Jamie Cohen

The Visa Waiver Program Is Wonderful, but It’s Not for Everyone

It finally arrived after years of waiting – the US visa waiver program for Israelis. Now, many will no longer need visas to visit the US with the interminable delays for embassy visa interviews. But the program, also known as ESTA, is not for everyone.  You still must fill out and submit an online application, which asks many of the same questions as tourist visa applications. The good news is it’s inexpensive to apply, only $21, as opposed to $185 for a tourist visa, and the applicant usually gets an instantaneous answer. The ESTA authorization lasts for two years before needing to renew it.

While ESTA benefits many, some will not be eligible and for others, regular visas may be preferable. Who are not eligible for ESTA?

  1. Those with existing and current visas to the United States.
  2. Those who do not have digital passports.
  3. Those who have been denied a visa or ESTA in the past.

Just because one is eligible for ESTA doesn’t mean it’s always the best choice to enter the US. One entering the US under ESTA is limited to a 90 day stay. The ESTA holder can always depart the US and try to reenter. However, that person likely will be questioned at the border as to why they are reentering so soon. If denied entry, then the ESTA authorization is revoked, likely meaning the person will no longer be eligible for ESTA in the future. If a person plans to stay in the US longer than 90 days, it’s better to apply for a tourist or some other type of visa. Most of the time those entering the US on tourist visas will be granted six month stays. A person denied ESTA may apply for a visa at a US embassy. Be aware, however, denials of ESTA and visas may affect one’s possibility of even receiving a visa at a US embassy.

Additionally, one entering the US on ESTA cannot change their status to a different visa category. For example, a person who enters the US on ESTA and finds a school program for which they are accepted cannot then apply for a change of status to that of a student while remaining in the US. The person must depart the US and apply for a student visa overseas. On the other hand, had that same person entered the US on a tourist visa, they could apply for student status and remain in the US legally while attending school.

ESTA authorization permits travel to and entry into the US for tourism and business meetings. It does not authorize work. If found to be working in the US, the ESTA holder’s status will be revoked. ESTA authorization also does not mean the person will automatically be permitted entry into the US. ESTA holders are subject to inspection by immigration officers at their port of entry. As with other types of visas to the US, the ESTA holder will be asked what they’re planning to do while in the US and where they plan to stay.

For short term visits to the US, the visa waiver program makes travel to the US simpler and cheaper for many people. However, it’s not for everyone.

About the Author
Partner, Cohen and Brosh Law Offices, Tel Aviv - 2013-current. Former Chief Counsel of a US Senate Subcommittee and assistant to the Majority Whip of the Senate.
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