VISA practical experience

We are often asked questions about traveling visa-free to the USA with an ESTA/VWP or diverse US visas. Below you will find answers to our most frequently-asked questions prepared by our visa experts. Do you have your own question that we have not yet answered below? We will be glad to help you with your US visa needs! Please contact us anytime to make an appointment for a consultation.

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Are there quicker ways to enter the USA than with an ESTA? 

Question: As a huge USA-fan I travel to the United States about two times a year for vacation. On several occasions, I have been annoyed by the long waiting times to enter the country at the airport. A friend of mine recommended applying for a B-2 Tourist Visa. Is it true that border control waiting times are shorter with a B-2 Visa than with an ESTA (visa-free travel authorization)?  

Answer: Unfortunately, we cannot confirm what your friend said. Actually, quite the opposite is true: entering the United States with a visa can take longer than travelling to the USA under the Visa Waiver Program (ESTA). Why is that?

Fundamentally, border control does not differentiate between travelers entering the USA with or without a visa (except for Green Card holders). A few months ago, though, many airports implemented the so-called “Automated Passport Control (APC) System”. This new program allows American and Canadian citizens as well as travelers under the Visa Waiver Program to use designated passport kiosks and move through border control more quickly.  

Travelers entering visa-free (ESTA) can use the automated passport control kiosks (APC) and carry out a part of the time-consuming procedure themselves. The kiosks are located in designated areas. The kiosk automatically scans your passport, takes your photograph and records the answers to questions regarding your personal information and flight details. The kiosk will also ask you a series of security questions and there is no need to fill out a paper customs declaration form. There is no avoiding, however, a face-to-face chat with an immigration border agent: You must take your automatically printed kiosk receipt and passport to the border agent for a short inquiry.       

Participation in the APC-program is voluntary and does not require prior registration. This program however, is only for travelers entering the United States WITHOUT a visa (i.e. Visa Waiver Program participants). If you are travelling to the USA with a B-visa, this kiosk program does not apply to you.

Registering beforehand to use the APC kiosks is not necessary. If you would like to be able to enter the USA without long border control waiting times, then we would recommend (depending on citizenship) that you consider joining the Global Entry Program. This program makes it possible for registered persons to speed through border control and enter the USA more quickly. 

Entry stamp in passport is wrong - Am I illegally in the USA? 

Question: I entered the United States in Los Angeles with my family on July 3rd, 2017 for a 3-week round-trip vacation through California. Since everyone in my family is a German citizen, we easily entered the USA with an ESTA under the Visa Waiver Program. The officer at the border didn’t ask very many questions, looked at our passports and stamped them before wishing us a nice vacation.

For the first time today, I looked at the stamps in our passports and got quite a shock: The entry stamp in every passport is noted with VWT, the date of entry and the date 1 October 2017. In my passport, however, the day of departure is noted as 01 July 2017 (also with VWT). Am I currently staying in the USA illegally? What consequences should I expect?    

Answer

It certainly looks as if the immigration officer at the border simply made a mistake. This happens more often than you might think, especially with the high number of tourists entering the USA daily.

Just for your information: VWT stands for Visa Waiver Tourist. These initials note that you entered the USA with the sole purpose of being a tourist. The date 01 October 2017 stamped in your family’s passports is calculated using the 90-day rule. This rule allows you to be in the USA for a total of 90 days under the Visa Waiver Program. In most cases, this date is automatically the latest departure date.    

This mistake is obviously a mistake made by the officer at the border since you entered the USA on July 3rd, 2017 and the departure date is noted as 01 July 2017. Despite this, you should make sure to take the following steps to avoid problems when departing or entering the USA in the future.

We recommend the following:

1. Check the status of your stay in the USA online and retrieve your current I-94 form. This form is, so to say, your actual permission to stay in the USA. This online document shows when you entered the USA, which status you have (e.g. VW) as well as how long you are allowed to stay. When on the website, click on “Get most recent I-94”. If the I-94 recorded the departure date as 01 October 2017, as with your family, or a date later than when you expect to leave the country, then you need not to take any further steps. To be on the safe side, you should print a copy of the I-94 and keep it with you during your travels. The next time you enter the USA you will need to bring your current I-94 and proof (e.g. return ticket) that you left the USA before the 90-day deadline.

2. If the date recorded in the I-94 is also 01 July 2017, then we recommend contacting the locally located U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) immediately. You can search for a so-called “Deferred Inspection Site” and call and see if it is necessary to make an appointment. Keep your passport and flight detail on-hand just in case they have questions. The border officer’s mistake will then be corrected and the right data recorded at the appointment.

Tip: Always check your passport after it has been checked by the border control to make sure that the stamp is correct. This way, if you notice a mistake, it can be easily corrected with the border officer and you can avoid further complications. 

Is there a specific amount of time I have to wait until traveling to the USA again?

Question: I travel visa-free to the USA a couple of times a year for tourism with ESTA. I was wondering if there is a specific amount of time that I must spend outside of the USA before I am allowed to travel back?

Answer: In principle, you are allowed to enter the USA as many times as you like within the two-year period that your ESTA is valid. Having said that, a valid ESTA does not automatically mean that the border officer will let you through. If the border officer believes that a traveler intends to emigrate and stay in the USA, then they can refuse entry.

There are no mandatory requirements for the amount of time you must wait between your USA trips. It is important, however, to be aware of the fact that the border officer always has the last say in the matter. If the border officer has the feeling that you have entered the USA too often and suspects that you intend to stay in the USA, they may refuse you entry into the country.

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.

In the end, the border officers once again have the power to make this decision. If the border officer believes that you have traveled to the USA too often within a short time, the number of days you can may be shortened. Therefore, pay attention to the departure date stamped into your passport so you know how many days you have.

As a rule of thumb: It’s better to stay longer outside of the USA than inside.

Can I enter the USA with an ESTA if I have previously traveled to Iran?

QUESTION: Next month I would like to travel to the U.S. for 2 weeks. My nationality is German, but last year (2015) I spend a few days in Iran for business purposes. The Iran visa is located in my secondary passport, but I would travel to the U.S. with my first passport. Do I need a B-2 visa or can I travel visa-free with ESTA?

Answer: You are correct: As a German citizen, you are allowed to travel visa-free to the USA under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP). Due to regulations enacted on March 1st, 2011, however, people who have spent time in Iran are excluded from traveling to the USA with an ESTA. The deciding factor therefore is not the visa in the passport, but your actual physical presence in Iran.

Whether your Iran visa is in the passport you are traveling with to the USA or not, plays no roll – you cannot apply for ESTA since you were in Iran. You should plan to travel to the USA with your first passport with the Iran visa. If you try to hide the fact that you were in Iran, you are breaking US immigration law and will be de facto illegal in the USA.

If the US authorities become aware of the fact that you lied, you risk being turning away at the border, having all visa denied in the future or even being banned from traveling to the USA all together.

Please apply for a B-visa under all circumstances to enter the USA as a tourist. Just in case you might be traveling to the USA for business reasons, you can also apply for a B-1/B-2 visa at the same time. This visa is normally issued for a period of 10 years and is valid for tourism and doing business in the USA. Ideally, you should get an official document from your employer confirming that you were in Iran for business-related reasons.

Do I need to get a new ESTA after changing my last name?

Question: I am traveling to the USA with my husband next week. We booked our flight a while ago. In the meanwhile, we have married and I have taken my husband’s last name. I have a new passport now as a result of my new last name. My airline ticket and my ESTA travel authorization are both under my old last name. Will this be a problem?

Answer: First of all we wish to congratulate you on your wedding! Unfortunately, you have to immediately request a new ESTA travel authorization for your new passport (and thereby your new last name). The ESTA travel authorization allowing you to travel visa-free to the states not only has to match the person, but also the passport. If you receive a new passport or your old passport expires, you are required to get a new ESTA travel authorization. You can do these easily on the official ESTA website. Please request a new ESTA 72 hours before your flight departs at the latest.

It is essential for entering the USA that the data on your ESTA travel authorization is exactly the same as the data in the passport you are using. Your ticket here does not really play a role.

But: The United States take part, like a number of other countries worldwide, in the Advance Passenger Information System (APIS) Program. While booking your flight to the USA, you normally get an (online) form to fill out asking for specific data (date of birth, nationality, passport number, etc.). This information will be submitted to the U.S. authorities before your flight and your entry into the USA. In this respect, any differences between the details given on your ticket and those in your passport or ESTA travel authorization can lead to difficulties and inquires.

Even more importantly: You should immediately inform the airline about any name changes. In the worst case scenario, not informing them could lead to the airline not being able to check you in at the airport or refusing you entry to the plane. That is why it is vital to contact the airline immediately.

Can I exchange my ESTA for a US student visa while already in the USA?

Question: I am in the USA with an ESTA. While here, I applied at many universities and got accepted. Someone told me that I could just stay in the USA and apply for my student visa. Is that right?

Answer: First of all, to study in the USA you need a F-1 visa (Student visa). Unfortunately, it is not possible under the Visa Waiver Program to change your ESTA status into a U.S. visa while in the USA. It is only possible, under certain circumstances, to change the status of certain non-immigrant visa categories (e.g. L-1) into other non-immigrant visa categories. This so-called status change within the USA is not allowed for tourists traveling under the scope of the Visa Waiver Program. This people must leave the USA after 90 days.

In this respect, we have to disagree with your university advisor. There is absolutely no way to take up your studies directly in the USA. You must leave the USA and apply for an F-1 student visa and carry out the visa application process with your respective U.S. consulate. Please be aware that the Form I-20 is required for your application. You will get this form from all “SEVIS approved schools” where you have been accepted. The USCIS requires the I-20 as an official document of your intention to study in the USA.

In general, almost all universities in the USA issue the Form I-20. To be one the safe side, however, you should look up your school on this list of authorized educational institutions.  

Our tip: In addition to the application form, please be aware that the applicant must also provide proof of enough financial means to support their studies.  

Is it possible to apply for an ESTA with old or child passports?

Question: Our family is traveling to the USA for the holidays and we would like to stay for two weeks. We (my husband and I) are German citizens and have German passports that are 8 years old. Our daughter has a child passport that we got last year. We read that there were new passport rules for traveling to the USA. Are our passports valid or not?

Answer: It is true that the under the “Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015” new passport rules for the visa-free travel to the USA with ESTA have been enacted. Under the new rules which started on April 1st, 2016, only travelers with an electronic and biometric passport are allowed to travel to the USA under the Visa Waiver Program. This so-called ePass has a chip which digitally stores information about the person traveling.

Check with your countries passport office if you are not sure if your passport has a digital chip. In most countries, recently issued passports are up to the ePass standard.   

Important: Be aware that you must have a regular passport to travel to the USA with an ESTA. A child’s passport is not a regular passport and cannot be used for an ESTA. You may either apply for a B-2 travel visa for the child or get a regular passport for the child. Getting a new passport for the child is usually less time- and cost-consuming. Check to see if your country’s passport authorities offer expediated services.

It is possible to travel to the USA with a valid ESTA after my B2-visa was denied?

Question: Yesterday, I filed my application for B-2 Visitor Visa at the U.S. Embassy in Berlin because I wanted to take a six-month trip around the USA. Unfortunately, my application was denied because I could not prove enough strong ties to my home country. I was in the USA last year and still have a valid ESTA. Someone in an internet forum recommended that I simply travel to the United States with my existing ESTA and travel visa-free in the USA for 90 days or less. I got the impression that this is not a problem. Just in case, I should additionally bring evidence of my intention to return and proof that I have enough financial resources to show the border officer. Is this correct?

Answer: First of all, we are sorry that your application was denied. Secondly, the information from the mentioned internet forum is false and should be handled with great caution. From a strictly legal point of view, the situation is as follows:   

You are required by law to always keep the data given in your ESTA (travel authorization to participant in the program for visa-free traveling) current. That means that any changes to your person must be updated in your ESTA. One of the yes/no security questions you must answer for the ESTA application is if you have ever had a visa application denied. In the ESTA you currently have, the answer to this question is “No”. In your case, your situation has changed and that means that you are required to re-apply for a new ESTA. When filling out the new ESTA application, you will have to answer this question with “yes”. In 99% of all cases, this leads to the denial of your ESTA application. If a visa has been refused before, the vast majority of ESTA applications will be denied and you will no longer be able to travel to the USA visa-free.

The first step you need to take is to apply for a new ESTA. As already mentioned, we assume that this application will be denied. Which in turn means that you must apply for a B-Visa (Visitor Visa) for any future trips to the USA. You have the possibility to re-apply for a B-Visa at any time. To avoid another visa denial, in your case, it would be sensible to re-apply only after certain changes have been made in your personal situation (e.g. a work contract or proof of studies to establish strong ties).

What are the consequences of using the ESTA that you already have: The U.S. authorities are tightly interconnected with each other. This means there is a very high probability that the officer at the border crossing will see that you have had a visa denied and that this information in not in the existing ESTA application. Next, you will be accused of giving false information to cross the border. Normally, you will then be questioned about the situation in a separate room – this interrogation can be very uncomfortable and tedious. Moreover, the decision whether you get to enter the country or not is solely in the hands of the border officer. The probability that the officer will send you on the next flight back home is very likely. Being untruthful about your previous visa denial on the ESTA application can lead to a refusal of entry at the border as well as additional costs for the flight home. When this happens, your chance of ever getting another visa application approved in the foreseeable future is zero.

It may well be that some travelers have just had a lot of luck and the data-exchange between the U.S. authorities had not yet been completed at the time they crossed the border. In your own interest, we strongly advise you to not travel to the USA with an invalid ESTA. Feel free to schedule an appointment with The American Dream - US Visa Service for a consultation. 

Is a round-trip tour of North and South America possible with an ESTA if it is longer than 90 days?

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.