Visa Waiver Program for Brief Visits to the U.S. Without Formal Legal Status
Certain foreign countries have established agreements with the U.S. that provide for more efficient travel to and from the U.S. Instead of going to a U.S. consulate to get a visitor visa, citizens of these countries may be able to stay in the U.S. for up to 90 days without any formal status. They would qualify for the visa waiver program if they come from a participating country, they have not overstayed on a visa and are not otherwise inadmissible, and they will not be entering by a non-approved method of transportation, such as a private plane. Also, they would need to have refrained from visiting certain countries that are designated as supporting terrorism or causing national security concerns, unless the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) decides to waive this requirement.
People who are nationals of certain countries in the Middle East may not be eligible for this program, even if they currently have a passport from a different country. (Most often, this is because the foreign national or a parent was born somewhere other than the country from which they have the passport.)
Documents Required for Entry Under the Visa Waiver Program
You will need to get a passport from your home country that will last for at least six months after the end of your expected stay in the U.S. Also, you will need to get an electronic chip that contains your biometric information, and you must collect evidence to show that you can support yourself during your time in the U.S. without getting a job. If you are not coming in your own car or other vehicle, you will need to have purchased a ticket out of the U.S. for the end of your stay. You must get authorization from the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA), which is operated by the State Department. If you enter the U.S. at a land border crossing, you must pay a fee.
Also, you will need to complete the I-94W form before you arrive to verify that you are not inadmissible to the U.S. If you are not arriving in a private vehicle, your transportation carrier will provide you with this form.
ESTA Approval and the I-94W Form
Most visitors entering the U.S. under the visa waiver program with an approved ESTA do not need to fill out the I-94W form unless they are entering at a land border.
Disadvantages of the Visa Waiver Program
A visitor visa allows you to stay in the U.S. for six months, while entry under the visa waiver program only lasts for 90 days. You also will not be allowed to extend your stay in the U.S., as you would if you held a visitor visa. If the U.S. government decides to remove you from the country, you do not have a right to a hearing before an immigration judge, which is a right provided to holders of a visitor visa. You cannot change your status without leaving the U.S.
Short Stays Only
A stay under the visa waiver program may only last 90 days and generally cannot be extended, in contrast with a visitor visa.
These requirements come with certain exceptions. You may be able to seek asylum in the U.S. or at least ask for a longer stay if conditions in your home country lead you to fear persecution there upon your return. Also, you may be able to stay in the U.S. for longer than the 90-day period if a medical emergency arises.
You may be able to get a green card if you marry a U.S. citizen or otherwise become an immediate relative of a U.S. citizen while you are in the U.S. on the visa waiver program. However, you will have this right only if you did not enter the U.S. under the visa waiver program with the original goal of getting a green card. This would mean that you lied in stating when you entered the country that you did not intend to remain permanently, which would be a basis for disqualifying you from green card eligibility.
Crossing the Border Under the Visa Waiver Program
You can expect the Customs and Border Patrol officer at the border crossing to review your documents. They will check an electronic database to make sure that you are eligible for the visa waiver program. For example, they will want to verify that you have not overstayed a previous visa. The officer has the authority to prevent the foreign national from entering the U.S. and can require them to go home without allowing a hearing or other review of this decision. (While the same is true for people with visitor visas, the U.S. consular official in their home country probably would have alerted them to their ineligibility earlier.)
However, if you are denied admission under the visa waiver program, you can return and request entry under the program or with a visa at any time. There is no time bar, as there is for some visa holders. You only need to leave the country before trying again.