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Visa Waiver Program (VWP) / ESTA

Since 1986 citizens of certain countries do not require a visa to enter the U.S. anymore. They now have the possibility to travel under the so-called Visa Waiver Program (VWP) / ESTA that allows them to enter the U.S. as a tourist for a maximum of 90 days a year or transit the U.S. In the following, we would like to answer the most frequent asked questions about ESTA.

Table of contents
What is ESTA?
Which countries participate in the Visa Waiver Program?
How do I fill out ESTA correctly?
What kind of passports are required?
What can cause ineligibility for the Visa Waiver Program?
What can I do if my ESTA is denied?
Can I extend my stay on the Visa Waiver Program?
Will I be guaranteed a stay for 90 days?
What happens if I stay longer than the 90-day limit?

WHAT IS ESTA?

U.S. authorities have developed a new electronic travel authorization program that has been in effect since the 12th of January 2009. Since then, all citizens of Visa Waiver countries who want to travel to the U.S. under the Visa Waiver Program need an approved ESTA prior to boarding a plane or ship to the U.S. In practice, this means all VWP travelers (including babies and children) have to fill out an application with personal and other data online. Quite frequently, it can be difficult to determine whether you can travel under the VWP or will have to apply for a visa. Each individual situation with all its determining factors (like travel frequency, length of the stay and purpose of the stay) has to be considered separately to determine what exactly is best for the individual traveler. Of course, we will be happy to advise you.

Image of man with laptop filling out his esta application

To a very limited extent the VWP can also be used for business travel ("Business Visa Waiver"), e.g. fairs, meetings, conferences etc. All business travel beyond that, such as maintenance, installation, consulting, setting up a US company, or starting employment, is no longer covered by the program, even if the stay does not exceed 90 days. In those cases it is advisable to apply for a B-1/B-2 Visa.

Based on the submitted information, each traveler’s eligibility for visa-free travel will be determined. ESTA applications can be submitted any time prior to travel. It is, however, advisable to apply as early as possible, at the very least 72 hours before departure (emergencies and last-minute travel will still be accommodated). In most cases the ESTA system should respond to an application very quickly. Possible replies can be: authorization approved, travel not authorized, or authorization pending. After your application is approved, you can only change your given U.S. address, all other information remain the same for each trip to the States. Don't worry though- your ESTA will still be valid.

A granted ESTA travel authorization is valid for two years or until your current passport expires or your name changes due to marriage, whichever comes first. It also serves the purpose of multiple entries into the U.S. Please note, however, that even an approved travel authorization via ESTA does not guarantee you admission into the U.S. and is only valid for travel under the VWP. It cannot serve in lieu of a visa when a visa is required.

Should you submit an ESTA application that is not approved, you will need to obtain a valid visa to travel to the U.S.

WHICH COUNTRIES PARTICIPATE IN THE VISA WAIVER PROGRAM?

Citizens of the following countries can (under certain conditions) travel to the U.S. without having to apply for a visa:

Australia Iceland Portugal
Austria Ireland San Marino
Belgium Italy Singapore
Brunei Japan Slovakia
Chile Latvia Slovenia
Czech Republic Liechtenstein South Korea
Denmark Lithuania Spain
Estonia Luxembourg Sweden
Finland Malta Switzerland
France Monaco Taiwan
Germany Netherlands United Kingdom
Greece New Zealand  

 

How do I fill out ESTA correctly?

In the following, we want to answer the most frequent asked questions about the ESTA:

1) What is the National Identification Number?
The National ID is a number displayed on a document of your home country, which verifies your identity. In France for example, this national identity card is called “Carte nationale d’identite” and it shows your personal data, including a picture as well. You will find the National Identification Number on this document (it is not the number of your passport). If you don’t have a valid document, then you have to write “DOES NOT APPLY” or “UNKNOWN” in the ESTA.

2) What do I have to bear in mind, if I have more than one first name?
Please have in mind, that you only have to state your very first name. This has to be done exactly the way how it is shown in your passport. For example: Your name is Maria Helen Sofia, then you only write down Maria.

3) What do people with dual citizenship should consider?
A dual citizenship must be stated in the ESTA. Should you not have a valid passport of your dual citizenship, then you must at least write down your dual country. If there is no passport at all for your other citizenship, then you fill out the field asking for your passport number with “DOES NOT APPLY” or “DOES NOT EXIST”.

4) What do I have to do, when my flight details change?
Since November 2014, the flight details cannot be changed in the ESTA anymore after your initial application. Meaning that your arrival and departure port is not changeable for your next trip to the USA a year later. You are only able to update your U.S. address, which you have stated in your valid ESTA. Even though you are flying and departing from different airports as the one stated in your initial application, the ESTA is still valid for two years in total.

WHAT Kind of PASSPORTS ARE REQUIRED?

You do have to meet some requirements in order to use the Visa Waiver Program:

All travelers (including babies and children) must have a passport that

  • contains an eletronic chip, which saves all the personal data and shows your biometric photograph
  • e-Pas is therefore machine-readable

IMPORTANT: Since the so-called "Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015" a biometric eletronic passport is a must, when you travel to the States. Since the 1st of May 2006 temporary passports are no longer valid for travels to the U.S. under the Visa Waiver Program. Holders of these passports have to obtain a biometrically enabled passport or apply for a tourist visa. Regular biometric "express-passes" are usually issued within just a few working days by most passport offices.

German children’s passports (Kinderreispässe) issued before 26 October 2006 are still eligible for Visa Waiver Program travel. Children’s passports issued on or after this day are not eligible for visa-free travel, since they will not be machine-readable. In this case, please apply for a new passport or a visa.

IMPORTANT: German child IDs ("Kinderausweise") will not be accepted for visa-free travel!

German citizens’ passports have to be valid for at least the duration of the stay. Citizens of certain other countries have to have passports that will be valid for at least six months after they leave the U.S.

Image of entering the USA with ESTA on an American Airport

WHAT CAN CAUSE INELIGIBILITY FOR THE VISA WAIVER PROGRAM?

Not all citizens of Visa Waiver Program countries are eligible for visa free travel to the U.S. The following groups do not qualify for visa free travel:

  • people who intend to work in the U.S.
  • people who intend to do an internship, attend school or university or work as an au pair in the U.S.
  • people who have been refused admission into the U.S. before
  • people who have been deported from the U.S. within the past five years
  • people with a criminal record
  • people who have a communicable disease or a mental disorder
  • people who are drug addicts
  • people who have participated in the persecution of any person under the Nazi regime
  • members of terrorist organizations
  • people holding a blue German passport/travel document

With the new regulations of the "Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Acts of 2015", the range of unauthorized individuals to travel with VWP has been expanded. Since January 21st, 2016 the following groups of travelers are no longer eligible to participate in the Visa Waiver Program (in some individual cases, there is a possibility to submit a request to make an exception).

  • Nationals of VWP countries who have traveled to one of the following countries since March 1st, 2011: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Sudan or Yemen. Exceptions may apply for diplomats and military personnel.
  • VWP nationals having dual citizenship of which one of them is from the following countries: Iran, Iraq, Syria or Sudan
  • Individuals who were previously denied entry to the U.S. (at the Port of Entry) or who have been deported from the United States.
  • Individuals who were previously convicted for certain offenses or who have been previously arrested or convicted once (individual assessment is necessary).
  • Individuals who have violated the immigration regulations of U.S. authorities (such as overstay etc.).
  • Individuals suffering from a serious, contagious disease.

If you meet one of the above mentioned restrictions, you will have to apply for a U.S. visa to enter the United States prior to your departure. We would like to point out that the chances of success are rather poor for U.S. visa applicants with criminal records. This does not only apply to severe offenses such as physical injury or robbery. Criminal records due to minor crimes such as fraud or theft can also cause your visa application to be denied.

WHAT CAN I DO IF MY ESTA IS DENIED?

If your ESTA application is denied, you will have to apply for a visa before traveling to the U.S. We strongly advise against trying to travel to the U.S. without it. If you do not have ESTA travel authorization, you will be denied admission at the border.

Of course, our visa and immigration services section will be happy to help you find a way to still realize your travel plans.

CAN I EXTEND MY STAY ON THE VISA WAIVER PROGRAM?

The 90-day limit on the Visa Waiver Program cannot be extended, not even by entering Mexico or Canada and then re-entering the U.S., as is often being claimed. There is no general rule as to how much time you have to spend in your own country before you can re-enter the U.S. under the VWP. This varies depending on travel frequency, length of the stay, purpose of the stay and other factors. In cases like these, you should always consider applying for a visa (e.g. B-1/B-2).

It is not possible to change your immigration status during visa-free travel! This means, anyone traveling to the U.S. under the VWP who then gets a job offer or decides to study or take part in a language course, will have to leave the U.S. to apply for the appropriate visa.

Will i be guaranteed a stay FOR 90 DAYS?

With regard to this, please note that all travelers – under certain circumstances – can be denied admission by an official at the border, if they do not meet the VWP requirements. Generally, there is no guarantee for admission, as well as there is no guarantee for the full 90-day period. The officials do have the right to limit your stay.

WHAT HAPPENS, IF I stay longer than THE 90-DAY LIMIT?

VWP travelers who have overstayed the 90-day limit can expect to be denied re-entry into the U.S. under the VWP. The longer you overstayed, the more severe the consequences will be. You can be barred temporarily or even permanently from re-entering the U.S.

If you have any reason to expect you will be staying for more than 90 days, please do not travel under the VWP. Instead, please apply for a B-1/B-2 visa early enough.