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.


Visa Basics

[http://travel.state.gov/content/visas/english/visit.html]

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

[http://travel.state.gov/content/visas/english/visit.html]


Non-immigrant Visitors on Visa Waiver Program (VWP)

[U.S. Department of State, Visa Waiver Program]

[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.

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.


Book Notes

Portions of this page can be found in the book International Flight Operations, Part VIII, Chapter 38.


References

Visa Waiver Program, U.S. Department of State