If you’re a citizen of one of 38 countries on the U.S. Visa Waiver Program, then you do not require a visa to visit the United States. Instead, you can visit the United States visa-free for up to 90 days.
Most citizens of a Visa Waiver Program country can apply for an Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA). This online application can be completed in minutes. It allows you to seek entry to the United States at a border crossing – similar to how a visa works.
Thanks to the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) citizens of 38 countries can more freely visit the United States without the hassle, cost, and annoyance of going through a visa application process.
Keep reading to discover everything you need to know about the U.S. Visa Waiver Program – including whether or not you’re eligible for the program.
What is the U.S. Visa Waiver Program?
In 1986, the United States government identified certain countries with similar security standards and government systems. The United States wanted to allow citizens of these countries to visit the U.S. for tourism or pleasure without the hassle of applying for a visa. At the same time, the United States wanted to ensure that its country and its citizens stayed protected.
The end result of this initiative was the U.S. Visa Waiver Program. Over the years, the list of VWP countries has expanded to include 38 nations.
Countries on the Visa Waiver Program list typically include high-income economies and developed nations. Most western European countries are on the list, for example, as are Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, and similar countries.
The countries on the Visa Waiver Program list also have another thing in common: low rates of non-immigrant visa refusal. Typically, the visas on this list have a refusal rate of around 3%.
Which Countries Are Part of the Visa Waiver Program?
The Visa Waiver Program list has changed significantly over the years. Originally, just 19 countries were identified by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to be part of the Visa Waiver Program. Today, there are 38 countries.
Additionally, some countries have dropped out over the years. Argentina was a member from 1996 to 2002, for example, but is no longer a member. Uruguay was a member from 1999 to 2003 before dropping out.
Certain countries are also designated as “roadmap” countries. These countries are in the process of gaining visa-free admittance to the United States. In the future, countries like Brazil, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Israel, Poland, Romania, and Turkey may be added to the list. It’s also possible for Argentina and Uruguay to be reinstated.
As of 2019, the following 38 countries are part of the Visa Waiver Program:
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Who is Eligible for the Visa Waiver Program?
If you are a citizen of one of the above countries, then you may be eligible for expedited entry into the United States under the Visa Waiver Program and the ESTA system. Most citizens of the 38 countries listed above will not require a visa to enter the United States – assuming your trip is fewer than 90 days and you’re visiting the country for business or pleasure.
Check if you can travel under the Visa Waiver Program using the ESTA Eligibility Checker:
How Does the Visa Waiver Program Work? What Am I Allowed to Do in America?
Traveling under the Visa Waiver Program is generally easier than traveling with a conventional U.S. visa. Citizens of a Visa Waiver Program country are typically eligible for an ESTA. An ESTA grants visa-free travel to the United States for a two year period. You can visit the United States for up to 90 days, although there is no restriction on the number of trips you can make within the 2 year period.
Additionally, those who enter the United States under the Visa Waiver Program can visit America’s two neighboring countries, Canada and Mexico. It’s important to note that your 90 day limit does not reset when visiting either country. You cannot make a weekend trip to Canada and reset your 90 day VWP limit.
Additionally, Visa Waiver Program visitors are permitted to do certain things that an ordinary visa holder may not be allowed to do. There’s greater flexibility over performing business-related functions in the United States, for example.
Things You Are Allowed to Do Under the Visa Waiver Program
Entering the United States under the VWP allows you to do the following things:
- Negotiate contracts
- Meet with business associates in the U.S.
- Settle estates (say, if a relative recently passed away in the United States)
- Attend a conference, informal education training, business event, or similar professional event
- Visit friends or family
- Tour the cities and countryside of the United States
- Participate in events, sports activities, or contests for which you will not receive payment
- Enroll in short study courses that do not go towards professional credit (i.e. non-degree programs like a cooking class)
- Enjoy a vacation in the United States
Things You Are Not Allowed to Do Under the Visa Waiver Program
Visitors to the United States under the VWP are not permitted to do certain things while visiting the United States, including:
- Become a full-time or part-time student
- Work in press or journalism
- Engage in any form of employment
- Perform in an arts or sports event and receive payment
- Enter the United States as a crewmember on an airplane or ship
- Seek permanent residence in the United States
What Are the Requirements to Enter the United States Under the Visa Waiver Program?
You must meet the following four requirements to enter the United States under the Visa Waiver Program:
- Be a citizen of one of the 38 Visa Waiver Program countries listed above
- Have a valid ESTA approval
- Have an e-passport
- Have proof or evidence that you will return to your home country after visiting the United States
All VWP applicants must complete an Electronic System for Travel Authorization application (ESTA) prior to entering the United States. The ESTA can be completed in a few minutes online. The form asks basic questions about yourself and your background. It’s recommended that you complete your ESTA as soon as you start planning your trip to the United States.
Generally, ESTA approval will occur in minutes. Your ESTA will be attached to your e-passport. The CBP officer will see your ESTA when you arrive in the United States at a port of entry.
Your passport is machine-readable if it has an e-Passport symbol on the front. This symbol indicates that CBP officers can scan your passport using a machine.
New Exceptions Were Added to the Visa Waiver Program in 2016
In 2016, the United States implemented changes to the Visa Waiver Program. Under these changes, certain citizens of the 38 countries above are no longer eligible for visa-free travel to the United States. If you have recently visited the Middle East, for example, then you may be required to obtain a visa to enter the United States. Additionally, certain dual citizens will need to obtain a visa instead of completing an ESTA application.
When applying for an ESTA from a Visa Waiver Program country, you will be asked two questions to determine your eligibility. If you answer yes to either of the following two questions, then you are no longer eligible for an ESTA under the Visa Waiver Program:
- Have you visited Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Syria, Libya, Somalia, or Yemen at any point on or since March 1, 2011?
- Are you a citizen of Iran, Iraq, Sudan, or Syria?
There are limited exceptions to these rules. However, certain diplomats and military personnel may be exempt. If you visited the Middle East as a member of the military or as an official representative of your government, for example, then you may be exempt from the first question.
Will My Country Join the Visa Waiver Program in the Future? How Do New Countries Join?
The Visa Waiver Program began as a list of 19 countries. Over the years, the size of the list has doubled. Today, 38 countries are on the list and more may be added in the near future.
The United States has strict rules governing which countries are eligible for the Visa Waiver Program. Some of the requirements include:
- The country must issue e-passports
- The country must agree to enhanced law enforcement and security data sharing with the United States
- The country must have an effective system for reporting lost or stolen passports
- The country must have a non-immigrant B-visa refusal rate of less than 3%
- The country must have strong counter-terrorism, border control, law enforcement, and other security standards
Essentially, the United States will accept countries to the Visa Waiver Program when they have strong, trusted security standards in place. When the United States feels they can trust a country’s security system, and when the country agrees to share data with the United States, then that country may be eligible for admittance into the U.S. visa program.
As mentioned above, certain countries are on the list for admittance into the U.S. Visa Waiver Program. These are called “roadmap” countries. They include Argentina (previously a member from 1996-2002), Brazil, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Israel, Poland, Romania, Turkey, and Uruguay (previously a member from 1999-2003).
Two countries have been removed from the Visa Waiver Program over the years. If the United States feels that a country does not have adequate security procedures in place, then the United States can revoke membership in the U.S. Visa Waiver Program.
In 2002, for example, the United States revoked Argentina’s membership in the program because of the ongoing financial crisis in the country. In 2003, the United States took similar action with Uruguay for similar reasons.
What Documents Do I Need to Enter the United States Under the Visa Waiver Program?
The main documents needed for the Visa Waiver Program include:
- A valid e-passport
- ESTA approval
The e-passport must be valid for six months beyond your planned date of departure from the United States. The ESTA can be obtained online in minutes prior to visiting the United States.
How Long Does the Visa Waiver Program Last?
The Visa Waiver Program allows holders of an ESTA to visit the United States for a maximum of 90 days per trip.
The ESTA is eligible for 2 years or until your passport expires – whichever comes sooner. If your passport expires while your ESTA is still active, then you will need to re-apply for a new ESTA. You cannot re-enter the United States on an old ESTA using a new passport.
Am I Allowed to Extend My Stay Under the Visa Waiver Program?
You are not permitted to extend your stay with the Visa Waiver Program. You are permitted to spend 90 consecutive days in the United States per trip.
However, there is no real limit to the number of trips you can make within the two-year eligibility period of your visa. You can visit the United States for 90 days, fly back to the Netherlands, and return a week later. You can expect questions at the U.S. border if you frequently enter the United States in this manner, however.
It’s also important to note that you cannot “reset” your 90 day period by visiting Canada or Mexico. For the purposes of the ESTA and Visa Waiver Program system, Canada and Mexico are considered parts of the United States.
What If I Find a Job in the United States?
You are not permitted to search for work while visiting the United States under the Visa Waiver Program.
If you happen to be offered a job while visiting the United States under the Visa Waiver Program, then you cannot extend your stay, nor can you change your status. You must return to your home country and then apply for a different visa from there – even if the employer is willing to sponsor you for an H-1B visa.
What Happens If I Cannot Get a Visa Waiver or ESTA?
If you cannot obtain entry under the Visa Waiver Program – say, if your ESTA is denied – then you will be required to obtain a conventional visa.
The most popular visas to enter the United States include B-1 visas (temporary visas for business) or B-2 visas (temporary visas for pleasure or holiday).
To obtain one of these visas, you will have to meet all of the eligibility requirements. You can also apply under a different visa – say, a work or study visa – if you meet those eligibility requirements.
Furthermore, if you are planning to visit the United States for longer than 90 days, then you may want to apply for a B visa even if your ESTA application is approved. That’s B visa visitors can visit the United States for a longer period of time: they’re valid for up to six months and allow you to file an extension.
You may also be ineligible for a Visa Waiver or ESTA if you are traveling to the United States on a non-VWP approved air or sea carrier or a private aircraft.
Can I Get a Green Card Through the Visa Waiver Program?
Green card holders are considered lawful permanent residents of the United States.
If you enter the United States from a Visa Waiver Program country, then you are not entitled to receive a green card. Your ESTA allows you to visit the United States temporarily for business or pleasure for a maximum of 90 days.
The only possible way to obtain permanent residence (i.e. a green card) in the United States while visiting under the Visa Waiver Program is to marry a U.S. citizen. If you marry a U.S. citizen while visiting the United States, then your visa status will change. You may also be able to change your status if you have family in the United States and apply to join them.
Can My Dependents Join Me in the United States Under the Visa Waiver Program?
The Visa Waiver Program and the ESTA system apply to individuals – not groups of people. Each individual seeking entry to the United States from a Visa Waiver Program country will need to apply for an ESTA individually.
If you and your family, including spouses and children, wish to visit the United States for a holiday together, then each of you must individually be eligible for the Visa Waiver Program and receive an ESTA. If your spouse and children are citizens of a Visa Waiver Program country, then this shouldn’t be an issue.
Ultimately, the United States Visa Waiver Program allows citizens of many developed nations to obtain easier, visa-free access to the United States through an ESTA.