ESTA and VWP for Business Aircraft Travel to the U.S.: Tips and Best Practice
Avoiding the need for passengers to obtain visas for travel to the U.S. when possible is a significant benefit for both private non-revenue and charter (non-scheduled commercial) operators. Any operator that meets Visa Waiver Program (VWP) requirements can become a "signatory carrier" and transport Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) participants to the U.S. without the need for visas.
The following is an overview of tips and best practices for ESTA and VWP requirements:
1. Know passport requirements for non-U.S. passengers and crew members
In most cases you’ll need a passport with validity of at least six months upon entry into the U.S. There are, however, exceptions to the "six month" rule. Nationals of certain countries only require passport validity for their period of stay. Canadian nationals can utilize their NEXUS trusted traveler card, instead of a passport, for entry to the U.S. To determine the passport validity requirements, please consult with your 3rd-party provider.
2. Be aware of visa requirements
U.S. "green card" holders and Canadian citizens entering the U.S. for tourism purposes do not require U.S. visas. All other passengers and crew members require visas, with the exception of passengers who have an ESTA and are entering the U.S. aboard a VWP signatory carrier. Currently, 38 countries participate in the VWP:
|Czech Republic||Liechtenstein||South Korea|
|Germany||The Netherlands||United Kingdom|
Note that only British citizens with unrestricted right of permanent abode in England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, the Channel Islands, and the Isle of Man are eligible under the VWP.
3. ESTAs are different from visas
An ESTA takes the form of an I-94 card that a signatory carrier would provide for any approved national entering the U.S. ESTAs are always done electronically and must be filed at least 72 hours in advance of the estimated time of arrival in the U.S. It may be possible to obtain an ESTA on shorter notice as long as the system is not experiencing any issues and is able to process the information. Mandatory information needed to obtain an ESTA includes name, country of residence, passport number and expiration date, and location where passport was issued. There’s a small online cost, and the ESTA is valid for two years or for the life of your passport, whichever expires first. Any changes to one or more of the mandatory information fields on the ESTA application require a new ESTA. Note that you do not need to present your ESTA to customs/immigration authorities on arrival as they can view it online. It’s best, however, to keep your ESTA number on hand. Be aware, also, that, even if you have a valid ESTA, it’s at the customs inspector’s discretion to allow entry.
4. ESTAs may only be used when traveling aboard VWP signatory carriers
Non-U.S. passengers may only use ESTA when arriving in the U.S. aboard a VWP signatory carrier. Both U.S. and non-U.S. operators can obtain signatory carrier status if the U.S. company has a U.S. tax ID number, or the non-U.S. operator has a U.S. customs bond number. The application process takes about 60 days and, once approved, signatory carrier status applies to your entire fleet. VWP signatory carrier status is valid for seven years, at which point it may be extended for another seven years. If there’s a change to your company name, you’ll need to update VWP status by sending a request with updated information.
5. Be aware of liability risks under VWP
Technically, a VWP carrier is liable for any VWP passenger who does not depart the U.S. within 90 days. For this reason it’s always recommended to confirm the passenger has a valid ESTA prior to departure and to obtain departure information if the passenger is not returning with your aircraft.
6. Any passenger with a valid ESTA may travel to the U.S. aboard a VWP signatory carrier
A passenger may arrive aboard any VWP signatory carrier and depart the U.S. aboard any corporate or scheduled commercial aircraft. Within the permitted 90-day stay, the passenger may make side trips to Canada, Mexico, and adjacent Bahamian or Caribbean islands and will generally be readmitted to the U.S. under the VWP program for the remainder of the 90-day stay granted upon initial arrival into the U.S. The side trip may be done with VWP signatory carriers. Total length of stay, including side trips, must be 90 days or less.
7. Confirm that passengers have ESTAs
Assuming you have the required information, anyone can determine if a passenger has a valid ESTA via the Customs and Border Protection website. A list of signatory carriers can be found on the same site.
You may also have your 3rd-party provider confirm passenger ESTA status. If a passenger doesn’t have an ESTA or visa, the operator may be fined, and crew members may be fined or detained at the discretion of the customs/immigration inspector. For passengers who do not have required visas or ESTAs, fines are up to $3,300 USD per passenger, plus $5,000 USD for the operator. Additionally, the operator may be liable for making arrangements to have the passenger removed from the U.S., as per the inspector’s instructions.
8. Know best practices to avoid issues
It’s always best to check passenger ESTA status prior to departing for the U.S. Passengers should also confirm that the operator is a VWP signatory carrier. Ensure the ESTA matches the passport the passenger is using. Operators should always carry their VWP signatory carrier agreement onboard. Some customs inspectors may be unfamiliar that the VWP applies to both scheduled commercial carriers and business aviation operators.
9. Additional information on the VWP
If you would like more information on the VWP, please see our articles entitled "Visa Waiver Program and Business Aviation: Answers to Common Questions" and "Operating under the Visa Waiver Program: Top FAQs from Business Aviation Operators."
More and more business aviation operators are going through the process of becoming VWP signatory carriers in order to enjoy greater flexibility in transporting non-U.S. passengers to the U.S. An approved VWP application covers all aircraft in your fleet or managed fleet and provides a significant benefit in being able to carry ESTA holders to the U.S. visa-free.
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