Visa Waiver Program / ESTA

Visa-free entry to the U.S.

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

 

What is ESTA?

ESTA stands for Electronic System For Travel Authorization and is an electronic travel authorization system. It is mandatory for everyone who wants to travel to the U.S. 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
  • the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The electronic travel authorization ESTA was introduced on August 1, 2008 and has been mandatory since January 12, 2009 for anyone wishing to enter the U.S. without a visa.

However, visa-free travel to the United States is not free of requirements. That is, not all purposes of stay are permitted under the Visa Waiver Program. Persons using the VWP may only stay in the USA for tourism (Tourist Visa Waiver) or for limited business activities (Business Visa Waiver).

Note: Entry by private plane or private ship is only permitted with a valid U.S. visa (e.g. B-1 / B-2).

The responsible American authority for the administration of all ESTA applications is the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, CBP for short, which is subordinate to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

ESTA application

The ESTA application must be submitted prior to travel to the United States. The application can only be made 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.

 

ExTension 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 entering the country under the Visa Waiver Program and the associated visa-free entry via ESTA authorization, whether by land, air or sea, beginning in the fall of 2022. To date, only VWP travelers entering by air or sea require ESTA authorization. 

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 need to apply for an ESTA in advance. 

However, one difference will remain from 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$14.

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. An I-94 entry form is prepared in parallel.  

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

Participating Countries

There are currently 40 countries participating in the Visa Waiver Program, including Germany, and the United Kingdom.

On September 28, 2021, Croatia joined as a new participating country. As part of these changes, the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) was updated at the end of October 2021 to allow 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
  • Austria
  • Belgium
  • Brunei
  • Chile
  • Croatia
  • Czech Republic
  • Denmark
  • Estonia
  • Finland
  • France
  • Germany
  • Greece
  • Hungary
  • Iceland
  • Ireland
  • Italy
  • Japan
  • Latvia
  • Liechtenstein
  • Lithuania
  • Luxembourg
  • Malta
  • Monaco
  • Netherlands
  • New Zealand
  • Norway
  • Poland
  • Portugal
  • Republic of Korea (South Korea)
  • San Marino
  • Singapore
  • Slovak Republic
  • Slovenia
  • Spain
  • Sweden
  • Switzerland
  • Taiwan
  • United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland

(as of End of October 2021)

Requirements for Visa Waiver Program Member States

To qualify as a Visa Waiver Program country, certain conditions must be met.

  • Average rejection rate for B visas in the previous year below 3%.

or

  • Average B visa rejection rate over the last two years below 2% (with none of the years exceeding 2.5%).

This nonimmigrant visa refusal rate is calculated using the adjusted visa refusal rate, which is collected each year by the U.S. Department of State (DOS).

Further, the U.S. government under former President Trump had introduced stringent security regulations that must generally be implemented by all Visa Waiver Program member countries in order for them to (continue to) qualify as a VWP member country:

  • All VWP countries must agree to fully implement 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 safeguards against domestic flight threats.
  • All VWP countries with an overstay rate of more 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 directly:

Visa Hotline: 0900-1-87 84 72 *

MON-FRI 10am-12pm

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 U.S. authorities. In any case, please inform yourself about the exact passport regulations on the pages of the U.S. embassy or the U.S. consulate in your home country.

As a rule, your passport should be valid for at least six months after you leave the United States.
An exception is the so-called "Six Month Club": Citizens of certain VWP countries (including Germany, and the United Kingdom) need a passport that "only" has to be valid for the duration of the planned stay in the USA.

Supporting documents for departure

Those wishing to use the visa waiver program with ESTA need a return or onward ticket that does not end in Canada, Mexico or the Caribbean. This will both prove that you plan to leave the country in time and 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 permit!

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Ineligible persons for travel under the VWP

The U.S. last tightened its entry requirements in August 2019. Certain individuals 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: Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Syria, Sudan, or Yemen. Exemptions apply to diplomats and military personnel.
  • VWP nationals who have another (dual) citizenship with the following countries: Iran, Iraq, 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. overstay, illegal employment, etc.).
  • Persons suffering from a serious, contagious disease.
  • Persons who are drug addicts or have violated the Narcotics Act.

The aforementioned individuals must generally apply for a visa to enter the United States. The disadvantage of applying for a U.S. visa is that, on the one hand, visa fees are charged and, on the other hand, the application process is more complex and lengthy than obtaining an ESTA travel permit. 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 require a B-1 / B-2 visa instead of ESTA or have 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 expire before that time. According to the U.S. authorities, you must submit a new ESTA application if

  • your passport expires or you have received a new passport,
  • your citizenship changed,
  • you change your name,
  • you change your gender, or
  • there is a change in at least one of the answers to the nine security questions on the ESTA form.

These are master data, whose change has a direct impact on the validity of ESTA.

Note: If the message "The time limit has been exceeded" appears when accessing an existing ESTA application, your ESTA permit has expired or been reset. In this case, a new ESTA authorization must be applied for.

What if ESTA expires 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 stay in the U.S. is planned from September 10 to September 20 and the ESTA application expires on September 15, the current ESTA permit can still be used for this U.S. trip (even if the authorization expires during the stay).

The length of time ESTA travelers are allowed to stay in the United States is determined by their residence 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 individual 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 traveling.

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

Can ESTA validity be extended?

The Visa Waiver Program allows travelers a maximum stay of up to 90 days per entry. This is not a legal right: The U.S. 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 residence status in the USA is generally not permitted, not even by short entry and re-exit, e.g. to Mexico or Canada. U.S. travelers are therefore strongly advised to adhere to the maximum length of stay of 90 days in order to avoid problems the next time they enter the United States.

Exception: In urgent or unforeseeable cases (e.g., flight cancelations 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, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) may grant an exception. However, this is at the sole discretion of the 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 of the storm and the canceled flights so that they can be presented in case of any inquiries by the U.S. authorities.

 

Business travel with ESTA

Even though the Visa Waiver Program (VWP/ESTA) is mostly used for tourist and private purposes, there are also some professional activities for which you are allowed to travel to the USA 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 take a look at the B-1/B-2 regulations.

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

  • Participation in business meetings
  • Participation in scientific, educational, professional or business congresses, 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; taking up employment 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 nationality is to help out for 4 weeks at the US location, as there are personnel shortages there. The employee will continue to be paid from Germany and the contract will also remain 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. Meaning, a US work visa would be mandatory here.

The boundaries between the individual categories (VWP/ESTA, B-1 and work visas) are often fluid and it must be checked in each individual case 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. It is then often assumed that they have taken up work (illegally) or that they will be asked to present a "suitable" visa the next time they enter the country.

Help with your ESTA application

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

Apply now for ESTA

Working remote from the US

Especially in times of 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.

The most important information about this visa category can also be found here, briefly summarized and free to download in PDF format. 

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