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The Visa Waiver Program is a system where foreign nationals who are citizens of certain countries can, by mutual agreement between the U.S. and these countries, enter the U.S. for brief visits without first obtaining a visa stamp from a U.S. Embassy or Consulate abroad. This saves the significant time needed to apply for a B-1 or B-2 visa stamp and enables foreign nationals to enter on short notice to meet urgent business needs or take impromptu vacations.

You can view the current list on the U.S. State Department web site here.

ESTA stands for “Electronic System for Travel Authorization.”

This is an online advance registration system which collects in advance of the trip the information which was formerly collected on the light green I-94W card specific to the Visa Waiver Program (as opposed to the white I-94 card completed by all other non-immigrant visa applicants for admission and various other entrants), which used to be completed while en route to the U.S. Use of ESTA does require a small fee (see below) and needs to be done in advance of departure.

Essentially, the foreign national can do the same things on visa waiver as a foreign national entering on a traditional B-1/B-2 visitor visa with a visa stamp. In other words, vacations, business meetings, conferences and in some limited circumstances training or work for the overseas company pursuant to a contract with a U.S. company are acceptable for individuals entering under the visa waiver program.

No – a foreign national entering under the visa waiver program can not change to another non-immigrant status, unlike an individual entering under the B-1/B-2 visitor visa. A person in the U.S. on the Visa Waiver program would need to leave the country and re-enter in the new visa status.

No. There are several requirements beyond just being a citizen or national of a Visa Waiver country, and certain people will need to get a visa stamp even though they are citizens or nationals of a Visa Waiver country. Such people include:

  • People who have not first received approval through the ESTA system.
  • People who want to stay in the U.S. for more than the 90 days permitted by the Visa Waiver program.
  • People who do not have a sufficiently recent passport – in most cases, the Machine-Readable Passport (“MRP” – meaning that the long edge of the passport is coded to be read by optical readers), but for certain countries – specifically Czech Republic, Estonia, Greece, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, the Republic of Korea, or the Slovak Republic – this means an electronic passport with integrated Radio Frequency ID chip – valid for six months past their expected stay.
  • People traveling into the U.S. by a carrier NOT on the approved carriers list, or by private aircraft.
  • People who have a criminal record or certain legally defined grounds for ineligibility
  • People who have used the Visa Waiver program before but overstayed the period of admission (one strike and you’re out – there are no second chances if you don’t abide by the terms of the program); and
  • People who have been refused admission to the U.S. in the past – even if it wasn’t their fault or was in their own view unfair.

A few. The ESTA system charges a $4.00 processing fee to apply, and when the application is approved there is an additional $10.00 issuance fee ($14.00 total). This must be paid by credit card online. Some land border corssings also charge a small additional fee.

The B-1/B-2 visitor visa (B-1 for business visits, B-2 for personal/vacation visits) allows foreign nationals to enter the U.S. for a limited period of time to take part in certain clearly (and narrowly) defined types of activities.

For this type of visa, it is important that the foreign national applying intend to visit only temporarily and not to remain longer-term or permanently for some other purpose (attending school, working, getting married to a U.S. citizen, or residing permanently with U.S.-based relatives for example).

The interviewing officer both at the embassy or consulate where an individual applies for a B-1/B-2 visa stamp, as well as interviewing officers upon entry into the U.S. will make determinations as to the intent of the foreign national which will govern the decision to permit entry. The determinations will be based upon the foreign national’s expressed intent and evidence of ties to the home country (such as maintenance of a residence there, other property there, family remaining there, and a job to which to return).

For a B-1 visit, there are many appropriate uses including:

  • Short-term visit for participation in business meetings or conferences;
  • Short term visits for the purpose of undergoing training here in the U.S. – This would be primarily a well-defined program of predominantly classroom training, not “on-the-job” training; or
  • Short term visits for the purpose of using facilities unavailable in the home country to perform work primarily benefiting a company in the home country – this assumes not only that the employer abroad continues to be pay the foreign national’s salary, but also that the foreign national takes direction and answers to the employer aboard rather than a U.S. employer.

For a B-2 visit, valid purposes for the trip might include:

  • Vacations,
  • Attendance at family events, and
  • Temporary care for a relative.

It isn’t unusual for individuals intending to come to the U.S. for family-related reasons to run into difficulty either in obtaining the visa stamp from the consulate or while attempting to enter the U.S. – largely because the interviewing officer is unconvinced of the foreign national’s intent to return to the home country. It is therefore critical that the intent to return be well documented. Again, we suggest referring to our FAQ on visits by family members.

No. The B-1/B-2 visa strictly prohibits employment for a U.S. employer. Employment is generally defined as work for the benefit of he U.S. employer and under its direction and control – so even if wages or salary still come from an employer abroad, work done for a U.S. employer here may still be considered prohibited employment.