Frequently Asked Questions about the Visa Waiver Program

March 31, 2016

By Caitlin Steinke and Tina Monshipour Foster, Law Firm of Tina Foster

What is the Visa Waiver Program?

The Visa Waiver Program (VWP) is an agreement between the United States and 38 other countries that allows citizens of those countries to travel to the United States for tourism or business - and stay for up to 90 days - without first obtaining a visa. The VWP also allows US citizens to travel to any of the other 38 countries visa-free.

Which countries are part of the Visa Waiver Program?

Andorra                              Estonia                              Italy                                  Netherlands                              South Korea                

Australia                             Finland                             Japan                                New Zealand                            Spain

Austria                                France                               Latvia                               Norway                                      Sweden

Belgium                              Germany                           Liechtenstein                  Portugal                                    Switzerland

Brunei                                 Greece                               Lithuania                         San Marino                               Taiwan

Chile                                   Hungary                             Luxembourg                   Singapore                                 United Kingdom

Czech Republic                 Iceland                               Malta                               Slovakia

Denmark                            Ireland                                Monaco                           Slovenia

How do eligible visitors enter the United States under the Visa Waiver Program?

In order to enter the United States under the VWP, eligible visitors need only be approved for visa-free travel through the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA). It costs $4 to request ESTA authorization, and an additional $10 if the authorization is approved.

What changes were made to the Visa Waiver Program?

As of January 2016, the following individuals are prohibited from travelling to the United States without a visa: 

  1. Any citizen of a VWP country who is also a citizen of Iran, Iraq, Syria, or Sudan

  2. Any citizen of a VWP country who has visited Iran, Iraq, Syria, or Sudan on or after March 1, 2011, unless such travel was to perform military or official government service for a VWP country 

How have these changes affected citizens of Visa Waiver Program countries with ESTA authorization?

Citizens of VWP countries who had valid ESTA authorizations, and who had previously indicated holding dual nationality with Iran, Iraq, Syria, or Sudan, had their ESTA authorizations revoked by the US government upon the implementation of the new restrictions. Travelers who did not have their ESTA authorization revoked, but who are otherwise ineligible for visa-free travel under the new restrictions, will be denied authorization to travel to the United States without a visa.

Are there any waivers for people affected by the changes?

Unfortunately, the US government has not provided any blanket waivers or automatic exemptions. While there are waivers available, they will only be issued on a case-by-case basis. The following visitors may be eligible for a waiver to the new VWP restrictions:

  1. Citizens of VWP countries who traveled to Iran, Iraq, Syria, or Sudan on behalf of international organizations, regional organizations, and sub-national governments on official duty
  2. Citizens of VWP countries who traveled to Iran, Iraq, Syria, or Sudan on behalf of a humanitarian NGO on official duty
  3. Citizens of VWP countries who traveled to Iran, Iraq, Syria, or Sudan as journalists for reporting purposes
  4. Citizens of VWP countries who traveled to Iran for legitimate business-related purposes following the conclusion of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on July 14, 2015
  5. Citizens of VWP countries who traveled to Iraq for legitimate business-related purposes

I am an affected citizen of a Visa Waiver Program country - how can I come to the United States for tourism or business?

If you think you may be eligible for a waiver to the new restrictions, you can apply for a waiver through ESTA. If you are not eligible for a waiver, or if your waiver is denied, you cannot travel to the United States without first applying for a visa through a US embassy or consulate. It costs $160 to apply for a tourism or business visa, applicants must attend an interview at the US embassy or consulate, and it can take several months for the visa to be issued. There is no appeals process for visas that are denied, and the application fee is not refunded.

Under what circumstances can I expedite the processing of my visa?

You can request expedited processing if you need a visa to come to the United States for an urgent business, medical, or humanitarian purpose.

How do the changes to the Visa Waiver Program affect US citizens?

The new restrictions implemented by the US government have no effect on the ability of US citizens to travel to any of the 38 participating countries. However, the VWP is based on reciprocity: your citizens can travel to our country visa-free, in exchange for our citizens being able to travel to your country visa-free. Because the changes adversely affect certain citizens of VWP countries - and the changes are seen by many as discriminatory - it is possible that the other VWP countries will reciprocate by imposing similar visa restrictions on US citizens.