Immigration to the US is a hot potato of a topic, but that doesn’t mean it is particularly hard to enter the United States. There are lawful ways to enter the US even without the visa.
Entering the US without a Visa
A foreign national entering the US needs to present a passport and a valid visa. There are exceptions however.
If you are:
- a citizen of a country involved in the Visa Waiver Program
- a lawful permanent resident of the US
- a citizen of Canada
You do not need to obtain a visa. You may stay for 90 days for pleasure, business, or medical reasons.
Visa and passport are also not required from a Mexican national in possession of a Border Crossing Card. The BCC qualifies by itself as a stand-alone document approving travel from Mexico for entry at all land, air, and sea ports of entry, and they may travel 55 miles into the US. The Border Crossing Card allows the possessor to stay in the US for a period of 30 days.
What is the Visa Waiver Program?
The Visa Waiver Program (VWP) allows residents of participating countries to enter the US for business or pleasure without the need to obtain a visa. There are 38 countries and if you are a citizen of these countries, you may travel to the US for up to 90 days without a visa. You only need to be in possession of a valid passport and arrive through an approved carrier. Each traveler must also have a valid ESTA USA status.
Lessened limits on staying in the US with only passports
Visitors who travel to the US need to possess passports that are valid for six months beyond their period of intended stay in the US. Unless your nation is part of the Six Month Club, in which case your passport doesn’t need to have at least six months of validity left in its applicability period. They do need to be valid for your period of stay.
The list of countries in the Six Month Club include those in VWA, and many others too including Malaysia, Russia, UAE, the Philippines, etc.
What is the ESTA?
The Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) is the only thing you need to stay in the US if you are part of the Visa Waiver Program countries. ESTA validity is good for 2 years and it’s the fastest way in or out of the country. Signing up to the ESTA is also quite fast too.
Signing up for the ESTA can be done through an online form.
After submission, it usually takes from 3 to 5 days to verify the information and inform you of the decision to be granted a travel authorization. If you are a national of the Visa Waiver Program countries, you may expect a shorter processing time – at most only two days. Some may receive confirmation within the hour.
The ESTA gathers only the most critical information about foreign citizens seeking to travel to the USA and preserves your privacy. The ESTA is not a visa. It is a visa waiver.
What documents do I need to present?
The requirements for ESTA is congruent with those of the Visa Waiver Program. You only need to present:
- A scanned copy of your passport issued by a country participating in the Visa Waiver Program. It must be an updated biometric passport with an electronic chip.
- A valid credit card or means of payment (MasterCard, VISA, American Express, Paypal) for the application fee.
- Your contact information, one usable as a means of contact within the United States.
- If required, you may be asked to present records of your most recent employment.
Children must have their own valid passport in order to use ESTA. Children, regardless of their age are required to have ESTA approval.
How do I know if I’m eligible for the ESTA?
The first requirement is being a member of a country in the Visa Waiver Program. In addition, you must prove that your stay in the US will
- Not exceed more than 90 days
- The trip is for tourism or business purposes
- If participating in a sport or event, that you will not be receiving payment for your presence; this includes prizes, gifts, and awards.
- You must also fulfill security requirements, that you have not/do not
- Been arrested
- Possess a criminal record
- Have communicable diseases
- Previously refused entry to the United States
- Previously deported from the United States
- Previously overstayed a visa or visa waiver
- Traveled to or been a resident of Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria or Yemen on or after March 1, 2011
- Possess dual nationality as a VWP country citizen and as a citizen of Iran, Iraq, Sudan or Syria
- Seek employment in the United States
The ESTA is the fastest and smoothest means of entry into the United States. It is not, however, a gateway towards obtaining permission for more long-term residency. You must apply for a visa if you wish to stay in the United States for longer than 90 days, to obtain employment, or to study.