Before you take all the time and effort to get a visa to come to the United States, be sure you really need one.
The U.S. government allows nationals from 36 countries to visit here for up to 90 days on travel or business trips without requiring a visa. The government may also waive visa requirements for visitors from a number of other countries, among them Canada, Mexico, Bermuda and the Bahamas, that have special relationships with the United States.
In 1986, Congress created the Visa Waiver Program to help stimulate tourism and business with American allies throughout the world. The idea is to give friendly nations preferential treatment and strengthen the bonds between Americans and supporters overseas, especially in Europe.
The list of VWP nations has gradually grown over the years, with Greece being the latest addition in 2010. The complete list of eligible countries includes Andorra, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brunei, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Monaco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, San Marino, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.
Countries that have strained relations with the United States or that have ties to terrorism are excluded. So are countries that are unstable and likely to send large numbers of refugees here.
U.S. officials can change their mind and change the list at any time. For example, in 2002, the government removed Argentina from the VWP program because a financial crisis in the country threatened to incite a mass exodus to the United States.
All VWP countries are required to reciprocate and provide visa-free travel to U.S. citizens, though Australia does require Americans to apply for approval through the Australian Electronic Travel Authority (ETA).
Travelers from VWP countries must have modern, security-enhanced, machine-readable passports with digitalized photos or biometric security features, such as e-Passports. Make sure your passport complies and, generally, that it will be valid for at least six months beyond the expected date of departure from the United States. If you have a passport issued before 2005, it’s best to apply for a new VWP-compliant passport to eliminate potential problems.
Families traveling together must have individual machine-readable passports for each member, including infants. There is a small land border fee of about $14 for VWP travelers arriving at land ports of entry and is payable through the Department of Homeland Security’s Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA).
Travelers that have serious crimes on their records are ineligible for visa waivers. Visitors who intend to stay for more than 90 days also are ineligible and must apply for visas. Conspicuously absent in the VWP are Canada, Mexico and Bermuda, which are governed by specific provisions in the U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act. The long borders the United States shares with Canada and Mexico require special rules, most of them stemming from the North American Free Trade Agreement, to address back-and-forth traffic and security concerns. Visitors from Bermuda and The Bahamas also are treated as special cases outside the scope of VWP.
Generally, Canadians, Mexicans, Bermudans and Bahamians don’t need visas to come to the United States. But they do need proper identification and must comply with rules specific to their countries and ports of entry.
Americans of all political stripes believe that the Visa Waiver Program is a good idea because it strengthens alliances and enhances the United States’ position in the world. As former President George W. Bush put it: “Throughout our history, some of the strongest advocates of freedom have been those who came to American and saw the blessings of our liberty with their own eyes. Extending this opportunity to some of our closes allies deepens our friendship and makes all our countries safer.”