The Visa Waiver Program Explained

The Visa Waiver Program (VWP) took effect in 1986 to facilitate tourism and short business visits to the United States. It allows citizens of participating nations to forgo applying for a visa if they want to visit for business or tourism purposes and stay no more than 90 days. These countries, which include Canada, Australia, and most European nations, must also allow US citizens to visit for business or tourism without a visa and stay for a similar length of time.

There are other conditions for using the Visa Waiver Program. They include ESTA authorization and use of an e-passport.

Electronic System for Travel Authorization

You must have authorization through the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) before boarding an aircraft or vessel bound for the States. U.S. Customs and Border Protection uses this web-based system to determine your eligibility for entering the US without a visa. Your ESTA is generally valid for two years, but you must obtain a new one if you:

  • Get a new passport (includes temporary or emergency passports)
  • Change your name, gender, or country of citizenship
  • Need to change any of your answers on the ESTA application

ESTA requests should be carried out at least three days before you travel, but the process is nearly instantaneous.


To use the VWP you must have an e-passport, which is a special type of passport with an embedded electronic chip. Immigration officers will scan this chip to match your identity to your passport. Even temporary or emergency passports must be e-versions. Unless country-specific agreements direct otherwise, your passport must also be valid for at least six months after you intend to leave the US.

Visitor Visas

Those who prefer to do so or are ineligible for VWP travel may still enter the US on a visitor visa. You will also need a visa if:

  • You are arriving on an aircraft or vessel that is not VWP-approved, such as a private airplane.
  • You intend to stay longer than 90 days

Visa Waiver Program Restrictions

Even if you are a citizen of a VWP country, you may not enter the US under the Visa Waiver Program if:

  • You are also a national of Iran, Iraq, Sudan, or Syria
  • You traveled to or were present in the following countries on or after March 1, 2011 (unless it was for military or diplomatic purposes): Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Syria, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen

When you enter the US under the VWP, you cannot request a time extension like you can with most visas. However, you may apply to adjust your status on the basis of applying for asylum or marriage to a US citizen.

Contact an Experienced Immigration Attorney

If you want to apply for a visa waiver and need experienced legal guidance with the process, contact the immigration team at Sánchez-Roig Law Firm, P.A. If you have admissibility issues, such as a criminal record or a history of being denied entry to the US, we will explain your options and advise you on how to proceed. For more information or to schedule a consultation, call 305-373-5385 today.