No Tourist Visa Required: Visiting The U.S. Under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP)

If you're coming from a VWP Designated Country, you may enter the U.S. without first obtaining a visa. However, it may be in your best interests to get a visa anyway.

Although most people wanting to come to the United States as a tourist will first have to go to a U.S. consulate and apply for a visa, you may be able to avoid this if you are:

  • from a country on the State Department’s list (which have agreements with the United States allowing easy travel back and forth)
  • have not violated the terms of any past nonimmigrant visa (for example, have not stayed in the U.S. beyond the time your previous stays expired), or otherwise become inadmissible (for example, have tuberculosis or a record of crimes, drug abuse, or security violations) and
  • want to visit the United States for no more than three months (90 days) as a visitor for pleasure (or business), with no intent to stay permanently.

If all these things are true of you, you may enter the United States without a visa, under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP). You’ll want to weigh the advantages and disadvantages first, however. In some cases, people from Visa Waiver countries find it’s better for them to apply for a tourist (B-2) visa.

It's also important to realize that the VWP is not a free entry pass. If, upon coming to the U.S., the border officials determine that your true intent is some activity other than tourism, you may be told that you should have applied for a visa allowing that activity, and sent home.

Longer Stay Allowed on B-2 Visa Than With VWP

If you enter on a visa waiver, your maximum stay is 90 days. With a tourist visa (B-2), you’ll normally be allowed to stay for up to six months, and can apply to extend your stay.

What to Prepare for Your VWP Visit

Although you don’t need to get a visa, coming to the U.S. under the VWP does require some preparation ahead of time. This includes:

  • obtaining a valid, machine-readable passport from your home country, with an expiration date at least six months past your expected stay in the United States
  • buying a return ticket, or a ticket to some other foreign country, unless you’re coming in your own car
  • applying for and receiving authorization through the U.S. State Department’s Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA): www.cbp.gov/travel/international-visitors/esta
  • preparing evidence that you have enough money to support yourself while in the U.S. without working here, and
  • being ready to pay a fee, if you will be arriving at a land border.

Also, before you arrive from a Visa Waiver country, the airline or other carrier will give you a form to fill out (I-94W). This is mostly used to determine whether you are inadmissible to the United States.

What Happens at the U.S. Border or Port

After you arrive, the Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) officer will review your I-94W Form and other documents. The officer will check your name against an electronic database to see whether you’ve overstayed any past visas or have a criminal history.

The CBP officers have the power to deny any person entry and insist that he or she return home immediately, with no hearing and no second opinion. People who enter on tourist visas run this same risk, but at least they’ve given their application for entry a “test run” past a U.S. consular official, who would probably deny their visa on the spot and save them a plane trip.

As a Visa Waiver entrant, you would, after being denied entry, be allowed to try to return to the United States anytime. Some people who enter on visas have to wait five years if they’re refused entry. However, you would still have to leave the United States first.

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