The VWP conditions are important: Here’s why...

ESTA info

Last week, the US Department of Homeland Security released its annual report on people who overstay the amount of time they were authorised to be in the USA.

This report provides specific figures on how many people were expected to depart the country during 2016 on the basis of their travel authorisation. This is divided broadly into people travelling under the Visa Waiver Programme, and people who are not travelling under the Visa Waiver Programme (i.e. people travelling with a visa). The report then details the number of people suspected of overstaying the amount of time they were allowed to be in the country, according to the conditions of their travel authorisation. Finally, it expresses this number of overstays as a percentage of the expected departures.
What we’re interested in here, specifically, are the figures corresponding with the Visa Waiver Program, and therefore people who have travelled to the USA with an ESTA. These figures are important for the future of the programme, as well as each country’s membership in it.
So, on the whole, we can see observe that 21,616,034 people travelling under the Visa Waiver Programme were expected to depart the country in 2016, of which 147,282 people are suspected to have overstayed (broken down into how many people overstayed but have since left, and how many people are suspected to still be in the country). This result in an overstay rate of 0.68%, which seems pretty small on the whole. It’s worth noting that just over half this number of people not travelling under the VWP were expected to leave the country in 2016, but the number of suspected overstays is more than double, resulting in an overstay rate of 2.07%. This tells us something about how carefully selected the countries that form part of the Visa Waiver Programme are. It’s not easy to become a member country by any means, and statistics like this go a long way towards reassuring the USA that the countries’ citizens will abide by the conditions of the programme. We’ll take a look at these conditions shortly.
It’s worth noting that people travelling with ESTA, under the Visa Waiver Programme, have a much lower overstay rate than all other categories in the report, which bodes well for the programme’s future. Nevertheless, we also have a breakdown of these figures per member country; so let’s take the UK as an example…
Out of all the 38 member countries of the Visa Waiver Programme, the UK shows the highest number of expected departures in 2016, at a towering estimation of 4.7 million people. The only country to come anywhere near as close to this is Japan, at 3 million people. The overstay rate for UK citizens travelling with ESTA is 0.5% (Japan’s is 0.16%, for comparison – the lowest rate – whereas Hungary’s is 2.75% - the highest). Given the sheer amount of visitors and the lower-than-average overstay rate, it seems like the UK’s participation in the Visa Waiver Programme is not at risk at this time.
It’s also worth pointing out that all of the figures above are relatively low compared to many countries (that do not form part of the Visa Waiver Programme). Some of them even show overstay rates at higher than 25%! Once again, this just goes to show how well put together the VWP is, and how difficult it is to qualify to be a member.

Why are these figures important? 

These figures can help us to understand how the Visa Waiver Programme works, how well monitored it is, and why the whole process can be carried out online.
Essentially, the travel authorisation element of the Visa Waiver Programme is the ‘ESTA’. ESTA stands for the Electronic System for Travel Authorisation, and basically means that the whole procedure is carried out online. This includes the online ESTA form that the applicant fills out. But as well as just the application, each application is reviewed in an automated way. Essentially, citizens of Visa Waiver Programme member countries are already trusted enough so as not to have to go through the more comprehensive vetting procedure associated with classic visa applications. That’s not to say that all citizens of these countries who apply for ESTA online will have their applications approved, but rather that the application of such citizens can usually be judged automatically on the basis of the questions in the form. This places an enormous amount of trust in the member country, but also means that this trust needs to be monitored consistently over time, which is one of many reasons for these annual reports by the Department of Homeland Security.
In order to qualify as a member country of the Visa Waiver Programme, that country needs to present certain levels and statistics that are in line with human rights parameters, GDP, compliance with US immigration law, etc. And overstay plays a large part in this, given that if the USA sees patterns whereby lots of people from a certain country are staying on in the country illegally, this can act as a red flag. Indeed, in the past, countries such as Argentina and Uruguay saw their memberships of the programme revoked due to their financial crashes, resulting in a fear that there would be increased immigration from those countries to the USA.
Indeed, precautions to prevent and monitor overstays are stronger than ever, as there is also a very important national security factor here. As you can imagine, any potential perceived threat to security is enough to completely abolish the Visa Waiver Programme, and so it’s important to take this all into account. Essentially, what we can establish here is that it is incredibly important to respect the conditions of the Visa Waiver Programme if you are travelling to the USA with ESTA.

What are these conditions?

There are two main conditions attached to travellers visiting the USA with an ESTA under the Visa Waiver Programme. First of all, the person travelling under the VWP to the USA cannot work whilst in the country, paid or otherwise. The exception to this is if you are travelling ‘on business’, whereby your employer at home is sending you to the USA for a conference, meeting, etc. What you cannot do is seek and perform work while in the country, as if you were an American citizen.
The second of these primary conditions is that you must not spend any longer than 90 days in the USA during any one trip that you take under the Visa Waiver Programme. As soon as you spend 91 days in the US with your ESTA, you are in breach of the programme conditions, and might not be granted re-entry into the US in the future. You must always stick within this 90-day period.
For clarification purposes, it’s also important to highlight the other key time frame associated with the ESTA, which is its validity. The validity period of an ESTA approval is generally two years, but never any longer than this. These two years begin as soon as you receive your ESTA approval via email, and the validity end date is clearly communicated to you at this time. Nevertheless, it is also possible for an ESTA to have a validity period of under two years. This will be the case if your passport expires within the two years following your ESTA application’s approval. This is because your ESTA approval is intricately linked to your passport, not you as a person. As soon as your passport expires, if you have an ESTA that was valid until that point, you will no longer be able to use that ESTA on a new passport. Instead, you must apply for ESTA online again, following the same procedure you carried out last time.
Applying for ESTA online is an easy and simple procedure, and all you’ll need to do it is your passport and a payment method. The application is just an online form, where you are asked a range of questions regarding your personal details and your trip. Some of these questions are optional, while others are compulsory. All in all, it takes around ten minutes and you will find out whether or not you have been ESTA approved within 24 hours. Using the email address you provide as part of your application, your approval status is emailed to you directly – no paper, no phone calls, no meetings.
Apply for your ESTA online today, and just be sure to not go over your 90-day limit in a single trip!

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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