While the USA is a wonderful country to travel around, they are particularly strict when it comes to visa rules and restrictions. If you’re planning a visit to the United States, read this post carefully! You may be surprised at some of the ways the US applies rules for the visa waiver program. It’s caught many travellers out in the past.

 

Understanding the US Visa Waiver Program

 

When to Use the Visa Waiver Program (VWP)

Visitors from countries such as Australia, New Zealand, Japan, United Kingdom and many European nations are all eligible for the VWP. Check here to see if your country of origin is eligible for entry into the US under the VWP. If not, you’ll need a tourist visa.

  • If you plan on visiting the US for less than 90 days, you can enter under the VWP.
  • If you plan on visiting the US and all or any of; Mexico, Canada and the Caribbean Islands (with or without returning to the US), for a total of less than 90 days, you can enter under the VWP.
  • If you plan on visiting the US for less than 90 days, exiting North America* and then returning to the United States, you can enter under the VWP.

*North America defined as the USA, Canada, Mexico and the adjacent islands of the Caribbean.

 

Getting an ESTA

An ESTA is an electronic form of approval for people intending to travel to the US on the VWP. You need to complete the ESTA at least 72 hours before flying to the USA or you will not be able to board your flight. There are numerous sites out there trying to get you to buy and through them. Ignore them! They mark the price up dramatically. Instead, just visit the government site and apply. Here is the link.

 

Understanding the US Visa Waiver Program Rules

The rules for the US Visa Waiver Program can get particularly complicated if you plan on travelling further around North America* after your visit to the US.

This bit is important!!!!!!!!

If you enter the United States on the VWP, you must exit the WHOLE OF NORTH AMERICA* within 90 days for your entry to the US. This means if you travel to Canada, Mexico or the Caribbean Islands after you visit the USA, your time in these countries will count towards your 90 day visa waiver.

Crossing the border to Canada, Mexico or the Caribbean Islands DOES NOT reset your visa waiver.

You cannot:

a) Go to the US  and then cross the border to Mexico, Canada or the Caribbean Islands unless the total time in all countries does not exceed 90 days

b) Go to the US and spend your 90 days, then cross the border to Mexico, Canada or the Caribbean Islands and fly out of North America from there

c) Fly into the US for a day or two then move onward to Mexico, Canada or the Caribbean Islands for more than 90 days total. Even if you plan on simply transiting the US for flight purposes, you will be stamped in on the VWP if you are eligible. (You can apply for transit visas to avoid this but they cost the same as the B1/B2 visa so you may as well just get that.)

The rules of the VWP particularly complicates travel plans for those of us that are on extended travel as it means exiting the whole of North America* and flying onto somewhere else such as Central America, South America or Europe before being able to re-enter the United States.

 

When to Go for a Visa

If you want to spend more than 90 days in the US but can’t, or don’t want to, leave North America* then you need to look into applying for a B1/B2 visa for the United States. This will give you six months to spend in the US as a tourist or on business (attending conferences and meetings but not working i.e. This is not an immigrant visa). After the six months is up, you can reset this visa by crossing any border. It is not necessary to leave North America. However, the B1/B2 tourist visa for the US has it’s on strict criteria for applicants. See my post on how we obtained our B1/B2 visas for more information.

 

Got Questions??

I’ve researched the rules for the US Visa Waiver Program ad nauseam so I’m confident I can answer any questions you may have on it. If you’re having an issue working it out for your trip, I would be happy to help. Just leave me a comment below and check the box to indicate you would like to receive replied to your comment.

 

Pin it!

Pin this post for future reference. Set up a board on Pinterest for planning your trip to the US and pin all the resources you need for your holiday. You can follow me on Pinterest here and check out my boards, including Totally Awesome Travel Tips, Take Me to Hawaii! and Things to Do with Kids in…

 

Visas for Travelling to the USA

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Showing 30 comments
  • james
    Reply

    Is Cuba an adjacent Island for reset purposes? some sources say no; meaning it will reset the clock…

    • Bethaney Davies
      Reply

      No it doesn’t unfortunately. Here is the list of adjacent islands:

      Anguilla, Antigua, Aruba, Bahamas, Barbados, Barbuda, Bermuda, Bonaire, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Cuba, Curacao, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Grenada, Guadeloupe, Haiti, Jamaica, Marie-Galante, Martinique, Miquelon, Montserrat, Saba, Saint-Barthelemy, Saint Christopher, Saint Eustatius, Saint Kitts-Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Maarten, Saint Martin, Saint Pierre, Saint Vincent, Grenadines, Trinidad, Tobago, Turks and Caicos Islands, Other British, French and Netherlands territory or possessions bordering on the Caribbean Sea.

  • Denise Shepley
    Reply

    Hi Bethaney, Little of topic.. I am having issues sorting out how I can get a Visa into America as I don’t plan on flying out of America. my plan is to fly from Australia to LA, travel around for a few months, then head down to Mexico and central America, then onto South America and fly home from Santiago or BA. I have been told that to get into America I need to have a return flight home from America. I have already purchased a one way flight to LA and am hoping if I buy a one way flight from Santiago or BA back home that would be enough proof that I will be leaving America, and will be enough for them to grant me entry into America.

    • Bethaney Davies
      Reply

      Hi Denise. Your flight back home won’t be enough proof that you’re leaving the US within the 90 day period. Your time in Mexico counts towards your 90 days in the US… believe it or not! You’d need to apply for a B1/B2 visa before you leave Australia. Or alternatively, change your travel plans to book a flight from the US to somewhere in Central America before your 90 days is up. You can still enter Mexico after this an not have to count towards your stay in the US. Does that all make sense? Let me know if you have any further questions!

  • Haley
    Reply

    Hi Bethany, I’ve already entered the US on a ESTA visa and am leaving just before my 90 days is up to go to Ireland for two and a half weeks and hoping to be able to re-enter the US again for another 90 days on ESTA before going back to New Zealand which is where I’m from. I have my return flight to New Zealand booked already. Do you have any advice or have you heard of people having troubles doing this? Thanks in advance

    • Bethaney Davies
      Reply

      Hi Haley! That honestly sounds like it will be fine to me! I don’t think you’ll have any issues especially as you’re 1) leaving the US for Europe and 2) returning home to NZ after your second round of 90 days. Let me know how you get on!

      Where in NZ are you from? We are from Christchurch 🙂

  • Jennifer
    Reply

    Hi Bethany,
    I stopped in LAX with an esta visa for a connecting flight to Vancouver in May 2016. I am now in Alberta on a working holiday visa and planning on road tripping down to San Diego and back for a couple weeks. Is the 90 day rule still applicable to me as I was solely coming to Canada for working purposes?

    Thanks,
    Jennifer

    • Bethaney Davies
      Reply

      Yes it does apply to you unfortunately. If you have a WHV for Canada then you are able to apply for a B1/B2 visa as you have a legitimate reason to need to cross back and forth between the US and Canada during the period of your WHV. Chances are you’ll be OK and it really does depend on which border agent you get on the day. We found that we got grilled extensively (for about an hour!) by US border agents after spending a few months in Canada… and that was WITH the B1/B2 visa in our passports! If you don’t get the B1/B2 visa before you trip I would be prepared to show the US border agents that you are living and working in Canada, come armed with proof that you have a lease or a job contract or something. They are very suspicious of people who are trying to come to the US to work/live illegally.

  • Glo
    Reply

    Hello,
    Traveling worldwide for one year.
    Arrived in US on ESTA and was stamped until 26 December.
    Need to stay until 5 January, 2017.
    Went to Costa RIca for 6 nights (23 Oct – 29 Oct), but was not stamped coming back into U.S. No passports seemed to be stamped from that flight.
    The departure on 23rd Oct to Costa Rica and arrival on 29th Oct back to US appear on my I-94 arrival/departure record online.
    What does this mean? Do I have an additional 90 days from 29th October?
    Or does the original stamp (26th Dec latest departure) still apply?
    Thank you.

    • Bethaney Davies
      Reply

      Gosh, that’s is annoying that they didn’t stamp you in! I would probably call immigration if I were you and explain your situation and see what happened. Technically you’re ok as you left the visa region and went to Costa Rica but if you weren’t stamped in and out of the US I don’t know how you prove that. What passport are you on? If it’s in your online record then you’re probably OK.

  • Scout
    Reply

    Hi Bethany, thanks so much for writing such a useful post! I’m hoping to go on holiday first to Mexico for a month and then head to the USA for a 90 day visit. I am wondering if you think the 90 days allowed time will start when I enter Mexico, even if I haven’t been through US immigration yet? I will be flying to Mexico from Australia via LAX but I am assured it’s only a transit and I won’t go through immigration at that point. I am hoping that I can spend a month in Mexico and then have my VWP 90 days start when I enter the US immigrations for the first time. Would really appreciate your advice! Thank you, Scout

    • Bethaney Davies
      Reply

      Hi Scout. No you will definitely have to go through immigration at LAX and it won’t be on a transit visa, you’ll be stamped in under the VWP and your 90 days will start. You’ll either have to cut your US visit short or take a side trip to somewhere like Guatemala from Mexico to reset your US visa. Does that make sense? I know it’s a real pain! Alternatively you could apply for the B1/B2 tourist visa before you leave Australia.

  • Katharina
    Reply

    Hi Bethaney,
    this is the best page to inform! I really didn’t get all the complicated phrasing from government pages – even calling I didn’t get an answer. They don’t like listening and helping it seems =/

    So, my question is if I can visit the Dominican Republic, go from there to the US, back to the Dominican Republic and back to my home country with my ESTA. All of the trip takes less than 30 days and will be by plane. With your information here, it should be possible as I have the flight back to my home country, right?

    Safe travels,
    Katharina

    • Bethaney Davies
      Reply

      Yup! With 30 days between your flights there and home then you are 100% OK.

  • Jenn
    Reply

    Hi Bethaney,
    Thanks for this post, it is incredibly frustrating trying to get the correct information on this topic and calling the US embassy is not proving helpful either!
    We will be travelling from NZ in July 2017 DIRECTLY to Vancouver and spending a month there. After that we want to go from Canada via a land crossing on the BC / Washington state border to enter the US for 90 days, so our total time away is around 4 months.
    Our understanding of the rules is that as we will only be processed by US border control at our land crossing from Canada into the US that our 90 days will start at that time but getting actual confirmation of this is proving to be a nightmare and as you can imagine it is having a major impact on our trip planning.
    If there is ANY likelihood that the time we spend in Canada will be taken out of the ESTA time then we need to reorganise everything. We are being very careful to fly DIRECTLY to Vancouver from Auckland as we understand that there is no such thing as transit in the US.
    I will try and call the US Border Protection to clarify this but fear that I may not get a direct answer!
    This is doing our head in as it is a major change to our plans if we can’t guarantee that our time in Canada won’t be part of our 90 day VWP.
    Would really love your advise on this – really enjoy your website!
    Cheers,
    Jenn

    • Bethaney Davies
      Reply

      Hi Jenn. You’re absolutely fine. If you start your trip in Vancouver without touching down in the US first you can definitely spend a month there and then 90 days in the US. No problemo! If you did it in reverse it wouldn’t be OK but you’re not activating your US visa waiver until you arrive by land after already being in Canada for 1 month so you will be fine. 🙂

      • Jenn
        Reply

        Brilliant, thanks Bethaney. I was pretty confident that we were going to be fine but it is great to hear it from you too!
        We are now happily back in full trip planning mode without the worry of any potential US border issues hanging over us.
        Cheers,
        Jenn

  • Jess
    Reply

    Hello
    I am from uk.
    I am currently in USA and planning on staying a little over 3 months (roughly by two weeks)
    I want to reset my vwp without traveling home as I don’t have enough time.
    Can I go to El Salvador for half a day to reset this?
    If I have proof of recidency in U.K, my final flight home booked and basically proving that I am not trying to live here.
    Hope you can help
    Jess

    • Bethaney Davies
      Reply

      I don’t think this would be a good idea actually, especially with the US the way it is now. A flight somewhere in Central America might raise red flags in itself. I would look at changing your flight home if I were you. You certainly don’t want to overstay your visa. Visa Waivers cannot be extended.

  • JHT
    Reply

    Hey Bethaney,

    Thorough article, thanks for your research. Our scenario still isn’t crystal clear based on what you’ve written here, so I wanted to pitch yet another “What if…” for you!

    My German partner is planning to enter into LA with the VWP, and we’ve got 90 days of travel planned WITHIN the states. The day before her 90 days is up, we’re planning to drive into Mexico, and continue along the Pan-American Highway through Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvedor, and Nica.

    So we’ll be out of the states by day 90, but still in Mexico for at least a few weeks, perhaps a month or two, before continuing onward out of the “North American zone” (i.e once we cross into Guatemala)

    We’ll then spend at least another month or two in central America, before driving back to LA and attempting to “re-enter” for a fresh 90 days.

    What do you make of this scenario? Can time spent in Mexico after your 90 days in the states is up still count against you, even if you continue onwards to other countries after?

    Thanks in advance!

    • Bethaney Davies
      Reply

      I think you’ll have trouble on arrival if you can’t show that you’re leaving the US when the 90 days is up. Just saying you’re crossing to Mexico on day 90 won’t help. I would suggest getting a refundable ticket “home” that you can show on arrival and then cancel after you’re in the US.

  • nadja
    Reply

    Hi
    so if i travel for 60 days in the US and then i would go to cuba or the dominican republic, it wouldnt be possible to return to the US because the islands count like canada or mexico?
    thanks

    • Bethaney Davies
      Reply

      You get 90 days so as long as you’re returning home or leaving within that time period then you’re fine. If you travel to the US, stay for 60 days and then fly to the DR, any time you spend in the DR will count towards your 90 day visa waiver.

  • Janet
    Reply

    Hi, Bethaney,

    Thank you for your article. Now we finally understand why when we departed from Japan with ESTA, they didn’t allow us to get on board unless we purchase the return ticket from US to our country right in front of their eyes.

    Here is our plan…..we planned to enter US with ESTA for 90 days, then enter Canada with ITA for nearly 6 months, then return to our country from Canada. After reading your explanation we realized it’s not possible. So if we fly to central America for a few days after 90 days in the US, and enter Canada with ITA, then we are fine to travel there before 6 months’ up then return home directly?

    Thank you in advance and look forward to hear from you soon!

    –Janet–

    • Bethaney Davies
      Reply

      Yes but not to Mexico so somewhere like Costa Rica or Honduras etc and then fly DIRECT into Canada (not via the US because that would start another visa waiver countdown!!!) You could still transit the US on the way home however.

  • Sophie
    Reply

    Hello Bethaney,

    Can’ t thank you enough for this thorough article, your knowledge & advice! :o)

    Okay so this is my scenario;
    I am from the U.K. with a British passport. I am travelling worldwide for at least a year. I have been in Inida & Thailand for the last 5 months. I have just decided to take part in a course / training in Asheville, U.S. starting May 18th(!!). At the moment my plan is to fly from Thailand to Guatemala, set up ‘base camp’ in San Marcos Lake Atitlan ;o) and then fly into the U.S. from here on a Visa Waiver for the duration of the training (6 weeks).

    I would then fly back to ‘home’ in San Marcos, Guatemala for a long-term stay. I may potentially also be flying to Spain for a mini business trip from ‘Base Camp’ in Guatemala; as yet undecided…

    I was originally planning on flying from Thailand straight to The States but after discovering how tricky the ESTA thing is and reading your super helpful blog post I have decided to approach it this way around (which actually works out better for me – silver linings ;o))

    SO, my question for you is does the ESTA work this way. If I fly IN to the U.S. from Guatemala for 6 weeks and have a return flight back to Guatemala booked to show border control after the 6 weeks. Then I believe I would be on Guatemala-terms for their visa requirements (which is 90 days renewal…) And my potential business trip to Spain is & can still be open to flexibility! Does this all make sense?

    Thank you so much for your advice! I am needing to book flights / sorts ESTAs etc. pronto so massively appreciate hearing back from you soon ! :o)))

    Warmly,
    Sophie

    • Bethaney Davies
      Reply

      Yes that all sounds fine to me. You’ll only be in the US for 6 weeks and then back out to Guatemala which would reset your 90 day VWP. As would flying to Europe. You’re good to go!

  • Ryan
    Reply

    Hi Bethaney,

    Just wondering if you could help us out and answer our question as we are struggling to find the correct answer!!

    My girlfriend and I (both British) will be visiting Puerto Rico for approx 70 days later this year. At the moment we’ve only booked a one way ticket.. London – Orlando – Puerto Rico. We are aware that our transit through the US and time in PR (US Territory) will be covered under the VWP & that we will also require proof of onward travel.

    However, our question is.. If we are not returning to the US can we fly to The Dominican Republic directly from PR? We are unsure whether this is deemed onward as it’s still in the Caribbean?

    Your thoughts would be greatly appreciated.

    Ryan

  • PaX
    Reply

    Hi. ive spent 90 days in usa and went to canada 3 weeks ago. plan on spending another couple of weeks or even a month here. i cannot return to usa now on my esta? do I have to fly out and come back to start over again? it does not help to spend such long in canada either?

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