Visa Waiver Program

What is the Visa Waiver Program?

Frequently Asked Questions about the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) and the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA)

The Visa Waiver Program (VWP) is administered by DHS and enables eligible citizens or nationals of designated countries to travel to the United States for tourism or business for stays of 90 days or less without first obtaining a visa.

Among the total of 40 citizens or nationals currently eligible to travel to the United States under the VWP, Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan are the only Asian countries.

What are the passport requirements to travel under the Visa Waiver Program?

Travel under the VWP is restricted to travelers possessing passports with specified security features. Visa Waiver Program requirements are:

  • The passport must have a machine-readable zone on the biographic page.
  • The passport must be an electronic passport with a digital chip containing biometric information about the passport owner.

As of April 1, 2016, all travelers must have an e-passport to use the VWP.  An e-Passport, denoted by the symbol e-passport logo, is an enhanced secure passport with an embedded electronic chip. E-Passports are issued by the proper passport issuing authority and must meet international standards for securing and storing information corresponding to the passport and bearer.   

I just got an email stating my ESTA has been cancelled because of a non e-passport, however my passport is an e-passport with the symbol on the cover. What should I do?

Please check your application with your e-passport on the ESTA website.  If you submitted your email address on more than one ESTA application, the email could be referencing another ESTA application for a previous passport.  The email you received refers to the cancelation of the ESTA application of your non e-passport.  Your ESTA application with your current e-passport should still be valid. 

What is the Electronic System for Travel Authorization?

The Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) is an automated system that assists in determining eligibility to travel to the United States under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) and whether such travel poses any law enforcement or security risk. Upon completion of an ESTA application, a traveler is notified of his or her eligibility to travel to the United States under the VWP.

Why is authorization under ESTA required for U.S.-bound travel under the Visa Waiver Program?

The “Implementing Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007” (9/11 Act) amended Section 217 of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), requiring that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) implement an electronic travel authorization system and other measures to enhance the security of the VWP. ESTA adds another layer of security that allows DHS to determine, in advance of travel, whether an individual is eligible to travel to the United States under the VWP and whether such travel poses a law enforcement or security risk.

Visa Waiver Program

Is an ESTA a visa?

No. An approved ESTA is not a visa. It does not meet the legal or regulatory requirements to serve in lieu of a U.S. visa when a visa is required under U.S. law. Individuals who possess a valid visa will still be able to travel to the United States on that visa for the purpose for which it was issued. Individuals traveling on valid visas are not required to apply for ESTA.

Who is required to apply for ESTA?

All eligible nationals or citizens of VWP countries who plan to travel to the United States for temporary business or pleasure under VWP are required to receive an authorization through ESTA prior to boarding a U.S.-bound airplane or vessel. The term “United States” refers to the continental United States, Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Guam, the Virgin Islands of the United States, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.

Accompanied and unaccompanied children, regardless of age, are also required to obtain an independent ESTA approval. A third party, such as a relative or travel agent, is permitted to submit an ESTA application on behalf of a VWP traveler.

Do nationals or citizens of countries that participate in the VWP require an ESTA if they are only transiting the United States en route to another country?

Yes. Eligible nationals or citizens of countries that participate in the VWP require either an ESTA or a visa to transit the United States. If a traveler is only planning to transit through the United States en route to another country, when he or she completes the ESTA application, the traveler should enter the words “In Transit” and his or her final destination in the address lines under the heading “Address While In The United States.”

When will travelers be required to obtain an ESTA?

As of January 12, 2009, all VWP travelers are required to obtain a travel authorization via ESTA prior to traveling to the United States under the VWP.

When can a traveler apply for travel authorization via ESTA?

At anytime, but preferably as soon as a VWP traveler begins to plan a trip to visit the United States. Travelers may file ESTA applications through the ESTA website.

It is less than 72 hours before my flight to the United States. I just found out about the ESTA application, what can I do?

While CBP recommends that you apply at least 72 hours before travel, you may apply anytime prior to boarding. In most cases, a response is received within seconds of submitting an application.

What happens to VWP travelers without an ESTA? Will they be denied boarding? Will CBP have discretion at the ports of entry to allow admission to the United States for emergencies?

VWP travelers, who travel without an approved ESTA, may be denied boarding. CBP will handle emergencies on a case-by-case basis.

How does a traveler apply for an ESTA to travel to the United States?

ESTA is a web-based system. In order to apply for an ESTA, go to the ESTA website, follow the instructions to answer all of the required questions and submit an application for travel authorization.

If a traveler has received approval through ESTA to travel to the United States, does that mean that the traveler can enter the country?

Not necessarily. An ESTA approval only authorizes a traveler to board a carrier for travel to the United States under the VWP. In the same way that a valid visa does not constitute a determination of admissibility, an approved ESTA is not a guarantee of admissibility to the United States at a port of entry. In all cases, CBP officers make admissibility determinations at U.S. ports of entry or pre-clearance facilities.

How far in advance of a trip is it necessary to apply for travel authorization through ESTA?

ESTA applications may be submitted at any time prior to traveling to the United States under the VWP, and in most cases, ESTA provides an almost immediate determination of eligibility for travel under the VWP. However, DHS recommends and encourages VWP travelers to submit ESTA applications through the ESTA website as soon as the traveler begins to plan a visit to the U.S. VWP travelers are not required to have specific plans to travel to the United States before they apply for an ESTA, but if the information is available applicants are encouraged to provide their destination addresses and itineraries. Each approved ESTA application generally is valid for two years or until the applicant’s passport expires, whichever comes first. A new travel authorization is required if: (1) the traveler is issued a new passport; (2) the traveler changes his or her name; (3) the traveler changes his or her gender; (4) the traveler’s country of citizenship changes; or (5) the circumstances underlying the traveler’s previous responses to any of the ESTA application questions requiring a “yes” or “no” response have changed. The associated fee will be charged for each new application submitted.

What happens when a traveler submits an application and how long does it take for ESTA to process an application?

In most cases, ESTA provides an almost immediate determination of eligibility for travel under the VWP. There are three types of responses to an ESTA application: Authorization Approved, Authorization Pending and Travel Not Authorized. Applicants who receive an approval are authorized to travel to the United States under the VWP. Applicants who receive an Authorization Pending response will need to check the website for updates within 72 hours to receive a final response. Applicants whose ESTA applications are denied will be referred to the Travel Information web site for information on how to apply for a visa to travel to the United States.

How long is a travel authorization via ESTA valid?

Each approved ESTA application generally is valid for two years and allows for multiple visits to the United States within that period without having to apply for another ESTA approval. Travelers whose passports will expire in less than two years will receive an ESTA valid until the passport’s expiration date.

A new travel authorization is required if: (1) the traveler is issued a new passport; (2) the traveler changes his or her name; (3) the traveler changes his or her gender; (4) the traveler’s country of citizenship changes; or (5) the circumstances underlying the traveler’s previous responses to any of the ESTA application questions requiring a “yes” or “no” response have changed. The associated fee will be charged for each new application submitted.

Can prospective travelers apply for an ESTA without specific travel plans if they want to be able to travel to the United States later on short notice?

Yes. VWP travelers are not required to have specific plans to travel to the United States before they apply for an ESTA. If a traveler’s destination in the United States is unknown when he or she completes the ESTA application, the traveler should enter “Unknown.” Travelers may update this information when their plans are finalized, but they will not be required to update their destination addresses or itineraries should they change after their ESTA application has been approved. DHS recommends that ESTA applications be submitted as early as possible, as soon as, or even before travel is planned. ESTA will accept applications from last-minute and emergency travelers – those VWP travelers who arrive at the airport without an approved ESTA.

What information is needed in order to complete the ESTA application?

The traveler must provide, in English, biographical data including name, birth date and passport information. The traveler also must answer VWP eligibility questions regarding communicable diseases, arrests and convictions for certain crimes, past history of visa revocation or deportation and other questions. The traveler will also need their credit card information to pay the associated fees in order to complete the ESTA application.

Do VWP travelers need to bring a paper printout of their ESTA approval to the airport?

No. DHS communicates a traveler’s ESTA status to the carriers. However, DHS recommends that travelers print out the ESTA application response as a record of their ESTA application number to confirm their ESTA status.

Can I contact somebody for assistance regarding ESTA?

You may call the CBP Info Center at (202) 325-8000 or 1-877-227-5511. The CBP Info Center will only be able to answer general questions regarding ESTA. If you need to know why an ESTA application has been denied or you have specific questions regarding your ESTA application, you must file a request with the DHS Traveler Redress Inquiry Program.

Is there a fee for a travel authorization?

Yes, beginning September 8, 2010, there is a fee required by the Travel Promotion Act of 2009 (Section 9 of the United States Capitol Police Administrative Technical Corrections Act of 2009, Pub. L. No. 111-145). The fee is comprised of two parts:

Processing Charge — All applicants requesting an electronic travel authorization are charged for the processing of the application. The fee is $4.00.
Authorization charge — If your application is approved and you receive authorization to travel to the United States under the Visa Waiver Program, an additional $10.00 will be charged to your credit card. If your electronic travel authorization is denied, you are only charged for the processing of your application.

CBP is not responsible for any additional fees that may be charged by your credit card company for the transaction.

Does a traveler ever need to reapply for travel authorization through ESTA?

Yes, a new travel authorization via ESTA is required when: (1) the traveler is issued a new passport; (2) the traveler changes his or her name; (3) the traveler changes his or her gender; (4) the traveler’s country of citizenship changes; or (5) the circumstances underlying the traveler’s previous responses to any of the ESTA application questions requiring a “yes” or “no” response have changed.

ESTA approvals are typically granted for a two–year period or until the applicant’s passport expires, whichever is sooner. ESTA provides validity dates upon approval of the application. Therefore, a traveler must apply for a new ESTA when the prior ESTA approval or passport expires. The associated fee will be charged for each new application submitted.

What should a traveler do if the information in his or her passport has changed?

If a traveler’s passport information changes, the individual is required to apply for a new travel authorization through ESTA. A new travel authorization is required if (1) the traveler is issued a new passport; (2) the traveler changes his or her name; (3) the traveler changes his or her gender; (4) the traveler’s country of citizenship changes; or (5) the circumstances underlying the traveler’s previous responses to any of the ESTA application questions requiring a “yes” or “no” response have changed. The associated fee will be charged for each new application submitted.

How can applicants correct a mistake when completing their ESTA applications?

The ESTA website provides applicants with the data submitted prior to submission so the applicant may review and make corrections if necessary. In addition, the ESTA website requires the applicant to reaffirm the passport number, family name and country of citizenship prior to submission. For corrections:

Any data entered may be corrected prior to submitting the application.

After the application is submitted, data such as email address, telephone number, and “Travel Information” such as the Carrier Name and flight number, and address while in the United States may be corrected or updated using the ESTA update function.

Mistakes made in answering any of the VWP eligibility questions A – G may be changed depending on the question. Contact the CBP ESTA Office at (202) 344-3710.

I forgot my ESTA application number. How can I log back into the system to update my information or check my application status?

If a traveler loses, forgets, or does not have access to his or her application number or travel status, he or she may retrieve the application number, beginning September 8, 2010, through the ESTA website by entering the applicants name, date of birth, passport number and passport issuing country.

If a VWP traveler has received ESTA approval, does he or she also need to fill out an I-94W?

The implementation of the ESTA program allows DHS to eliminate the requirement that VWP travelers complete an I-94W prior to being admitted to the United States. CBP has transitioned to paperless processing for VWP travelers arriving by air or sea who have obtained an ESTA authorization. Most travelers entering the United States under the Visa Waiver Program who have an approved ESTA will no longer need to fill out the I-94W form, nor will a green I-94W departure card be placed in their passport. The I-94W form will still be required at the land border.

What if a traveler has a current, valid visa?

Individuals who possess a valid visa will still be able to travel to the United States on that visa for the purpose for which it was issued. Individuals traveling on valid visas are not required to apply for an ESTA authorization.

I have a B1/B2 visa. Do I need to apply for an ESTA?

If you already have a B1/B2 or any other valid visa and you are traveling for the purpose in which it was issued, you do not need to apply for an ESTA authorization.

What should a traveler do if he or she is not approved for travel through ESTA?

If an ESTA application is denied and the traveler wishes to continue with the trip, the traveler will be required to apply for a nonimmigrant visa at a U.S. Embassy or Consulate. Visit the State Department website for more about visa application procedures.

Should a traveler not approved for travel through ESTA reapply?

Unless the circumstances have changed, the traveler will not qualify for an ESTA and will need to apply for a nonimmigrant visa at a U.S. Embassy or Consulate. If you misunderstood the question, or thought something in your background was a reason to be denied and found out later that it was not, we advise you to contact us so we can review your answer. Please go to help.cbp.gov to send an email by clicking on “Ask a Question.” In your email, please explain why you selected “yes” to that question, and ask for clarification on next steps.

If a traveler was denied ESTA approval and needs to travel immediately, is it possible to get an emergency visa appointment at a U.S. Embassy or Consulate?

Unfortunately, the Department of State is unable to guarantee next-day appointments because of varying demand for visas. As a result, we encourage travelers to apply for an ESTA far in advance of the proposed travel. Information about the appointment process is available at the nearest consular section or at the Travel Information website.

MI Asian
Author: MI Asian