What is a Visa Waiver Programme?
A Visa Waiver Programme was introduced by the United States in 1986. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) administers the programme which currently entails security partnerships with some of the important allies of the United States. Nationals of 38 countries can visit the United States for tourism or business purposes for 90 days without visas. Likewise, the 38 countries listed under the visa waiver programme (as member or participating countries) should allow US citizens to enter their countries for the same period of time without visas for business and tourism purposes.
Visa Waiver Programme Member Countries
The list of countries which are members of the Visa Waiver Programme are listed below:
- Czech Republic
- Greece Hungary
- New Zealand
- San Marino
- Republic of Korea
- United Kingdom
Citizens who come under the purview of the Visa Waiver programme should receive an authorization through an Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) at https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov/esta of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection before setting off or the United States. In other words, ESTA determines whether an applicant is eligible under the visa waiver programme to enter the United States without a Visa. Applicants should always check their status on the official website of US Customs and Border Protection (CBP). It is important to note that if an applicant is part of the Visa waiver programme member country, he is not automatically eligible to enter the US sans a visa. He will require an authorization via ESTA and shall be screened at the port of entry.
Passport specifications under ESTA
Travelers under the VWP should submit passports which can be read by machines. A machine-readable passport entails important bio-data of the holder on its data page. Passports (machine-readable) renewed after 2006 should have integrated chips with pertinent information from e-Passport. Passports which were issued/extended (between October 2005 and October 2006) need to have digital photographs.
Eligibility conditions under Visa Waiver Programme
Citizens of the aforementioned member countries can enter the United States for business and tourism for 90 days under specific conditions as listed below:
- Register and receive authorization via ESTA
- Possess an e-passport
- Possess a visa waiver programme passport
- Plan to stay in the US for a period of 90 days
- Intend to travel to the US to meet business associates, conferences or contract negotiations
- Intend to travel to the US for tourism, visit relatives, social service, medical treatment, sporting activities and musical concerts among others
- Possess a return ticket if entering the US by sea or air. Also, travelers who possess onward tickets and wish to disembark at Canada, Caribbean Islands and Bermuda among others should be residents of the said countries
Ineligible under Visa Waiver Programme
Under the Visa Waiver Programme, citizens with criminal records, communicable diseases and hitherto deported from the U.S are not eligible to avail of the Visa Waiver Programme even if they satisfy other conditions. They can, however, travel to the United States if they apply for a separate visa.
Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015
The Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015 entails new requirements in terms of eligibility. All travelers under the Visa Waiver Programme should have an e-passport to enter the United States. Several upgraded security measures are laid down in this Act. For instance, citizens of VWP member nations who visited countries such as Syria, Iraq, Iran and Sudan are not eligible under the Visa Waiver programme. Travelers with dual citizenship (VWP member countries as well as Iraq and Syria) are ineligible to enter United States under the visa waiver programme. There are some exceptions under the Act as listed below:
Individuals who visited countries such as Iraq, Iran, Syria or Sudan to perform official responsibilities as representatives of international and regional organizations and NGOs or on a journalistic assignment in addition to any legal business purposes
Revoking Visa under VWP
In case a traveler receives an email that his ESTA has been revoked, can travel to the United States if he has a non-immigrant valid visa. It is important to note that the aforementioned Act does not in any manner, enforce a ‘ban’ in terms of entering the United States, subject to a valid visa.
Visa extension and change of status under VWP
An individual who enters United States under the Visa Waiver Program cannot extend the duration of his visit/stay and should exit the country on or before the stated date on his admission stamp. An individual who is eligible under the VWP cannot change his status after gaining entry into the United States.