There is a lot of uncertainty about the re-entry requirements of the US ESTA visa. We experienced this firsthand and found it incredibly difficult (almost impossible) to find the correct information about this challenging issue.
As part of our trip through the USA and Canada, we entered the US twice for 90-days on an ESTA visa, while spending a bunch of time in between in Canada on their comparable (but more lenient) ETA visa. With each encounter with the customs officers, we asked our questions, and finally got some definitive answers about the ESTA re-entry requirements.
In this article, we’ll share everything we’ve learned and experienced, so that you don’t have to worry as we had!
- The ESTA Visa Waiver Programma
- What’s considered a reasonable amount of time between visits?
- The discretion of the customs officer
- Wrapping up
The ESTA Visa Waiver Programma
If you head on over to the official website of the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP), you’ll find the following information about the ESTA visa.
When traveling to the United States with the approved ESTA, you may only stay for up to 90 days at a time and there should be a reasonable amount of time between visits so that the CBP Officer does not think you are trying to live here. There is no set requirement for how long you must wait between visits.
The big question regarding the ESTA visa is if you can hop out of the US for a day to “reset” your ESTA period, and then hop back into the country for a new period of 90 days.
The information stated on the official website doesn’t say so specifically, but the answer is no.
The chances of you being re-admitted into the US. after leaving for a short period of time are practically zero. No matter how hard you try to convince the border patrol officer of your touristy intention, they are not going to let you back in before you’ve allowed a reasonable time to pass.
What’s considered a reasonable amount of time between visits?
We’ve asked every border officer, and the general rule of thumb is this:
If you’ve stayed for a full 90-day period on your ESTA visa, you need to be out of the country for at least a 90-day period as well.
In other words, your time between visits needs to be at least as long as the duration of your last visit.
This is exactly what we did!
We first entered the US on March 15th, 2022.
We stayed for 87 days in the US, traveling around in the campervan that we bought in Canada as a tourist!
We then exited the US on the 10th of June.
We then traveled around Canada on our ETA visa, enjoying life on the road to the max!
After 119 days in Canada, we re-entered the US on the 7th of October.
We stayed for 87 days in the US, before leaving for 119 days. Since we allowed a reasonable amount between our visits, the customs officer allowed us back in for another 90-day period!
Some blogs say that you have to leave the entire continent (that includes Mexico, Canada, and adjacent islands) before you can re-enter the US for another 90 days.
This is not true. We were allowed back into the US, without having to leave the continent.
While it will probably increase your chances of being re-admitted, this is not a strict requirement.
What if you want to drive to Alaska through Canada?
Some travelers (like us) want to desperately experience the Alaskan wilderness. However, on a 90-day ESTA, this is challenging.
For example, if you start your travels in Seattle and rent a car there, you will be on day 1 of your ESTA.
Then, let’s say you cross the border to Canada on day 5. Maybe you want to explore some of the beautiful scenery of Canada, and after a month of traveling, you decide to push through to Alaska.
Then, if you are on day 35 and want to hop back into the USA, you will not have another period of 90 days.
If you enter the US on an ESTA visa and reenter before your 90 days are over, you will only be allowed to stay until your original 90 days are over. Your timer won’t restart.
For us, this meant that we had to skip Alaska entirely, as we unfortunately couldn’t make it work.
However, if you are okay with the limited time (and spending some of your 90 days traversing through Canada and back!), then you can make it work.
What about resetting your ESTA after a “significant” exit from the US?
Now, this is where it gets tricky.
Some people are able to re-enter the USA on an ESTA visa multiple times, without having to wait a significant time between visits.
For example, let’s say that you stay in the US for 85 days on an ESTA visa. Then you fly back home to Europe or Asia for a month. When you then fly back to the US to re-enter, you are more likely to be let in, even though you didn’t allow a reasonable amount of time in between your visits.
This is because you will have had a “significant exit” from the US.
Which countries count as a significant exit from the US?
Any country outside of North America and its adjacent islands is seen as a significant exit from the US.
This means that you’ll have to leave for a country that is not on this list:
- Saint Pierre
- The Dominican Republic
- The Bahamas
- The Windward and Leeward Islands
- Other British, French, and Netherlands territory or possessions in or bordering on the Caribbean Sea
For example, if you fly to nearby Iceland (there are some cheap flights!), then you’ll increase your chances of being re-admitted. Even if you don’t allow a reasonable time in between your visits!
The discretion of the customs officer
You have to realize that nothing of what I said in this post can be assumed as a rule. It’s all up to the discretion of the customs officer that will handle your case.
Based on every conversation we’ve had with these friendly customs officers, they just want to make sure that you’re not abusing the rules of the ESTA visa.
They want to prevent you from either seeking employment during your stay (a big no-no!) or trying to overstay your visa (another terrible idea!)
If you can convince the customs officer that you are merely a tourist, and are definitely not planning to cross any boundaries, then they will have fewer reasons to be suspicious of you.
The truth is, they are all very nice and friendly people! If you are friendly, open, and transparent about your plans, they will be understanding.
With that said, if the person that’s processing you is having a terrible day or doesn’t like the way you answer his/her questions, then you may be denied access, even if someone else with exactly the same case as yours may have passed through.
What kind of questions will you be asked?
Crossing the border to the USA can feel like a daunting experience. We’ve done it a couple of times now, and we must admit: it’s a little exciting every time.
Because, you know, you never know what kind of questions you’re going to be asked, or what mood the customs officer is in!
To help you prepare, here are some questions that we’ve been asked while trying to (re)enter the USA on an ESTA visa:
- How long are you planning to stay?
- How much money do you have saved up?
- Do you have a home address?
- Do you have friends or family that you will be staying at in the US?
- Where did you buy your campervan?
- Where is your campervan registered?
- When and where did you enter the US previously?
- What kind of work do you do currently?
- What kind of work did you use to do?
- Did you quit your jobs to travel here?
- Why didn’t you apply for the B-2 tourist visa?
These may seem like difficult questions, but remember, it’s their job to find out if you are indeed just a tourist or if they’re gonna regret letting you pass.
Whatever you do, don’t lie about your situation. Be honest, and tell them the truth. These people are trained to cut through your lies.
In our case, we were as transparent as possible: we shared how much money we had saved up, we shared how COVID stopped us from applying for a B-2 tourist visa, and that we were eventually going to sell our van back in Canada.
How to increase your chances of being re-admitted to the US on an ESTA?
If you can prove that you’re just a tourist and nothing more, you’re likely to increase your chances of being re-admitted.
- If you can show your bank statements, bring them with you. They want to know if you have enough money to sustain your travels, without having to find (illegal) employment in the US.
- If you can show that you have a house back in your home country, bring the papers. Either a rental agreement, your mortgage, or whatever. If you can show that you have a home to come back to, it’s more likely for them to believe that you’re just a tourist.
- If you can show a flight ticket for your return back home, bring it with you!
We have entered the US multiple times now while traveling around in our little campervan. Before setting out on our adventure, we found it incredibly hard to find decent information about it. I hope this recollection of our experience will give you some confidence in your plans!
If you have any questions, let me know in the comments below, and I’ll get back to you as soon as possible!