A blog about U.S. immigration matters by Paul Szeto, a former INS attorney and an experienced immigration attorney and counsel. Contact Info: 732-632-9888, http://www.1visa1.com/ (All information is not legal advice and is subject to change without prior notice.)

Monday, March 28, 2016

FAQs on the Visa Waiver (VWP) and the ESTA Programs

Frequent travelers understand the importance of speed and convenience when it comes to international travel.  The United States have established two important programs to make it faster and less burdensome for certain frequent travelers to the United States. They are the Visa Waiver Program and Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA). The following are some important FAQs about them as provided by the CBP:

Q: What is the Visa Waiver Program?
A: 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.

Q: Which countries participate in the Visa Waiver Program?
A: Citizens or nationals of the following countries are currently eligible to travel to the United States under the VWP:

Andorra, Hungary, New Zealand, Australia, Iceland, Norway, Austria, Ireland, Portugal, Belgium, Italy, San Marino, Brunei, Japan, Singapore, Chile, Republic of Korea, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Latvia, Slovenia, Denmark, Liechtenstein, Spain, Estonia, Lithuania, Sweden, Finland, Luxembourg, Switzerland, France, Malta, Taiwan, Germany, Monaco, United Kingdom,  Greece, The Netherlands.    

Q: What are the passport requirements to travel under the Visa Waiver Program?
A: Travel under the VWP is restricted to travelers possessing passports with specified security features. All VWP travelers must have a machine-readable passport. In addition, depending on when VWP travelers’ passports were issued, other passport requirements apply.  Ex. Nationals of Chile, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Greece, Hungary, the Republic of Korea, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Slovakia, and Taiwan require passports with an integrated chip containing the information from the data page. 

The Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) is an automated system that assists in determining eligibility of an individual to travel to the United States under the Visa Waiver Program. Any individual wishing to travel to the United States visa free must first apply for permission on-line using ESTA.  ESTA is not a visa and does not replace a visa when one is needed.  The ESTA system eliminated the need for the issuance of the paper I-94 and I-94W forms. Approval of ESTA does not guarantee entry into the United States.

Q: How does the U.S. government protect the privacy of ESTA data and who has access to it?
A: Information submitted by applicants through the ESTA website is subject to the same strict privacy provisions and controls that have been established for similar traveler screening programs. Access to such information is limited to those with a professional need to know. 

Q: Who is required to apply for ESTA?
A: 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. 

Q: 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?
A: Yes. Eligible nationals or citizens of countries that participate in the VWP require either an ESTA or a visa to transit the United States. Transit 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.”

Q: When can a traveler apply for travel authorization via ESTA?
A:   A VWP traveler should apply for ESTA when planning a trip to visit the United States. CBP recommends that you apply at least 72 hours before travel.  Travelers may file ESTA applications through the ESTA web site.

Q: What happens if a VWP participant travels to the United States when ESTA is mandatory, but somehow does not have an ESTA?
A:    VWP travelers who have not received an ESTA approval may be denied boarding, experience delayed processing, or be denied admission at a U.S. port of entry. CBP will handle emergency situations on a case-by-case basis.

Q: Do VWP travelers arriving in the United States from a non-VWP country need an ESTA?
All VWP travelers arriving by U.S.-bound airplane or vessel, regardless of their country of origination or port of embarkation, require an approved ESTA.

Q: Can a VWP traveler with more than one passport travel to the United States on the passport that was not used when applying for an ESTA?
A: No. Each  VWP traveler must have an approved ESTA for the passport he or she plans to use for travel to the United States. If travelers acquire a new passport, they must submit a new ESTA application for their new passport.

Q: My passport shows an 'X' sex marker. How do I complete the gender portion of ESTA?
A: ESTA does not currently have a gender X to choose from on the application. It is suggested  that the traveler choose whichever choice they feel most comfortable with. ESTA will not be denied solely on the gender chosen on the application.

Q.  How long is the ESTA status valid for?
Each approved ESTA application generally is valid for two years or until the applicants’ 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) other information in the application has changed. The associated  fee will be charged for each new application submitted.

Q: What information is needed in order to complete the ESTA application?
A:     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.

Q: Can  I contact somebody for assistance regarding ESTA?
A: You may call the CBP Info Center  at (202) 325-8000 or 1-877-227-5511. 

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