Getting Your American Tourist Visa
If you’re planning a vacation in the US, one of the most important things to do will be to all travellers in your party have valid permission to travel to the US.
Generally, you options are to travel visa-free where you have been granted ESTA authorization or to secure an American tourist visa if you don’t qualify to travel visa-free.
Do I need an American tourist visa?
Travelling without a visa will always be the preferred option as it involves substantially less time, money and hassle. However, not everyone will qualify. If visa-free travel is not open to you, it does not in itself mean you won’t be able to travel to the US – it means you will need to make an application for the appropriate visa.
Where the purpose of your trip is indeed recreational in nature, and you only plan to visit the U.S. for a period of up to 90 days, you may not need a visa at all.
Under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) citizens of 38 partner countries are allowed to travel to the U.S. for the purposes of tourism visa-free, so long as the proposed trip does not extend beyond the permitted timeframe.
Will I qualify for visa-free travel?
Broadly speaking, if you possess a valid e-passport as a citizen of one of the 38 partner countries, you will be eligible for visa-free travel under the VWP.
That said, you will not be eligible if you are a national of a VWP country and also a national of Iran, Iraq, Sudan or Syria or, in most cases, where you have travelled to or been present in Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan, Syria, Somalia or Yemen on or after 1 March 2011.
You may also be denied visa-free travel if:
- You have been arrested for certain crimes, even if the arrest did not result in criminal conviction, or you have a criminal record.
- You have been denied entry to or deported from the U.S, or you have previously overstayed on the VWP.
- You have a serious communicable illness.
How do I apply for visa-free travel?
To apply for visa-free travel under the VWP, you must obtain authorisation to enter the United States using what’s known as the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) prior to boarding a U.S. bound air or sea carrier.
As previously indicated, to travel under the VWP, and therefore be eligible for ESTA, you must possess a valid electronic and machine-readable passport. These are enhanced secure passports with an embedded chip containing key biometric information about you as the passport holder.
You will need to complete an online pre-registration form on the ESTA website at least 72 hours before departure at: https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov/esta.
If you receive a “Travel Not Authorised” response to your ESTA application, but still wish to continue with your travel plans, you will need to apply for a B2 or other type of visa. The denial of a travel authorisation only prohibits travel under the VWP, and is not a determination of eligibility for a visa to travel to the U.S.
Denial of visa-free travel could significantly delay or scupper any travel plans so, in the event of any uncertainty, you should always seek expert advice well in advance of travelling to the United States, and prior to making any non-refundable travel arrangements.
The B-2 classification is the American tourist visa, is a temporary, or nonimmigrant, visa for those travelling to the U.S. for the purposes of tourism, pleasure, or visiting friends and family. The B2 visa can also be used for the following activities:
- Undergoing a medical procedure or medical treatment
- Participation by amateurs in musical, sports, or similar events or contests, if not being paid for participating
- Participation in social events hosted by fraternal, social or service organisations
- Enrolment in a short recreational course of study, albeit not for credit toward a degree, for example, a two-day cooking class while on vacation.
Under the B2 Visitor Visa you will not be permitted to work in a professional capacity, either paid or unpaid, or undertake gainful employment of any kind. Further, in the limited circumstances in which you are permitted to undertake any study, your primary purpose for being in the U.S. must still be tourism.
B-2 visa eligibility requirements
There are various eligibility requirements that you must satisfy to qualify for an American Tourist Visa. These include:
- The purpose of your trip is to enter the United States temporarily for the purposes of tourism
- You plan to stay in the United States for a specific limited period
- You have evidence of sufficient funds to cover your expenses during the course of your stay in the United States
- You have a residence outside the United States, as well as other binding ties, that will ensure your departure from the United States at the end of your visit.
However, even where you satisfy these requirements, and you are granted an American Tourist Visa, this will only authorise you to travel to a U.S. port of entry. A visa does not guarantee entry. You will still need the permission of the U.S. immigration inspector to enter the country.
It is therefore essential that you carry with you any documents in support of the reason for your trip, and that you are able to answer any questions asked of you in relation to where you are staying, for how long, how you are financing your trip, and whether or not you intend to leave the U.S. at the end of your trip.
How do I apply for the B-2 visa?
To apply for an American Tourist Visa you will need to complete an online application using Form DS-160, pay the non-refundable visa application fee where requested, and schedule and attend an interview at your local U.S. Embassy or Consulate.
You will need to attend your interview with various documents in support of your reason for travel, for example, any travel itinerary, together with evidence of your funds to pay for your trip. Additionally, you may be asked to prove any ties to your home country, for example, evidence of your residence.
You should also attend with the following:
- A print out of Form DS-160 confirmation page
- A print out of your appointment confirmation
- Your application fee payment receipt, where you have already paid
- Your passport or other travel document
- A 5 x 5 cm (2” by 2”) colour photograph.
Please note, it is important to apply for a visa well in advance of your intended travel departure date, as your application may require further administrative processing taking several weeks to be approved.
Visa wait times for interview appointments, and visa processing times for each U.S. Embassy or Consulate, are also available on travel.state.gov, and on most U.S. Embassy or Consulate websites.
With a B2 Visitor Visa you will normally be allowed to stay in the United States for a period of up to six months. If, however, you are planning to travel the U.S. for an entirely different purpose, or for a longer period, you will need to apply for a different category of visa.
This article does not constitute direct legal advice and is for informational purposes only.