Recently, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security released its annual report on visa overstays. The report specifically seeks to provide concrete figures on the number of persons expected to leave the U.S., according to their visa conditions and final date of their visa validity. This report included two primary categories of visa holders and visa overstays: Visa Waiver Programme Overstays and those travelling with a Visa. Visa travellers could include individuals in the country for a variety of purposes. Work and study visas are among the most prevalent. Taking these two classifications into account, the report goes on to detail the suspected number of foreign Visa holders of all types who have apparently exceeded their authorized time for remaining in the U.S. The report then goes on to express the number of Visa Overstays as a percentage of departures that should have occurred. Our focus however, will be the figures associated with the Visa Waiver Program, the amount of which correlates to the number of persons travelling to the U.S. through the use of an ESTA. Visa Overstay figures are exceedingly important for the programme’s future as well as the continued membership of each participating nation. Digging down into the numbers, we can ascertain that 21,616,034 citizens of other countries travelled under the Visa Waiver Programme to the U.S. and were then supposed to leave in 2016. Of these, 147,282 persons are assumed to have overstayed their visas. These numbers are further separated into two distinct categories; those who overstayed but did eventually leave and those who would appear to still be in the U.S. The ultimate rate of overstays, according to these numbers, is 0.68%, which is rather miniscule. Meanwhile, the number of travellers not arriving via the VWP who were obligated to leave the U.S. in 2016 has more than double the rate of Visa Overstays, around 2.07%. Comparing these percentages alone elucidates exactly how carefully member countries of the Visa Waiver Programme are selected. Such stats more than prove the validity and usefulness of the VWP by showing the U.S. that member countries and their citizens largely abide by the agreed-to terms and restrictions. Notably, travellers utilizing the ESTA system within the VWP, appear to have decidedly lower rate of overstays compared to each of the other designations. This is a good sign of the continued usefulness of the program, which ostensibly makes the case for its further existence. We can not only look at the results as a whole however, this report also has a statistical analysis of the performance of each individual member country signed on to the VWP. Let’s use the return rates of Australians as a metric by which to gauge the impact of the program on U.S. immigration. In comparing the entire 38 member nations of the VWP, Australia had over 1.3 million expected departures with an overstay rate of .56%, very much on the low-end of Visa Waver Programme countries, when compared to nations like Hungary with a 2.75% Visa Overstay Rate. Australia’s status in the VWP is more than safe when compared to overstays by other VWP members. Even the worst VWP nations (in terms of overstay percentage) are a cut above the rest though, when you consider that some non-members, like Libya, have visa overstay rates approaching 45%! Ultimately, these numbers reveal that the VWP countries were not chosen arbitrarily and that the program serves its purpose. WHAT DO THESE FIGURES REPRESENT? This statistical analysis provided by DHS truly allows us a better understanding of the distinct differences between VWP nations and Non-VWP nations. This document further gives us insight into the effectiveness of the VWP itself regarding the ultimate goal of allowing entry to citizens of member nations and then having them return to their home country after their visa term has expired. Certain conclusions regarding the ESTA system can also be drawn. The Electronic System for Travel Authorizations (ESTA) is the digital component that makes the Visa Waiver Programme possible for those travellers seeking to gain entry into the U.S. ESTA is a essentially an online application that streamlines Visa Waiver Programme entry requests through a central portal. While individuals hailing from VWP nations are generally considered to be trusted enough for entry without the laborious vetting that persons hailing from non-VWP states will experience, there are still procedures in place to ensure the safety of the U.S. And while the Visa Waiver Programme and ESTA greatly simplify the process of deciding who is eligible for entry into the U.S., not all citizens of VWP nations who complete their ESTA applications will be allowed in. The difference between acceptance and rejection of your ESTA request is found in the form’s questions and your answers, though the process is done automatically. Having automated procedures, rather than extensive vetting, places a profound burden upon VWP nations to make certain they are only releasing upstanding citizens who will not commit crimes or attempt to stay illegally once their legitimate travel access to the U.S. has ended. However, as a former U.S. president said- “Trust but verify.” Thus we have these annual reports released by DHS that fully examine the numbers to establish which VWP countries are meeting their obligation and which are not. To decrease the likelihood of overstays and illegal immigration issues, nations that quality for VWP status must have a societal standard of living that is somewhat equivalent to the U.S. The prospective VWP member nation must have evidence of compliance with human rights conventions, a GDP expected of modern, industrialized nation, demonstrated respect for and acquiescence to, U.S. immigration law and other factors. A consistent pattern of visa overstay by citizens of a particular nation can act as a warning sign and play a large role in either VWP membership being offered or even rescinded. Previously, member nations such as Uruguay and Argentina found their VWP status revoked due to financial crises within the countries that would have presumably led to increased levels of immigration and visa overstay by their citizens. The U.S. has a vested interest in preventing mass abuse of the VWP and unfettered immigration, so precautions taken to prevent overstays are increasingly strong. Economic factors of overstays however are dwarfed by national security concerns that could arise from individuals abusing their visas and staying in the country illegally, as many of the terrorists involved with 9/11 were known to have done. If a large enough threat were to arise, it is conceivable that the U.S. would discontinue the VWP for all member nations. As such, it is exceedingly important for travellers in the U.S. that are taking advantage of the VWP and ESTA programs, to comply with their visa terms so that they do not potentially cause their nation to lose its VWP status. CONDITIONS OF ESTA AND VWP: Those issued ESTAs under the VWP are required to abide by two primary conditions:
- Individuals in the U.S. via the VWP cannot work for an U.S. employer or seek employment in the U.S. It doesn’t matter whether the work is paid or unpaid. Exceptions to this include those who are travelling on business, to conferences, sales meetings etc… at the request of an employer in their home country. Work visas are an entirely different category of visa than those that fall into the VWP-eligible category.
- You will not spend longer than 90 days in the U.S. during any consecutive stay that falls under the VWP. On the 91st consecutive day you have officially violated the conditions of your stay under VWP status. Consequences could include not being allowed back into the country, fines, and other such legal or financial ramifications.
Violating your allotted 90-day visit period could not only have potential negative effects for you, but also for your home country and its status as a VWP nation. While your actual visa has limitations in terms of time, you should also be aware that your ESTA itself also has time-related restrictions. Your ESTA generally has a validity period of two years, never longer. The clock starts ticking on this validity as soon as your ESTA status is reported to you via email. While two years is the maximum, it is quite possible that your ESTA could be valid for less than this amount of time. ESTA approval and validity periods vary depending on your passport, not necessarily on you, the passport holder. When your passport expires your ESTA also expires and you will have to complete the application procedure again to secure an ESTA linked to your new passport. Whether you are re-applying for an ESTA or applying for the first time, the process is fairly straightforward if you are a passport holder from a VWP nation. You will require your passport and a payment method. The ESTA form itself can be found online and is essentially a questionnaire regarding your identity and your trip details. Questions may either be optional or compulsory and completion will take around 10 minutes. Approval letters are generally sent within 24 hours, via the email address that you will provide as part of the application process. Overall, the ESTA is a much easier method than having to apply in person at an embassy for a visa and many of the other hoops non-VWP citizens have to jump through. Apply for your ESTA today and start preparing for your trip to the U.S., just be certain you are prepared to abide by the conditions of the programme, both for your own benefit and that of your home nation. Are you preparing to travel 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 also love to hear from you and address any comments or answer any questions you might have regarding your upcoming travel experience. Do not hesitate to contact us for travel assistance. Thank you!