Visa Information & Tips

12 Sep 2017 The American Dream

QUESTION: We have planned a round-trip tour through North and South America and will be passing through the USA. As German citizens, is it possible to travel through the USA under the conditions of the Visa Waiver Program? We have been issued an ESTA (visa-free travel authorization) valid for two years and we would physically be in the USA for under 90 days both times. Is this possible?

We have the following route planned: In October 2017, we would fly to Canada and from there enter the USA (flight) in November. We would like to travel along the west coast of the United States until we reach Mexico around mid-December 2017. We would travel around Mexico until returning to the USA around the middle of January. We would then like to spend another two months in the USA traveling up the east coast. The plan is to fly back to Germany from New York in mid-March 2018.

ANSWER: First of all, there are three fundamental things to clarify:

  1. Visa-free travel with ESTA: ESTA is the basis of the fundamental requirements for the Visa Waiver Program. It is correct, that this travel authorization is generally issued for two years, but that does not mean that a person is allowed to stay in the USA for up to two years. Rather, it only means that the person is allowed to travel to the USA during this time without having to first apply for a visa (for certain purposes, such as being tourist).
  2. The Visa Waiver Program (VWP): This program makes it possible for citizens from certain countries to travel to the USA without having to first apply for a U.S. visa. You will be required to have a biometric passport and the above-mentioned travel authorization (ESTA). The VWP allows travelers to stay in the USA for up to 90 days per trip. You must leave the country after 90 days at the latest.
  3. Status of your stay: As mentioned above, the VWP allows you to stay in the USA for a maximum of 90 days – per trip. The 90 days are not a given right and the border officer makes the decision for every traveler if they can enter the USA and for how long. In general, people who do not travel often to the USA will automatically get the 90 days stamped in their passport. The officer has every right to shorten your stay or, in the worst case, deny you entry at the border. The more frequently a person travels to the USA and the longer they stay under the Visa Waiver Program, the higher the chances that they will be at least questioned at the border. As already mentioned, the 90 days are not defined per year, but rather per trip. Nonetheless, the regulations deliberately preclude so-called “border-hopping”. That means that people who hop over the border to Mexico and Canada for a short time, in the hopes of returning to the USA and renewing their 90 days, will be met with an unpleasant surprise. 

Regarding your specific case:

Your ESTA is valid as long as you have a valid passport. Therefore, there is nothing standing in your way for your first entry into the USA. Your planned period of stay in America would be for around 6 weeks before leaving for Mexico. When entering the USA from Canada, you will be asked about your trip and, if necessary, your travel itinerary since you will not be able to show a return flight within the next 90 days. Be sure to have your tickets to Mexico and your later return-trip tickets to Germany on hand.

Entering the USA for a second time (mid-January from Mexico into the USA) will be a bit trickier. The following scenarios could occur:

  1. You will be entering the United States with a stamp for a stay of, presumably, 90 days in your passport (from the beginning of November to the beginning of February). Therefore, the border officer can theoretically allow you to enter the USA with the previous date of departure. That means, he will deny giving you a further 90 days to travel in the USA. You could then enter the USA and only travel until the beginning of February and then you must definitely leave the country.
  2. The officer at the border to the USA from Mexico is sympathetic to your case and gives you a further 90 days to stay in the USA. This means you can continue with your travels until the middle of march.
  3. The border officer limits the length of your renewed stay to a specific period (rather unlikely). 

When entering the USA from Mexico, it is vital that you bring the following documents with you to show the border officer:

  1. Travel itinerary
  2. Proof of financial means
  3. Your return ticket to Germany
  4. If necessary, bring supporting documentation of your intention to return to Germany; e.g. a letter from an employer or proof of enrollment)

As you can see, there is not a 100 percent guarantee that you will be able to complete your travels as planned.

If you need more certainty for your travel itinerary, then you should consider applying for a B-2 visa beforehand. This visa will allow you to stay in the USA for up to 180 days. Please keep in mind that you should first clarify what your chances are of being approved for a B-2 visa. If you apply for a B-2 visa and it is denied, you can no longer travel to the USA under the Visa Waiver Program.