When travelling to the United States, tourists from those countries which are not subject to visa restrictions generally fall under the Visa Waiver Program. More than 30 states participate in this program, including many European countries, Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand. Citizens of countries that fall under the US waiver program may enter the United States and stay for up to 90 days for business or tourism purposes, provided the requirements outlined below are met. During that time, travellers may exit to visit Canada, Mexico or outlying islands and re-enter, but time spent visiting those places is included in the maximum 90-day stay.
The first prerequisite to entering the United States under the US waiver program is a valid, machine-readable passport from one’s home country; there should be two rows of alphanumeric characters along the bottom edge of the photo page. Newer passports must contain a chip. It should be stressed that the final decision to let a person into the United States, even when entering on US waiver rules, resides with the immigration officer examining one’s passport. At the border, one may be denied for any reason in practice, and there is no right to appeal his decision. Therefore, a general piece of advice that can be given to travellers is to cooperate with the officer and show basic courtesy. No hint should be given that the traveller wishes, now or later, to engage in activities for which a visa is required – employment, staying past the 90-day limit, or getting married.
A visa waiver form called the I-94W will be stapled directly into the traveller’s passport. The I-94W “visa waiver” is a green form which is stapled into your passport, the applicant being fingerprinted and photographed. Upon leaving the United States, the applicant will be required to surrender the form; otherwise, there can be problems on subsequent trips to the USA.
US Waiver for Arriving By Sea or Air
Those US waiver program participants who intend to enter the United States by sea or by air are required to apply for pre-approval through the online Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) prior to beginning their journey. There is no set waiting period and most requests are approved almost immediately; nonetheless, in order to be safe, it is recommended to apply a minimum of 72 hours prior to travelling. Once approved, the document is valid for two years. Again, it should be stressed that the ESTA approval in itself does not guarantee admittance to the United States. This will always be subject to the final decision of the immigration officer interviewing the traveller at the port of entry.
The US waiver ESTA application must be made even in cases where the United States is only a transit point on an international flight and not the final destination. If the USA is just a connection point, “In Transit” should be written where the official forms request the traveller’s address during their stay in the United States.
US Waiver for Arriving By Land
If a traveller from a visa waiver program country is entering the United States through Canada or Mexico by land, the procedure is different. In this case, pre-approval through the ESTA system is not required; instead, the I-94W form is filled out directly at the border crossing. This is subject to a fee of $6 US for every person entering the United States. Usually, the application process will take roughly half an hour to an hour, though two to three hours can be expected at times of heightened traffic.
The United States is known for carefully screening those who wish to enter its territory. By carefully following a few simple steps, travellers subject to the US waiver can ensure that they will have a safe, relatively hassle-free trip and avoid the eventuality of being sent home.
Ned Lecic has a lot of information about different kinds of US waiver.