U.S. Customs & e-APIS for Private Non-Revenue Made Easy: Part 2 – Visas, ESTAs and Border Overflight Exemptions

PT 3 M minute read

This business aviation blog post continues from our article last week entitled “U.S. Customs & e-APIS for Private Non-Revenue Made Easy: Part 1 – Setting up CIQ clearance.

Issues continue to occur, from time to time, with general aviation (GA) passengers arriving without visas or with incorrect visas. Every month we’re aware of passengers arriving in the U.S. with Electronic System for Travel Authorizations (ESTAs) aboard GA aircraft that are not Visa Waiver Program (VWP) signatory carriers.

The following is an overview of what you need to know:

1. Visa requirements and visa waiver program

All nationalities, with the exception of Canadian citizens traveling for non-business purposes and U.S. Permanent Residence Card holders, require visas for entry to the U.S. The U.S. Visa Waiver Program (VWP) currently has 38 participating countries – with the latest new entrant being Chile as of March 31, 2014. Nationals from one of these countries arriving with ESTA, do not require visas to enter the U.S. for stays up to 90 days as long as they’re arriving onboard a VWP signatory carrier.

2. Finer points of ESTAs

ESTA is an authorization for a passenger (and not a crew member) to arrive without a visa when traveling on an aircraft that’s a VWP signatory carrier. This still remains a point of confusion as passengers who normally enter the U.S. with ESTAs on commercial airlines are often under the impression that they do not require visas for travel on private aircraft. If the GA aircraft is not registered as a VWP signatory carrier, passengers arriving with ESTAs, but without required visas, could be deported and the operator fined. VWP information and approved countries can be found at on CBP’s site.

3. I-94Ws and I-94s

For VWP passengers arriving on VWP signatory carriers, ESTA replaces the former I-94W form. The catch here, for GA, is that the aircraft must be operated by a VWP signatory carrier. Keep in mind that all passengers, including those with ESTAs, must complete customs declarations upon arrival (one per family). For foreign passengers arriving in the U.S. with a visa, the formerly required I-94 form has been phased out by an electronic version of the form.

4. Becoming a VWP signatory carrier

U.S. based operators have the option to register as a VWP signatory carrier for both Part 91 (private non-revenue) and Part 135 (non-scheduled commercial) flights. Foreign-based operators, however, may only become a VWP signatory carrier for non-scheduled commercial operations. Foreign operators have been able to operate under the VWP as private non-revenue but this is on a case-by-case basis only. To become a signatory carrier you must send two original 775 forms to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Approval as a VWP signatory carrier is a contract between the operator and DHS stating that the operator is responsible for the passengers arriving into the U.S. This process normally takes about 30 days, from the time the application is submitted, but this depends upon DHS workload. We’ve seen approvals come back in 15 days while other approvals have taken as long as four months.

5. Arriving from the south

If you’re arriving from south of the 30th parallel, on the Atlantic side, or south of the 33rd parallel, on the Pacific side, you’ll need to land and clear customs, immigration and quarantine (CIQ) at a designated border airport unless you have a U.S. Border Overflight Exemption (BOE).

6. Border Overflight Exemptions

Processing time for this is usually about 30 business days. While we’ve seen BOEs processed on shorter notice, it’s at the discretion of the approving customs inspector. The recommendation is to apply for annual BOEs as this facilitates future short notice trips. To obtain a BOE documentation/information is required only for the operator and crew. For full information on these requirements see previous articles we have published on this topic.

Applying for a BOE is an easy and straightforward procedure which substantially improves operating flexibility/efficiency of GA aircraft arriving from the south. Recent regulatory changes have dropped the requirement to have a aircraft listed on the approvals and are now only based on the operator name.

7. Additional Reading: U.S. customs and APIS for part 91

Note: Links will be updated as articles are published.


When traveling to the U.S. it’s always recommended that operators research any visa requirements for crew and passengers. For operators that qualify, the VWP may offer benefits to their passengers depending on their nationality. Also, it’s important to pay close attention to BOE requirements depending on your departure point as it affects your first stop into the U.S.

Stay tuned for Part 3, which covers eAPIS considerations for private non-revenue operations to the U.S.

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