Leaving the country and immediately returning in order to renew your ESTA is a commonly asked question on community forums and Facebook pages and always receives a wide range of answers. So what is the rule? How long do you have to be outside the US before you can return and where do you have to travel to, to reset your 90 days?

First things first, what are we referring to?

What is the ESTA Visa Waiver Program?

As always, the best advice is to go straight to the source:

ESTA is an automated system that determines the eligibility of visitors to travel to the United States under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP).

https://www.cbp.gov/travel/international-visitors/visa-waiver-program

The Visa Waiver Program (VWP) is:

… administered by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in consultation with the State Department, [and] permits citizens of 38 countries to travel to the United States for business or tourism for stays of up to 90 days without a visa. In return, those 38 countries must permit U.S. citizens and nationals to travel to their countries for a similar length of time without a visa for business or tourism purposes.

https://www.cbp.gov/travel/international-visitors/visa-waiver-program

Why are there questions about returning to the US on an ESTA?

The main reason is that the Visa Waiver Program is very strictly for tourism and business (not working in the country but “doing business” in the US from abroad).

These things don’t normally run longer than three months, so when you use up three months and then try to come straight back, some questions get asked.

Like everything with immigration:

Authorization via ESTA does not determine whether a traveler is admissible to the United States. U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers determine admissibility upon travelers’ arrival.

So basically, you need to show the person at the border that you are legitimately still just in the US for tourism or business. This isn’t a trick, you genuinely need to show this. If this is part of some elaborate plan to stay in the US for longer than 90 days at some point, you’re going to have a tough time showing that you’re not planning to stay, and I do not recommend that whatsoever.

Do not overstay, do not even get close.

Where must you travel to in order to before returning on an ESTA to get a new 90 days?

You must leave the whole North American region completely to reset this. You can’t just pop to Canada or Mexico to try and reset the 90-day counter.

In fact, a short trip to Canada, Mexico or nearby islands are included in your 90 days if you attempt to return to the US:

If you are admitted to the United States under the VWP, you may take a short trip to Canada, Mexico, or a nearby island and generally be readmitted to the United States under the VWP for the remainder of the original 90 days granted upon your initial arrival in the United States. Therefore, the length of time of your total stay, including the short trip, must be 90 days or less.

https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/us-visas/tourism-visit/visa-waiver-program.html

Which countries count to reset my ESTA visa waiver?

For the purposes of ESTA renewal, “Contiguous Territories” are any country sharing a common boundary with the United States. Canada and Mexico are contiguous to the United States.

“Adjacent Islands” as follows: Anguilla, Antigua, Aruba, Bahamas, Barbados, Barbuda, Bermuda, Bonaire, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Cuba, Curacao, Dominica, the Dominican Republic, Grenada, Guadeloupe, Haiti, Jamaica, Marie-Galantine, Martinique, Miquelon, Montserrat, Saba, Saint Barthelemy, Saint Christopher, Saint Eustatius, Saint Kitts-Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Maarten, Saint Martin, Saint Pierre, Saint Vincent and Grenadines, Trinidad and Tobago, Turks and Caicos Islands, and other British, French and Netherlands territory or possessions bordering on the Caribbean Sea.

If it’s not on these lists, it should count to reset your ESTA.

How long must you stay outside the US before you return on an ESTA?

So, ultimately, how long must you stay abroad? There is no hard and fast rule and no set number of days that reset the counter. It all comes down to perception.

If you are in the US for 90 days, leave for 3, then attempt to return, that really doesn’t look right and doesn’t pass the ‘sniff test’.

It would therefore be a good rule to stay abroad longer than you were in the United States, and always have a plan (with printed proof) to leave within 90 days of arriving. This could include flights, accommodation, or other forms of confirmation that you’ve got plans to leave the US within the legal amount of time you are allowed.

It’s also highly recommended not to stay for the full 90 days at a time if you plan to leave and come back because this really looks like you’re trying to max out the ESTA and will raise suspicions.

Act conservatively, be honest, and you’ll be fine!

5 Tips for returning to the US on an ESTA

  1. Don’t stay for the full 90 days on any visit, because staying for the full time and then returning certainly looks like you’re putting down roots or trying to stay longer than you’re allowed;
  2. The general advice is to stay out for longer than you were in. If you’re in for 60 days, then 60 days is a good marker for where you should be aiming. You’ll hear advice both greater and shorter but this is one way to really show that you’re traveling around;
  3. Have travel plans back to your home country within the 90 days at all times;
  4. Have itineraries ready to show your plan for the 90 days (i.e. Sitting in one city and renting an apartment for the full time doesn’t look good for you on your second ESTA to show that you’re there for tourism);
  5. Be honest – This one is a no-brainer. If you have no intentions to outstay your ESTA then you should not have a problem! Put yourself in the officer’s shoes, this isn’t some magic trick. If you look suspicious and your story doesn’t add up, they won’t permit you!