How Do I Apply for an American Visa?
The process to apply for an American visa will vary depending on the type of visa you are seeking to secure, your nationality, where you are applying from, among many other factors.
Whether you are planning a family vacation, or have been offered an exciting new job in the States, we look at some of the more common American visa options and what is involved for applicants to secure permission to travel to the US.
Do I need to apply for an American visa?
If your reason for travel is tourism, you may want to first check if you are eligible for visa-free travel under the US Visa Waiver Program (VWP).
The VWP allows citizens of 38 partner countries to travel to the United States for the purposes of tourism, business or for transit through the US to another country for a period of up to 90 days without needing a visa.
However, travellers that qualify for VWP must first obtain authorization to enter the US using the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) prior to boarding a US bound air or sea carrier. You can do this be completing an online pre-registration form on the ESTA website at least 72 hours before departure.
If you do not qualify for VWP travel, or your ESTA application is denied, you will need to apply for an American visa.
Apply for American visa tourism & business travel
In the event that you are not eligible for visa-free travel but you would like to travel to the United States for the purpose of a short business trip or a family holiday, unless you are a citizen of Canada or Bermuda you will need to apply for a visitors’ visa under either categories B-1 and B-2.
The B-1 visa is an American visa for those travelling to the US for the purposes of temporarily engaging in business activities, for example, a conference or any other legitimate activities of a commercial or professional nature, albeit nothing that constitutes gainful employment.
The B-2 visa is an American visa for those travelling to the US for the purposes of tourism, pleasure, or even for visiting friends and family. This type of visa also allows the visa holder to undertake various other activities including, for example, medical treatment.
Apply for an American visa for work
In the event that you intend to undertake gainful employment, or some other work-related activity that falls outside the permitted activities of either visa-free travel or under a B-1 business visitors’ visa, you will instead need to apply for an American work-based visa.
These types of American visa are far less straightforward, not least because you may be required to have a US sponsor who can file a petition on your behalf prior to you submitting your application for an American visa.
There are also strict rules and requirements relating to how you apply for an American visa for any dependents here.
However, if you are planning to relocate to the United States, albeit on a temporary basis, for the purposes of your work, you will need to apply for a petition-based nonimmigrant visa.
There are various different categories of petition-based work visas including the following:
The Treaty Trader/Investor visas (E-1/E-2)
These are nonimmigrant American work visas for citizens of countries with which the US maintains a treaty of commerce and navigation.
Under an E-1 or E-2 visa you must be coming to the United States either to engage in substantial trade, or to develop and direct the operations of an enterprise in which you have invested a substantial amount of capital.
Under these types of visa you can also come to the US as an executive, supervisor, or essentially skilled employee of a Treaty Trader/Investor organisation.
The Intra-Company Transferee visa (L-1)
The Intra-Company Transfer visa is a nonimmigrant American work visa for an employee of an international company who is being temporarily transferred to a parent, branch, affiliate or subsidiary of the same company in the US.
The L-1 visa can also be used where a qualified employee of an international company is looking to open a new office in the United States.
To be eligible for an L-1 visa you must work in a managerial or executive capacity, or have specialised knowledge or skills relating to the organization in question.
The Speciality Occupation visa (H-1B)
The H1-B visa is a nonimmigrant American work visa if you are travelling to the US to work in a job role that requires theoretical or technical expertise in specialised fields such as engineering, mathematics or science.
Any professional level job that usually requires you to have a bachelors degree or higher, or degree equivalent experience, can fall under the H-1B visa for specialty occupations.
How to Apply for an American Visa
In the event that you need to apply for American visas for you and your family, you will need to complete Form DS-160.
Form DS-160 is the online American visa application form for temporary travel to the United States. Visa applicants must submit a completed DS-160 for all nonimmigrant visa categories. This can range from a tourist visa to a work visa.
Having completed your online form and paid the appropriate fee(s), you will be asked to submit various documents in support depending on the category of visa that you are applying for. Typically, you will also be required to attend an interview with your local US Embassy or Consulate.
At interview, at the very least, you will be required to bring the following documentation:
- A print out of the 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. Your passport must be valid for at least six months beyond your period of stay in the United States
- A 5 x 5 cm (2” by 2”) colour photograph taken within the last 6 months.
You may also need documentary evidence to prove the following:
- The purpose of your trip
- Your ability to cover the costs of the trip
- Your intent to depart the US after your trip
Consular officers will consider the information entered on the DS-160 to process your visa application and, together with answers provided during interview, will determine your eligibility for an American visa.
Typically, when you apply for an American visa, you will submit any application for your spouse and any children at the same time as the principal visa holder, particularly if you all plan to travel to the United States together at the same time. However, individual circumstances may require a different approach; for example, it may be more straight forward for E-2 visa applicants to secure the principal visa before dependants file their petition. Taking professional advice will ensure you understand your options and take the most effective approach.
The waiting and processing times for American visas can vary significantly depending upon the visa category, the country in which you make your application, as well as your own personal circumstances.
Further delay may be caused where either additional documentation is required or you need to seek a waiver of ineligibility, for example, where you have been convicted of a criminal offence.
In the event that your application for an American visa is delayed this could be detrimental (and costly) to any holiday or work commitments.
You should therefore apply for American visas for you and your dependents well in advance of making any travel plans. In theory, your application could take anything from several weeks to several months to process.
Note also, that although an American visa entitles the holder to travel to the United States, it does not guarantee entry. The decision as to whether or not you will be admitted into the country is at the discretion of the border officials, who reserve the right to question you at the border and to deny entry.
This article does not constitute direct legal advice and is for informational purposes only.