Visa Waiver Program Restrictions Incorporated in ESTA

Travelers entering the United States on the visa waiver program (VWP) face additional screening questions when completing the application for Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA). These ESTA restrictions are part of the VWP program and are based on an applicant’s nationality and/or travel history.

Background on the VWP

A citizen from any of the 38 countries participating in the VWP is able to request exemption from having to obtain a visa in order to enter the United States for tourism or business visitor purposes. These visits are limited to no more than 90 days.

Impact of December 2015 Law on VWP

On December 18, 2015, President Obama signed a law known as the Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015. This law limits eligibility for admission through VWP, based on an individual’s history of travel to certain countries deemed by the U.S. government to be supporters of international terrorism. In addition, dual nationals of a VWP country and one of a select list of countries covered by the Terrorist Travel Prevention Act are also no longer eligible to use the VWP.

Initial Restrictions: Iraq, Syria, Iran, and Sudan

The initial restrictions under the above act prohibit use of the VWP by those who traveled to Iraq, Syria, Iran, or Sudan on or after March 1, 2011. Similarly, anyone who is a dual-national of a VWP country and Iraq, Syria, Iran, or Sudan can no longer use the VWP.

Other Restricted Countries: Libya, Somalia, and Yemen

In February 2016, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) added three additional countries to its restriction list. With this change, those who have traveled to Libya, Somalia, and/or Yemen on or after March 1, 2011 are ineligible to utilize the VWP. Merely being a dual citizen of one of these countries, however, does not make one ineligible to use the VWP.

Travel Option: Need to Apply for Visa to Enter the U.S.

The VWP restrictions created by the Terrorist Travel Prevention Act do not prohibit such individuals from entering the United States. The restrictions only limit the ability to do so under the VWP. Such individuals seeking to visit the U.S. for business or tourism must apply for a B-1/B-2 visa at a U.S. consulate or embassy.

Exceptions and Waivers based on Working in Official Capacity

The DHS may waive the restrictions imposed by this act if doing so is deemed to be “… in the law enforcement or national security interests of the United States.” Such waiver requests are reviewed on a case-by-case basis; but the DHS has provided several examples of situations in which a request is likely to be approved. For instance, if one’s travel is on behalf of a humanitarian NGO or as a journalist for reporting purposes, this typically would be viewed favorably. Similarly, if the applicant traveled in an official capacity on behalf of an international or regional organization, the waiver is more likely to be granted.

No Separate Application for the Waiver

There is no separate waiver application form. Those who believe they may be eligible for an exception or a waiver must fill out the ESTA application. Note that the ESTA questionnaire was updated in February 2016 to include questions related to the Terrorist Travel Prevention Act. Waiver eligibility is decided on a case-by-case basis as part of the ESTA screening.

Check ESTA Before International Travel

Most VWP travelers with valid (not revoked), unexpired ESTA clearances do not need to reapply. Only those who are covered by these changes need to either reapply through ESTA or obtain an appropriate visa for entry to the United States. The CBP, however, recommends that all VWP travelers verify their ESTA clearance prior to making travel plans.


The VWP restrictions related to security cast a broad net. An individual who can no longer utilize the VWP should take steps necessary to apply for a visa well in advance of planned travel.


Copyright © 2016, MURTHY LAW FIRM. All Rights Reserved

Disclaimer: The information provided here is of a general nature and may not apply to any specific or particular circumstance. It is not to be construed as legal advice nor presumed indefinitely up to date.