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What Is The US Visa Waiver Program And What To Do If ESTA Is Denied?

May 04, 2023

If you’re considering taking a temporary trip to the US for tourism or business purposes, then a Visa Waiver Program may be what you need.

The VWP offers travelers a straightforward and fast approach to gaining entry to the US without a visa for up to 90 days. However, not everyone is eligible for the VWP. 

To be eligible for the VWP, it’s necessary to be approved by the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA).

If your ESTA application is unsuccessful, obtaining a non-immigrant visa is an alternative way to travel to the US for the same length of time.

Below, you’ll find more information on VWP and non-immigrant US visas and their application processes.

What is the US Visa Waiver Program? 

The Visa Waiver Program (VWP) allows citizens of 40 countries to enter the US without a visa and stay up to 90 days. 

In return, these countries permit US citizens and nationals to travel to their countries for the same amount of time without a visa.

The purpose of these visits must be either for business or tourism purposes. 

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) administered the VWP in 1986 in consultation with the State Department. Over the years, the program has evolved into a comprehensive security partnership with many of the US’s closest allies.

Who can apply for a Visa Waiver Program? 

Travelers can apply for the VWP if they plan to stop off temporarily in the US to catch a connecting flight/ship or if they are carrying out tourism or business activities. 

Examples of tourism activities that may qualify you for ESTA include:

  • A holiday
  • Visiting family or friends
  • A social event
  • A medical treatment 
  • Participation in a musical or sporting event 
  • Leisure courses such as a painting class

Examples of business activities that may qualify you for ESTA include:

  • Attending business meetings
  • Consulting with business associates
  • Negotiating contracts 
  • Attend short-term training (you cannot receive payment from a US source for this training, but expenses incidental to your stay are permitted) 

How to apply for the Visa Waiver Program 

Any traveler hoping to apply for the VWP must gain authorization through the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) before boarding their transport to the US.

What is ESTA?

ESTA is an automated system operated by US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to determine an individual’s eligibility to travel to the United States under the VWP.

Generally, ESTA is a fast online procedure consisting of a detailed questionnaire, with results delivered within three days.

ESTA authorization does not guarantee your entry to the US. The US Customs and Border Protection officers who inspect you upon your arrival still have the power to deny you entry.

ESTA applications can be submitted at any time before travel. However, travelers are advised to apply as soon as they make travel plans or purchase airline tickets.

At the latest, travelers should apply for their ESTA no less than 72 hours before departing for the US.

How to apply for an ESTA?

1. Apply online using the official ESTA website –  your application must be accompanied by the following: 

  • A valid passport or passports from a visa waiver country
  • Proof of your home address
  • Email and phone number 
  • Contact details for an emergency contact 

2. Take note of your application number – you might need it to check your ESTA status or update your details.

3. Make your ESTA payment – This payment can be made directly through the ESTA website. This sum will not be refunded if you’re denied an ESTA or entry into the US.

4. Receive your ESTA – If your ESTA application is approved, you can travel to the United States under the VWP.

How long is ESTA valid?

If your ESTA is approved, it will be valid for two years. During that time, you can visit America multiple times without needing to reapply. 

However, this is only relevant if your passport remains valid and your reason for travel remains based on business or tourism.

In addition, each stay can be no longer than 90 days, and overall, you cannot spend more than 180 days a year in the US.

Keep in mind if your ESTA validity expires during your time in the US, this will not affect your 90-day period of stay.

However, remaining in the US beyond your ESTA-permitted stay of 90 days will be deemed overstaying. This will likely negatively impact any future ESTA applications, non-immigrant visa applications as well as immigrant visa applications.

What to do if ESTA is denied?

If you’re not eligible for ESTA, you’re not suitable for travel under the Visa Waiver Program.

If you reapply for ESTA and your circumstances have not changed, your new application will also be denied.

Instead, you should apply for a non-immigrant visa (tourist visa) at your nearest US Embassy or Consulate.

What is a non-immigrant visa? 

Non-immigrant visas are issued to foreign nationals seeking to enter the United States temporarily.

To be eligible for a non-immigrant visa, your reason for travel to the US must be for tourism, business, medical treatment, or certain types of temporary work.

Unlike ESTA, which is a fast online procedure with a three-day turnaround time, a non-immigrant visa application requires a meeting at your local US embassy, which can take months to arrange.

Another significant difference is the cost – US visa applications tend to cost significantly more than ESTA applications. 

Non-immigrant visa application process 

  1. Complete your application – The first step in applying for a US non-immigrant visa is to complete the DS-160 application form. On average, this takes around 90 minutes.
  2. Print and keep the DS-160 barcode page – It’s unnecessary to print the entire application.
  3. Schedule a visa interview appointment  – The median worldwide wait time for a non-immigrant visa interview appointment is about two months.
  4. Attend an interview with a consular officer – You’ll be asked various questions about all aspects of your application and your proposed stay in the US.
  5. Pay the visa application processing fee – Fees vary based on location.

From paperwork and processes to appointments and applications, obtaining a non-immigrant US visa can be a challenging and overwhelming experience. 

At Meimaris Law, our team of experienced US immigration lawyers can help make your application as smooth as possible as we walk you through the process from beginning to end. 

Get in touch today for a free consultation with our team.

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