The Visa Waiver Programme has positive results in overstays

Earlier this month, the Department of Homeland Security published their annual Entry/Exit Overstay Report. The report details the number of visitors during the financial year who have stayed in the United States beyond the term of their visa or ESTA. Among other things, this is a key indication as to the success of the Visa Waiver Programme, and can provide some guidelines as to how to improve the general system.

In this respect, by analysing the ‘overstay rate’ for each country, the USA can determine which countries represent higher or lower risks of their citizens staying in the USA illegally after arrival. It can also compare these figures with previous years, and assess the overall trend over time. Essentially, for VWP member countries, this is a way for the DHS to ensure their adherence to the Visa Waiver Programme. For non-VWP countries, it also provides statistics that could lead to their consideration for inclusion in the programme; for instance, if a country consistently has overstay rates of under 2%, this is one of the criteria for being accepted into the programme in the first place.

So how is overstay measured?

In a nutshell, an overstay is considered to be a non-immigrant who lawfully entered the USA for a specific authorised period, granted to him/her through a visa or visa waiver. This period may be a set amount of time, such as the 90-day period of the ESTA, or for as long as it takes to complete an activity, such as the time needed to pursue a degree programme. There is also the technical difference between in-country overstays and out-of-country overstays; the former refers to individuals who have exceeded their authorised amount of time in the United States and are suspected to still be there, and the latter covers those who exceeded their authorised time in the country, but are known to have left the country. Generally, the figures we’re looking at here deal with both sets of overstays lumped together.

So let’s look at the numbers. For the 2017 financial year, there were 22,472,710 expected departures of people who entered the USA under the Visa Waiver Programme. 0.58% of these visitors overstayed. In other words, this shows that 99.42% of people who entered the USA with ESTA in the 2017 financial year left within 90 days, an impressive figure and a sign that the Visa Waiver Programme is fulfilling its role successfully. The total overstay rate, including visa overstays and visa waiver overstays, was 1.33%. In 2016, this was 1.25%, which, despite representing a proportional increase, was actually a reduction in total numbers, from 739,000 to 701,900.

In other words, this demonstrates that the Visa Waiver Programme is less of an overstay risk than traditional visas. And, indeed, this is one of the reasons why certain countries can be members of the programme. As it stands, there are 38 countries that are members of the Visa Waiver Programme, all of which have met very stringent acceptance criteria. For instance, as well as having a low visa overstay rate, applicant countries must also show particular GDP levels, human rights standards, compliance with US immigration law, and more. Essentially, it aims to attract ‘high-value, low-risk’ countries. All of these figures are monitored on an ongoing basis, and membership of the VWP is by no means permanent; in fact, during the financial crisis of 2001 in Argentina and Uruguay, both countries were removed from the programme due to the fear that this would result in an increase in illegal immigration to the USA.

A large part of the data collected in the Overstay Report has particularly been improved on and consolidated in the last few years. With a view to promote national security, public safety and immigration enforcement, the report is a major tool in monitoring, analysing and forecasting trends. On the basis of the vast amount of entry and exit data detailed in the report, the country can design and develop new ways to reinforce adherence to visas/ESTA, and to track and curb overstays.

One of the major measures being explored to enhance travel security and to generally track overstays in the USA is the use of biometrics. Over the next few years, we can expect to see our biometrics being used more in the scope of travel. Pilot trials have already been carried out to test new biometric screening techniques in US airports, including a $1 billion investment to implement a biometric exit programme. Potentially, this may include ESTA applicants providing biometric details in advance, such as their fingerprints. This would entail applicants having to go to a US Embassy or Consulate before applying for ESTA online, which would add a significant extra step to what is currently a simple process. Nevertheless, it would undoubtedly help with enforcing security in the USA.

This report is evidence that precautions to prevent overstays are working effectively, which is hugely positive for the travel industry and for VWP member countries. But what does it mean for individual travellers?

These overstay figures are focused on the macro level, but it’s important for individual travellers to understand the implications of staying in the USA beyond their authorised time limit. Specifically for ESTA holders, this is 90 days. In this respect, it is important to understand how this 90-day limit works, to ensure that you do not accidentally break the conditions of the Visa Waiver Programme. The 90-day limit starts as soon as you arrive in the USA, not when you receive your ESTA authorisation. As soon as you leave the USA, this clock resets; however, this is not the case if you travel to Canada, Mexico, Bermuda or the Caribbean islands within your trip, in which case this 90-day timer continues to tick. As for your ESTA itself, this authorisation is valid for two years from the time you are approved, or until your passport expires (whichever comes first). This means that you can take as many trips to the USA within this two-year period under the Visa Waiver Programme, provided that no individual trip is longer than 90 days, and that you are always travelling within the conditions of the programme.

Another key aspect of ESTA validity is that your authorisation only needs to be valid when you arrive in the USA. That is to say, if your ESTA itself expires a couple of days into your trip, this is perfectly fine, and the 90-day journey limit still applies. Now, if you exceed the 90-day limit of your journey, and thus contribute to the overstay statistics of this annual report, then you are breaching the conditions of the Visa Waiver Programme. You won’t have any problems leaving the country, but you will likely face problems when trying to return to the USA, or when applying for ESTA again in the future. For this reason, it is strongly advisable that you do not exceed the 90-day ESTA limit.

If there is a chance that you will need to remain in the USA for longer than 90 days, then the best solution is to research and apply for the corresponding visa instead of the US ESTA. A tourist visa in the USA lasts up to six months, which would avoid you running into any problems of breaching the conditions of the Visa Waiver Programme.

The good news that comes with this report is that the Visa Waiver Programme is working effectively, and that the vast majority of travellers are using it correctly and adhering to the conditions. And this means that ESTA continues to be a strong, reliable tool for the citizens of VWP member countries to visit the USA. Applying for ESTA is an incredibly easy process, and takes as little as ten minutes to complete. The entire process takes place online, where a form asks you to provide your personal details, passport information and answer a small set of questions. After submitting your ESTA application online, you will receive an email within 24 hours, informing you of your approval status. As soon as you get this email telling you that your ESTA has been approved, you are immediately able to travel to the USA as a tourist or on business.

The summer is not over yet! With thousands of incredible tourist destinations and activities to suit all tastes, apply for your ESTA online today and start planning your American adventure.

Travelling to the United States? Do you have your pre-planning checklist in order? Visit our ESTA Guide for more information about obtaining your travel permit. We'd love to hear from you. Send us your comments or questions for travel assistance.

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