If you enter the U.S. on ESTA, you can stay up to 90 days. You cannot extend your ESTA, the only exception for staying in the U.S. past the 90-day period, is if you apply for a Satisfactory Departure and your request is granted.
What is ESTA?
The Visa Waiver Program or ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization) is a program that allows citizens from certain countries to apply for admission to the U.S. using a simplified process. The applicant can use a web interface to answer certain questions and can be granted ESTA online. This contrasts to other countries where the applicants must go to a U.S. Consulate and apply for a B1/B2 visa.
How long is my ESTA granted for?
If your ESTA application gets approved, it will be approved for a 2-year period. However, each time you enter the U.S. on the ESTA, you can only stay for up to 90 days.
What if I need to stay in the U.S. longer – can I extend my ESTA?
No. Unfortunately, there is no way how you could extend your ESTA. Normally, if a visitor enters the U.S. on a B-1/B-2 visa and needs to extend the stay in the U.S., he/she could file an extension of status petition with USCIS (Form I-539). However, if you entered on ESTA, you cannot file an extension of status/change of status petition.
The only way how you could request that you stay in the U.S. for some additional time is if your Satisfactory Departure request is granted.
To qualify for a Satisfactory Departure, you would have to show that you are unable to leave the U.S. because of an emergency (such as COVID-19) and you are unable to leave the U.S. through no fault of your own (e.g. all flights from the U.S. to your home country have been cancelled, your home country closed the borders, etc.). If the Satisfactory departure request is approved, you could stay additional 30 days. Please note that USCIS/CBP offices were approving a lot of Satisfactory Departure requests in the beginning of COVID-19 when a lot of flights from the U.S. were being cancelled and there was no way how foreign nationals could travel home, but currently it’s much more difficult to get a Satisfactory Departure request approved (unless there is another emergency, such as for example medical emergency).
It is always possible to leave the U.S. and re-enter the U.S. on ESTA later. However, if you will be re-entering the U.S. only after you spent couple of days outside the U.S., then the CBP officer at the border may question you as he/she may wondering why you are spending so much time in the U.S. and could suspect that you are coming to the U.S. to work unauthorized. You should always have an explanation ready as to why you need to re-enter the U.S. so shortly after you left.
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