People are often confused about whether they need a visa to travel to the U.S. By reading this guide, most people would be able to determine whether they need to apply for a visa to lawfully enter the U.S.A.
1. What is a visa?
For purposes of entering the U.S.A., a U.S. visa is a stamp that a U.S. Consulate affixes to a page in the passport of a foreign national (i.e. a non-U.S. national). A U.S. visa gives its bearer the right to travel to the U.S.A. and apply for "inspection" and "admission" at a designated port-of-entry (POE), (usually an airport inside the U.S.A.). A visa does NOT give its bearer the right to enter (or otherwise be present in) the U.S.A. Such rights are conferred by U.S. Customs & Border Protection upon inspecting and admitting the foreign national to the U.S.A. Although exceptions exist, foreign nationals generally require a visa to enter the U.S.A. unless they are a national of a country that participates in the Visa Waiver Program.
2. What is the Visa Waiver Program?
The Visa Waiver Program (VWP) allows nationals from certain countries to travel to the United States without obtaining a U.S. Visa. In order to qualify, such travelers must be visiting the U.S.A. for a period of 90 days or less as a non-immigrant visitor for the purpose of business or pleasure (i.e. tourism). They are required to register for online travel clearance through the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA). Such applications should be submitted well in advance, and certainly no later than 72 hours before departing for the U.S.A. While they may embark for the U.S.A. from any country, they must be in possession of a nontransferable, round trip ticket, valid for at least one year, which does not terminate in Canada, Mexico, or the Caribbean Islands (except for residents thereof). You should be aware that persons who enter the U.S.A. through the VWP are not allowed to extend or change "status" while in the U.S.A. (Authorization to extend stay beyond the 90 days is possible for genuine, unforeseen emergencies, often medical). In addition, a person who applies for admission under the VWP, but is denied, has no right to see an Immigration Judge.
3. Which countries are participating in the Visa Waiver Program?
Nationals of the following countries are eligible to apply for entry under the Visa Waiver Program: Andorra , Argentina, Austria, Australia, Belgium, Brunei, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Monaco, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, San Marino, Singapore, Slovenia, Spain, and Uruguay.
4. Are there occasions where a national of a VWP-participating country may nevertheless need a U.S. visa?
Absolutely. For instance, foreign nationals who might be subject to the grounds for denial of admission must still obtain a visa from the U.S. consulate. If a foreign national has previously been denied admission to the U.S.A. or been refused a nonimmigrant visa, said person should not seek to enter the U.S.A. through the VWP, but rather should apply for a visa at a U.S. consulate. Other persons who may not use the VWP include persons who have previously violated the terms of the VWP, e.g. by staying beyond the 90-day limit without authorization. Additionally, persons who have previously been deported or removed from the U.S.A. may not use the VWP.