Visa Waiver Program / ESTA

Visa free entry to the USA

ESTAIn principle, all persons require a visa for travel to the USA. The only exception is the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), which allows certain nationals to stay up to 90 days without applying for a visa in advance.

 

What is ESTA?

ESTA stands for Electronic System For Travel Author ization and is an electronic travel authorization system. This is absolutely mandatory for any person wishing to travel to the USA under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP).

The Visa Waiver Program allows visa-free entry for

  • the entire territory of the United States,
  • Puerto Rico,
  • Guam and
  • U.S. Virgin Islands.

The Electronic Travel Authorization ESTA was introduced on August 1, 2008 and has been mandatory since January 12, 2009 for all travelers wishing to enter the U.S. without a visa.

However, visa-free travel to the U.S. is not prerequisite-free. That is, not all purposes of stay are permitted under the Visa Waiver Program. Persons using the VWP are allowed to stay in the U.S. exclusively for tourism (Tourist Visa Wa iver) or for limited business activities (Business Visa Waiver).

Attention: Entry by private plane or private ship, on the other hand, is only permitted with a valid U.S. visa (e.g. B-1 / B-2).

The U.S. agency responsible for administering all ESTA applications is U.S. Customs and Border Protection, or CBP, which is under the U.S. Departmentof Homeland Security.

ESTA Application

The ESTA application must be submitted before traveling to the United States. The application is done exclusively online, e.g. on the website www.esta-application.com.

Important: As soon as the information on the passport or personal data is no longer correct, a new ESTA application must be filled out. This case occurs, for example, when a new passport is issued.

Increased costs for ESTA application as of May 26, 2022

The U.S. Border Patrol (CBP) announced the adjustment of ESTA fees. International travelers who can travel to the U.S. visa-free for up to 90 days by applying for ESTA will have to pay $21 in application fees in the future instead of the previous $14.

The new higher fee is initially expected to apply through 2027 and is the first price adjustment since 2015.

Existing ESTA applications that were still submitted with the old fee of $14 will continue to be valid for visa-free travel.

Expansion of ESTA requirements for entry by land

The U.S. Border Patrol (CBP) announced in early April that the same rules for entry will apply to all travelers under the Visa Waiver Program and the associated visa-free entry via ESTA approval, regardless of whether by land, air or sea, starting in fall 2022. To date, only VWP travelers entering by air or sea require ESTA approval.

From October 1, 2022, all persons, including those who wish to enter the U.S. visa-free by land via Mexico or Canada, will then be required to apply for an ESTA in advance.

However, one difference will remain as of October 01, 2022:

Unlike ESTA travelers by air and sea, those traveling to the U.S. by land will still have to pay an additional fee of US$6 at the border in addition to the ESTA authorization - the so-called I-94W Fee.

This is already due for entries by land and will be maintained from October 2022 in addition to the ESTA fee of US$21.

Currently, the I-94W fee can be paid either on the day of entry or via the I-94 website already a maximum of 7 days before planned entry by land. In parallel, an I-94 entry form will be generated.

Beginning in October 2022, payment for all travelers will also be possible via CBP One app. This app will also allow users to pay the I-94 fee on short notice, check travel dates, digitally check the I-94 expiration date at any time, and receive proof electronically. Thanks to the app or the application via the website, waiting times at the border posts to Canada/Mexico should be reduced.

For more information on the ESTA application and the questions in the form, please visit our ESTA application page.

Assistance with the ESTA application

Do you need assistance filling out the ESTA form? Click here to apply!

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ESTA requirements

ParticipatingCountries

Currently, 40 countries participate in the visa-free travel program, including Germany, Austria and Switzerland.

On September 28, 2021, Croatia joined as a new participating country. In the process, the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) was updated at the end of October 2021, allowing Croatian nationals to travel to the United States for tourism or business purposes for up to 90 days without having to apply for a U.S. visa. Croatia thus becomes the 40th member of the Visa Waiver Program.

Nationals of the following countries are currently eligible for the Visa Waiver Program:

  • Andorra
  • Australia
  • Belgium
  • Brunei
  • Chile
  • Denmark
  • Germany
  • Estonia
  • Finland
  • France
  • Greece
  • Ireland
  • Iceland
  • Italy
  • Japan
  • Croatia
  • Latvia
  • Liechtenstein
  • Lithuania
  • Luxembourg
  • Malta
  • Monaco
  • New Zealand
  • Netherlands
  • Norway
  • Austria
  • Poland
  • Portugal
  • Republic of Korea (South Korea)
  • San Marino
  • Sweden
  • Switzerland
  • Singapore
  • Slovak Republic
  • Slovenia
  • Spain
  • Taiwan
  • Czech republic
  • Hungary
  • United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland

(as of end of October 2021)

Requirements for Visa Waiver Progam Member States.

To qualify as a Visa Waiver Program country, strict requirements must be met. Indeed, the Visa Waiver Program is a comprehensive security partnership between the United States and certain countries that enables international travel to the United States without a visa while protecting national security.

Member states must therefore comply with the following requirements, relating to:

  • Counterterrorism,
  • Law enforcement,
  • immigration enforcement,
  • document security, and
  • Border Management

This includes an average B visa refusal rate in the previous year below 3%, or an average B visa refusal rate over the last two years below 2% (with none of the years allowed to exceed 2.5%).
This nonimmigrant visa refusal rate is calculated using the Adjusted Visa Refusal Rate, which is collected annually by the U.S. Department of State (DOS).

It also requires the issuance of secure travel documents and close cooperation with U.S. law enforcement and counterterrorism authorities.

The U.S. administration under former President Trump had introduced strict security requirements that must be implemented by all Visa Waiver Program member countries in order for them to (continue to) qualify as VWP member countries:

  • All VWP countries must agree to fully implement information-sharing and information-sharing measures to more easily match VWP traveler information with U.S. counterterrorism information databases.
  • All VWP countries must be able to demonstrate sufficient and effective protective measures against domestic flight threats.
  • All VWP countries with an "overstay" rate greater than two percent, must initiate public information campaigns on the consequences of illegal stays in the United States.

Bild von einem Reisepass und Bordkarten am US-Flughafen

If you have any further questions about ESTA and the Visa Waiver Program, our visa consultants* will be happy to help you personally:

Visa Info Service: 0900-1-87 84 72 *

MO-FR 10-12H

* 1,99€/min from a German landline (mobile network varies)

Passport

VWP travelers need a valid passport (ePassport) according to the current regulations of the US authorities. In any case, please inform yourself about the exact passport regulations on the pages of the US embassy or the US consulate.

In general, the passport should be valid for at least six months from the date of departure from the USA.
An exception is the so-called "Six Month Club": Nationals of certain VWP countries (including Germany, Austria and Switzerland) only need a passport that "only" needs to be valid for the duration of the planned stay in the USA.

Supporting documents for departure

Those wishing to use the ESTA visa waiver program will need a return or onward ticket that does not terminate in Canada, Mexico or the Caribbean. This will prove that you plan to leave the country in time, and it will also show that you do not intend to immigrate.

Help with the ESTA application

We recommend the ESTA experts of The American Dream for the application of an ESTA travel authorization!

Apply for ESTA now

Ineligible persons for travel under the VWP

The U.S. last tightened its entry requirements in August 2019. Certain groups of people are generally not (or no longer) eligible for the Visa Waiver Program:

  • Nationals of VWP countries who traveled to any of the following countries on or after March 1, 2011: Iraq, Iran, Yemen, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Sudan or
    SyriaExceptions apply to diplomats and military personnel.
  • VWP nationals who have another (dual) nationality with the following countries: Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Syria
  • Individuals who have previously been denied entry to the U.S. (at the border) or who have been removed from the United States.
  • Persons who have a criminal record for certain offenses or who have been arrested or convicted once before (case-by-case review required).
  • Persons who have violated the entry regulations of the U.S. authorities (e.g. overstaying the maximum period of stay granted (= overstay), illegal employment, etc.).
  • Persons suffering from a serious, contagious disease.
  • Persons who are drug addicts or have violated the Narcotics Act.

The aforementioned groups of persons must generally apply for a visa to enter the USA. The disadvantage of applying for a visa to the U.S. is that, on the one hand, visa fees are incurred and, on the other hand, the application process is more complex and lengthy than obtaining an ESTA travel authorization. In addition to extensive application documents, almost all visa applicants must attend an appointment in person at a U.S. consulate.
Only in individual cases can they apply for an exemption (= waiver).

The strict entry requirements have a particular impact on business travelers and tourists who need a B-1 / B-2 visa instead of ESTA or need to check alternative visa categories.

Bild von einem US-Flughafen

ESTA validity

When does ESTA expire?

If the ESTA application is approved, the electronic travel authorization is valid for a maximum of two years and for multiple entries from the date the ESTA authorization is obtained or issued (not from the date of first entry).

However, the ESTA authorization may lose its validity before that time. According to U.S. authorities, you must submit a new ESTA application if

      • Your passport expires or you have received a new passport,
      • your citizenship changes
      • you change your name,
      • you change your gender, or
      • at least one answer to the nine security questions on the ESTA form changes.

This is master data and changes to it will have a direct impact on the validity of ESTA.

Note: As soon as the message "The time limit has been exceeded" appears when calling up an existing ESTA application, the ESTA application has expired or been reset. In this case, a new ESTA authorization must be applied for.

What if ESTA loses its validity before leaving the USA?

The decisive factor for ESTA validity is not the duration of the stay, but rather the time of entry. For example, if the USA stay is planned from September 10 to 20 and the ESTA application expires on September 15, the current ESTA authorization can still be used for this USA trip (even if the authorization expires during the stay).

How long ESTA travelers are allowed to stay in the United States is determined by their residency status, which is determined by CBP officers upon entry. Entry and exit dates can be found on the online I-94 Entry Form in the View Compliance section.

The validity of the personal ESTA authorization can be checked online at any time. The ESTA application can be retrieved at any time via the official ESTA website. We recommend all Visa Waiver Pogram travelers to check existing ESTA applications online for validity before departure.

Tip: Since the beginning of January 2018, ESTA travelers will receive an email automatically ten days before their residency status expires as a reminder to leave the U.S. on time. The email sender is staycompliance-donotreply@cbp.dhs.gov.

ESTA validity renewable?

The Visa Waiver Program allows travelers a maximum stay of up to 90 days per entry. This is not a legal right: the border officials decide whether and for how long the person may enter the country and note this in the passport. In addition, the respective residence status for Visa Waiver Program travelers is recorded online via the electronic I-94 form in the system of the U.S. authorities.

It is not possible to extend the stay beyond these 90 days. An extension of the VWP residency status in the USA on site is generally not permitted, not even by short entry and re-exit e.g. to Mexico or Canada. Travelers to the USA are therefore strongly advised to adhere to the maximum length of stay of 90 days in order to prevent problems the next time they enter the United States.

Exception: In urgent or unforeseeable cases (e.g., flight cancellations due to severe weather or strikes, or if there are serious medical reasons) that make a return flight and thus leaving the U.S. within the 90 days impossible,U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) may grant an exception. However, this is at the sole discretion of USCIS and the application for this can only be made at a USCIS office. If a visit to a USCIS service center is not possible because the traveler has to stay on the airport grounds due to a storm, it is strongly recommended to keep all receipts about the storm and the cancelled flights so that they can be presented in case of possible inquiries by the U.S. authorities.

 

Use ESTA for business travel

Even though the Visa Waiver Program (VWP/ESTA) is mostly used for tourist and private purposes, there are definitely some business activities for which you are allowed to travel to the US with ESTA. There is still a stubborn rumor that only tourist purposes are covered by ESTA, but this is not correct. Since the visa waiver program is the exception to a regular B-1 (business) or B-2 (tourist) visa, it follows that travelers with ESTA are allowed to travel for the identical purposes. I.e., in order to check which exact activities are permitted in the USA with ESTA, it is sufficient to have a look at the B-1/B-2 regulations.

The following professional activities or services are officially possible with ESTA (among others):

  • Attendance at business meetings
  • Attendance at scientific, educational, professional or business conventions, trade shows or conferences
  • Contract negotiations
  • Settlement of an estate
  • Volunteering (unpaid) for a non-profit organization
  • Intra-company meetings in the U.S.
  • After-sales service activities (under certain conditions), e.g. in the form of commissioning or maintenance of sold machines/products

As a rule, these are classic business trips, work or payment in the USA is not permitted within the scope of visa-free entry.
However, please note: Even if employees travel to the USA on behalf of their German employer and continue to be paid from there, this does not mean that all (business) activities on site are automatically permitted.

As an example: An employee with German citizenship is supposed to help out at the US location for 4 weeks because of staff shortages there. This employee continues to be paid from Germany and the contract also remains with the German company. Due to her citizenship, the employee theoretically qualifies for an entry with ESTA, also the period (less than 90 days) would be covered. However, she is performing an activity in the U.S. that would otherwise be performed locally by U.S. personnel - and for pay. I.e., a US work visa would be mandatory here.

The boundaries between the individual categories (VWP/ESTA, B-1 and work visas) are often blurred and it must be checked on a case-by-case basis which activity is permissible locally with ESTA.

In order to avoid problems, you should find out exactly before your trip and make sure whether your activities are covered by an ESTA or whether you need to apply for a different visa. It is well known that the US authorities and especially the border officials are very thorough when questioning people about their reasons for traveling. People who travel very frequently, i.e. with a high frequency with ESTA, coupled with very long periods of stay, are particularly affected by more intensive queries at the border. In this case, it is often assumed that the person is working (illegally) or that he or she will be asked to present a "suitable" visa the next time he or she enters the country.

Help with the ESTA application

We recommend the ESTA experts of The American Dream for the application of an ESTA travel authorization!

Apply for ESTA now

Working remotely from the USA

Especially in times of the pandemic, it has become normal for many professionals to work remotely from anywhere in the world. This invites to work maybe in sunny/interesting places to combine business and pleasure.
But this is exactly what is not so easily possible in the USA.

It is still not clear under immigration law whether, for example, a home office activity in the USA is permitted for the German employer within the scope of visa-free entry. It is completely irrelevant whether payment continues to be made from Germany and no active work activity for a US company takes place here.
Often, tax and social security issues play a role in making remote work from the U.S. more difficult (for employers outside the U.S.).
There is no precise regulation on this in U.S. immigration law itself, as globalized working is still virtually excluded from this.

Travelers who plan to work remotely in the USA should find out exactly whether this is possible. As a rule, you must assume that a US work visa or work permit is required.

You can find the most important information about ESTA here at a glance and download it free of charge in PDF format.

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