Will a foreign national need a Visa when entering the United States? That depends on their nationality, the purpose of the visit, duration of stay, and many other variables. Fortunately the U.S. Department of State has a nifty "Visa Wizard" that gives you an easy answer to this complicated question: http://travel.state.gov/content/visas/english/general/visa-wizard.html.
Some foreign nationals can bypass the Visa requirement using the Visa Waiver Program, which makes life a lot easier for everyone but requires they travel only on operators approved under the Visa Waiver Program. This used to be the exclusive domain of commercial carriers but 14 CFR 91 operators are now included.
- Visa Basics. Generally speaking, foreign travelers to the United States will need a Visa, but there are more than one kind.
- Visa Waiver Program — Participating Countries. Several countries participate in our Visa Waiver Program which negates the need for a Visa with an electronic system that speeds everything up considerably.
- Non-immigrant Visitors on Visa Waiver Program (VWP). Travelers on the Visa Waiver Program can bypass the Visa system so long as they travel on carriers who are approved under the program.
- Visa Waiver Program Signatory Carriers. Only carriers who are specifically approved and listed by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection department are allowed to carry passengers taking advantage of the Visa Waiver Program. This used to be the special domain of commercial carriers but 14 CFR 91 operators can be approved.
Bear in mind this could impact you as a pilot even if your operator is not on the approved signatory list. If, for example, you fly a foreign national out of the country who entered using the Visa Waiver Program, that person cannot re-enter the United States with you. In fact, that person will have some explaining to do when he or she does re-enter the country, even on an authorized carrier.
What follows comes from the references shown below. Where I think it helpful, I've added my own comments in blue.
- Foreign travelers to the United States for short visits, for example tourism, vacation, visiting family and friends, or medical treatment, need visitor visas unless they qualify for entry under the Visa Waiver Program.
- Most citizens of participating countries* may travel to the United States for short visits without a visa through the Visa Waiver Program.
- Citizens of Canada and Bermuda generally do not need visas for tourism and visits.
- There are several types of Visas, including B - Visitor, E1 through E5 - Employment, and H - Temporary Worker
It is up to you, or an agent working on your behalf, to ensure you and your passengers have what they need in terms of Visas to enter the United States. The particulars of their Visa may also impact the manner in which they can leave the country too. It is all getting easier, thanks to the electronic record keeping in place at the U.S. Department of State and at the Customs and Border Protection agency. The State Department's Visa Wizard can get you started in the right direction: http://travel.state.gov/content/visas/english/general/visa-wizard.html.
Applying for a Visa is simple enough, but it can be time consuming. If your prospective passenger is eligible for the Visa Waiver Program, that is the way to go. More about that . . .
Visa Waiver Program — Participating Countries
- Czech Republic
- New Zealand
- San Marino
- South Korea
- United Kingdom
Non-immigrant Visitors on Visa Waiver Program (VWP)
[U.S. Department of State, Visa Waiver Program]
- The Visa Waiver Program (VWP) allows citizens of participating countries to travel to the United States without a visa for stays of 90 days or less, when they meet all requirements explained below. Travelers must be eligible to use the VWP and have a valid Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) approval prior to travel.
- If you are eligible to travel on the VWP, but prefer to have a visa in your passport, you may still apply for a visitor (B) visa.
- Each Traveler Must have authorization under ESTA. In order to travel without a visa on the VWP, you must have authorization through the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) prior to boarding a U.S. bound air or sea carrier. ESTA is the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Customs and Border Protection's (CBP) automated web-based system to determine eligibility to travel without a visa to the United States for tourism or business. Visit the ESTA web page on the CBP website for more detailed information, to apply for ESTA, and pay the fee.
More about the ESTA below
- Travel Must be on an Approved Carrier — If arriving by air or sea, you must be arriving on an approved air or sea carrier. You must also have a round trip ticket indicating return passage to a country* outside the United States.
If under 14 CFR 135, your certificate holder must be approved under the VWP. If under 14 CFR 91, you as an operator must be approved.
- Previous Compliance and No Prior Visa Ineligibilities — If you have had a U.S. visa before or previously traveled to the United States under the VWP or another status, you must have complied with the conditions of previous admissions to the United States, and you must not have previously been found ineligible for a U.S. visa. Travelers should be aware that by requesting admission under the Visa Waiver Program, they are generally waiving their right to review or appeal a CBP officer's decision as to their application for admission at the port of entry. See the CBP website for additional details.
- Have the Correct Type of Passport — You must have a passport that is valid for at least 6 months after your planned departure from the United States (unless exempted by country-specific agreements). For families, each member of your family, including infants and children, must have his/her own passport.
Generally speaking, the passenger will need an e-Passport, one with an electronic chip integrated into the passports. Some countries still allow machine-readable passports without the chip. Traveler's should contact their country's passport issuing authority.
[ESTA Fact Sheet]
The U.S. government used to be good about issuing fact sheets and the 2010 version of this was quite good. A couple of government shutdowns ago they decided it would be great to remove all of these fact sheets and make the information only available on line when they were getting paid. So what follows is now only available on line at: http://www.cbp.gov/travel/international-visitors/esta.
- All Visa Waiver Program (VWP) travelers are required to obtain a travel authorization via the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) prior to traveling to the U.S. under the VWP.
- The VWP allows visitors from participating countries to travel to the U.S. for business or pleasure for 90 days or less without obtaining a visa. ESTA enhances the security of the VWP and has allowed the U.S. government to expand membership in the program.
- Travel authorizations are generally valid for two years or until your passport expires, whichever comes first. A visitor may travel to the U.S. repeatedly within the validity period without having to apply for another ESTA authorization.
- If I am approved through ESTA to travel to the U.S., does that mean I can enter the country? Not necessarily. Approval only authorizes a traveler to board a plane or ship for travel to the United States without a visa. In all cases, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers make admissibility determinations at ports of entry or preclearance facilities.
- Do VWP travelers need to bring a paper printout of their ESTA approval to the airport? No. DHS communicates a traveler's ESTA status to the carriers. However, DHS recommends that travelers print out the ESTA application response as a record of their ESTA application number.
If you have passengers on the Visa Waiver Program, it is up to them to complete the ESTA steps. It is no longer necessary for you to fill out, give out, or collect the green cards.
Visa Waiver Program Signatory Carriers
Only carriers who are specifically approved and listed by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection department are allowed to carry passengers taking advantage of the Visa Waiver Program. This used to be the special domain of commercial carriers but 14 CFR 91 operators can be approved.
The U.S. Customs and Border Protection department maintains a list of VWP Signatory Carriers on their website: http://www.cbp.gov/travel/international-visitors/visa-waiver-program. You need to be on that list to participate as a carrier, even if you are flying strictly 14 CFR 91.
To apply for VWP Signatory Status, refer to the CBP website page on the subject: http://www.cbp.gov/travel/international-visitors/business-pleasure/vwp/signatory-status. They reorganize their website often and if this link goes dead, go to the www.cbp.gov website and do a search for "VWP Signatory Status Application."
We did this about five years ago and it was pretty easy, taking one phone call, one letter, and a few weeks of waiting. Our contract was written with 7 years of validity.
Portions of this page can be found in the book International Flight Operations, Part VIII, Chapter 38.
Visa Waiver Program, U.S. Department of State