conditions during all previous trips to the U.S.
  • Not fit into any category which makes you inadmissible to the U.S. for reasons of health or national security.
  • Not have any criminal arrests or convictions for any crime or offence that involves moral turpitude. Case-by-case exceptions may be made on the following grounds:
    • If the offence was committed before the traveller was 18, if it was a solitary case, and if the application is made at least five years after the date at which the offence was committed, or the date on which the traveller was released from any correctional facility, or
    • If it was a solitary offence, if the maximum possible sentence under U.S. law for the same crime is one year or less in a correctional facility, and if the traveller served less than six months.

Note that neither of these exceptions will apply if the arrest or conviction involving a controlled substance, or if there were two or more offences for which the maximum combined sentence was five years or more, without regard to the date of conviction. This requirement is not affected by any laws which close or expunge criminal records based on elapsed time, including the UK Rehabilitation of Offenders Act of 1974.

The ESTA processing fee is USD 14 (or up to USD 90 if you use a third-party service provider), which can be paid online at the time of application using a debit or credit card. This requirement has been in effect since September 8, 2010. If you don't meet the requirements for the Visa Waiver Program, you will need to apply for a U.S. tourist visa of the traditional type by going to a U.S. consulate or embassy. Some U.S. embassies advise people to apply for a regular tourist Visa rather than going through the VWP under the following circumstances, and for the following reasons:

  • If you have been refused entry to the U.S. in the past, since any problem that caused you to be denied entry before will probably lead to another refusal, if it has not been taken care of, and
  • If you have been arrested or convicted of a crime; you will be able to appeal to an immigration judge after being turned down for entry to the U.S. if you have a Visa, but if you are travelling under the VWP, you do not have the right of appeal.

Note that you are not legally obliged to apply for a Visa under these circumstances, and you may still be eligible for entry to the U.S. under the VWP if you have a conviction or arrest.

VWP - World Map

Restrictions Under the Visa Waiver Program

If you are visiting the U.S. under the VWP, you are not allowed to extend your stay in the U.S., something which is allowed under a standard Visa. There are certain extenuating circumstances which can apply to Visa Waiver Program travellers, such as marriage to a citizen of the U.S. or applying for asylum, but these circumstances change the status of your stay in the country. You are not guaranteed entry into the U.S. under the VWP and while travelling with an ESTA; officers of the CBP (Customs and Border Protection service) at your port of entry determine whether you will be admitted. There is no appeal or review for travellers under the VWP who are turned down for admission.

When you travel to the U.S. under the VWP, you can cross over into Canada or Mexico, or go to a Caribbean country, then return to the U.S., but when you do this, it will not restart the 90-day period of your visit. You are not allowed to be gainfully employed by a U.S. employer while you are travelling under the VWP, although you can engage in some activities related to employment, such as going to conferences or meeting connected to your professional practice, business, or employer in your home country. Some exceptions are possible on a case-by-case basis, including installing, repairing, or servicing industrial/commercial equipment in connection with a sales contract, if you are engaging in professional services for a non-U.S. contractor.

If you are a performer (such as an actor or musician) coming to the U.S. for a live or recorded performance for an international production, or if you are an athlete coming to the U.S. for an athletic event, you cannot travel under the VWP; instead, you must have an O or P Visa. If you are an international media representative or journalist, travelling on assignment, you must have an I (non-immigrant) visa. If you cannot show that you have any economic or social ties to your home country, you may be refused entry under the VWP.

VWP History

The Visa Waiver Program was created by an act of the U.S. Congress in 1986. Its purpose was to allow the U.S. State Department to focus its attention on potential risks with a higher priority, while at the same time making it easier to make short visits to the U.S. as a tourist, or on business. The United Kingdom (July 1988) and Japan (December 16, 1988) were the first two countries to be enrolled in the VWP. In October of 1989, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland, and West Germany were added, and in 1991, Andorra, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Monaco, New Zealand (the first VWP country in Oceania) Norway, San Marino, and Spain joined the program. In 1993, Brunei (the second Asian country in the program) joined.

Ireland, Australia, Argentina, Slovenia, Portugal, Singapore, and Uruguay all joined during the 90s; however, Argentina (2002) and Uruguay (2003) later lost their VWP status. After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the George W. Bush administration tightened the requirements for being admitted to the U.S. A new law, requiring machine-readable passports for VWP visitors, was passed in October of 2003, with the date of implementation set for October 26, 2004, since several nations in the VWP still issued passports that were not machine-readable. A plan to require visitors from VWP countries to carry biometric passports was postponed until October 26, 2006, in part because of requests from the European Union, and in part as a result in the delay in implementing the machine-readable passport requirement. When the biometric requirement went into effect, three countries -- Andorra, Brunei, and Liechtenstein -- still had not started to issue biometric passports.

In 2014, Chile joined the program. The latest addition to the program is Poland, which was added to the VWP in November 2019.

In November of 2006, plans for ESTA ("the Electronic System for Travel Authorization") were announced. It was based on the Electronic Travel Authority system used in Australia. It lets visitors from VWP countries quickly receive electronic authorisation to come to the U.S. after providing advance information regarding their travel plans, although it does not guarantee entry into the U.S.

The terms of the VWP require all countries in the program to provide U.S. citizens with a reciprocal program (with terms similar to the VWP itself) for travelling without a Visa. The case of Australia is unique, however, since it requires U.S. citizens to enter under its own Electronic Travel Authority system. The Australian Electronic Travel Authority, which is administered by the Australian Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC), replaces Visa-free travel to Australia with a Visa that is stored electronically. The only nation to which the Electronic Travel Authority requirement does not apply to New Zealand, which is part of the Trans-Tasman Travel Agreement.