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.
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.
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.
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.
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