Updated: May 23, 2017
Most British citizens may travel to the United States without a visa, under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP). Qualifying citizens of the UK or of one of the 37 other countries in the VWP may travel to the US by air or sea on a participating carrier or authorized private aircraft with just a qualifying passport and an onward/return ticket. Upon completion of online registration (which has replaced the familiar green I-94W form) and inspection by a Customs and Border Protection officer, VWP travelers may be admitted for stays up to 90 days’ duration. (Slightly different requirements apply to persons arriving by land.) Every year from 2013 to 2015, more than 19 million travelers entered the US visa-free in this way.
To use the VWP you must ensure that you satisfy requirements relating to (1) your passport, (2) the activities you intend to undertake in the US, and (3) your personal history. You must also have received (4) authorization from the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) before you travel. If you do not meet all four of these criteria, you must obtain a visa for US travel.
All VWP travelers regardless of age must have an individual, electronic passport (e-passport). To ensure that your passport is an e-passport you may wish to compare it against the example on the Department of State’s website.
Passports must be valid for six months beyond the date the traveler will exit the US. However, the US has signed agreements with a number of countries to waive this requirement. For a list of those countries click here. When such an agreement is in place, the passport must be valid for the entire period of the visitor’s intended stay.
Activities to Be Undertaken in the United States
VWP travelers may apply for admission as either visitors for pleasure or for business, and will find their passports stamped ‘WT’ or ‘WB,’ respectively.
WT visitors may use their 90 days’ admission to holiday in the United States, visit family and friends, or seek medical treatment. Employment is never authorised.
Persons admitted as WB visitors may conduct business activities such as negotiating contracts, engaging in litigation, or attending business meetings or conferences. With few exceptions WB visitors may not legally engage in local employment or ordinary labor for hire, and may not receive from a US source any remuneration other than expenses incidental to their visit. You will need an employment-authorised visa to undertake activities such as managing a US office or supervising employees; providing consultancy services in the US beyond mere fact gathering; or soliciting clients for a US business. For additional information regarding the circumstances under which employment in the US is authorized for VWP visitors see our website article Working (Legally) on a Visitor’s Visa.
Even if your nationality, your passport and planned activities in the US qualify for the VWP, you will be ineligible to use the program if any of the following is true:
- You have been present in Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan or countries listed under specified designation lists (currently including Libya, Somalia and Yemen) at any time on or after March 1, 2011 (with limited government/military exceptions)—see the Customs and Border Protection FAQs on this subject;
- You are a national of Iraq, Syria, Iran, or Sudan;
- You ever violated the terms of the VWP, such as overstaying on a previous entry;
- You were ever removed or deported from the US;
- You are inadmissible to the United States for any of a variety of reasons, including but not limited to
- You have a communicable disease of public health significance; or
- You have been convicted of a crime involving moral turpitude or a controlled substance violation (there are exceptions).
If any of these statements is true you must obtain a visa before traveling to the United States. The US Embassy, London’s website advises anyone who has ever been arrested, cautioned or convicted to apply for a visa. Please also note that not all US Embassies are equally strict in their interpretation of the standard. For example, on the issue of VWP eligibility the websites of the Embassies in Paris and Berlin simply refer people to the ESTA website maintained by the US Customs and Border Protection (see next section).
Electronic System for Travel Authorization (‘ESTA’).
Effective November 3, 2014 the ESTA questionnaire was expanded to require more information than the I-94W form. The wording of several of the eligibility questions regarding arrests, convictions and other potential grounds for ESTA authorization denial was changed at the same time, and must be read carefully by the applicant. Additional changes were made in December 2015 to accommodate the new eligibility restrictions
required by the Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015. An ESTA application is made on the Customs and Border Protection’s dedicated webpage at https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov
; the CBP recommends that travelers submit this information a minimum of 72 hours in advance of departure. Persons seeking ESTA authorization must pay a fee of US$4.00 to apply. If authorization is granted, an additional US$10.00 per authorization will be payable.
Each travel authorization under ESTA is valid for up to two years, depending upon the expiry date of the traveler’s passport. However, a VWP traveler must obtain a new ESTA authorization if he or she is issued a new passport or changes his or her name, gender or country of citizenship. In addition, a traveler must obtain a new ESTA authorization if any answer to the ESTA application eligibility questions changes. This includes the ESTA question ‘Have you ever been denied a US visa you applied for with your current or previous passport…’ Therefore, if you apply for a visa and are denied, you cannot simply revert to travelling on the VWP, even if you have an ESTA authorization that still appears to be valid. You must apply for a new ESTA, answer the questions honestly and hope that you are given authorization again.
Finally, remember: If you cannot use the VWP, all is not lost. B1/B2 visitor visas for UK citizens can be valid for multiple entries and for up to 10 years. Even if an immigration or criminal law violation makes you ineligible for a visa, waivers of ineligibility are often available. In such cases, too complex to be treated in this brief article, the legal advice of a qualified US immigration lawyer should be sought. For information on ineligibilities and waivers of ineligibilities, see our article Washington, we have a problem! Ineligibilities and waivers.