How to Apply for a US Visa from the UK
For British citizens or non-US nationals currently living in the UK but looking to travel temporarily to the United States, you will need to know what type of visa you will qualify for and how to apply.
The following guide sets out the main non-immigrant visa options for temporary US travel, as well as the process by which you will be able to obtain a visa from the UK, and whether or not you will be eligible for visa-free travel.
Which visa will I need?
If you are living in the UK but looking to travel to the United States on a temporary basis, you will need permission to gain entry clearance, either by way of a visa or, where eligible, to travel without a visa under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP).
Am I eligible for visa-free travel?
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 without needing a visa for a period of up to 90 days.
However, travellers that qualify for VWP must first obtain authorisation 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 by completing an online pre-registration form on the ESTA website at least 72 hours before departure.
To travel under the VWP you must possess a valid electronic and machine-readable passport. These are enhanced secure passports with an embedded chip containing key biometric information about the passport holder.
Broadly speaking, as a British citizen holding a valid e-passport, you will be permitted to travel to the United States visa-free. However, even as a qualifying citizen with a valid e-passport, ESTA authorisation can still be denied where:
- Your history shows you have been arrested for certain crimes or you have a criminal record.
- You have been previously denied entry to or deported from the US, or you have previously overstayed on the VWP.
- You have a serious communicable illness.
- You are a dual national of Iran, Iraq, Sudan or Syria. You may also be denied authorisation if at any time since 1 March 2011 you have travelled to Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan, Syria, Somalia or Yemen.
If ESTA is denied, you will need to apply for an appropriate visa from the US Embassy in the UK, and potentially a waiver. This process could take several weeks, if not months, potentially impacting your travel plans, so it is best to seek expert advice before confirming any bookings.
Although the grant of a visa or ESTA entitles the holder to travel to the United States, this does not guarantee entry, whereby US officials at the port of entry still have the right to permit or deny your admission to the country.
It is therefore vital, even for those of you travelling to the US for a holiday, to be fully prepared to prove your reason for travel. In particular, you should carry with you any documentation to evidence why you are travelling, and that you have sufficient funds to support yourself during your stay.
If you do not qualify for visa-free travel, the type of visa that you need will depend on the purpose and duration of your trip. For those of you looking to go on holiday, or to visit friends and family, you will need a visitor visa, otherwise known as the B-2 visa.
The B-2 visa is a non-immigrant visa for those travelling from the UK to the US for the purposes of tourism, pleasure or visiting. Under this type of visitor visa you can also undergo medical treatment, undertake a short course of study, or even perform as an amateur entertainer or athlete. You cannot, however, be paid for any type of performance or otherwise undertake gainful employment.
There is, however, another type of visitor visa that will allow you to participate in business activities, including attending seminars, conferences, meetings or even closing a deal. That said, again you are not permitted to undertake gainful employment under this type of visa.
As such, if you are planning to travel from the UK to the United States for a purpose that is not recreational in nature, or involves something other than legitimate business activities of a commercial or professional nature, for example, to undertake paid work, you must apply for a work visa.
For those of you who are looking to undertake paid employment in the US, you will need a non-immigrant work visa. Here, there are various options depending on the nature of the work you will be undertaking and the context in which you are doing that work, from working for yourself to working for a US sponsor.
The main categories of work visa are as follows:
- E-1 visa: this visa allows UK traders, or their senior or skilled employees, to enter the United States for the purpose of carrying out substantial international trade.
- E-2 visa: this allows UK investors, or their senior or skilled employees, to come to the United States for the purpose of investing in a US enterprise.
- L-1A visa: this allows employees of multinational employers to transfer from the UK to an office, branch or subsidiary in the US, or to set up a new office, whereby the employee works in an executive or managerial role.
- L-1B visa: this allows employees of multinational employers to transfer from the UK to an office, branch or subsidiary in the US, or to set up a new office, where the employee has specialised knowledge of the employer’s products, processes and procedures.
- H-1B visa: this allows skilled workers from the UK to undertake a role in a speciality occupation that requires theoretical or technical expertise.
- O-1A visa: this allows individuals from the UK who have extraordinary ability in the sciences, education, business or athletics to come to the US to work in their specialised field.
- O-1B visa: this allows individuals from the UK who have extraordinary ability in the arts, or who have demonstrated extraordinary achievement in the motion picture or television industry, to come to the US to work in their specialised field.
What are the eligibility criteria?
The eligibility criteria will depend on the category of visa that you are applying under. By way of example, for a visitor visa there are specific requirements that must be met under US immigration law. In particular, you must show that:
- The purpose of your trip is to enter the US temporarily for tourism, pleasure, visiting or undertaking certain business activities.
- You have funds to cover expenses during your trip.
- You plan to remain for a specific limited period.
- You have a residence in the UK, or otherwise outside the US, as well as other binding ties that will ensure your departure at the end of your visit.
The eligibility criteria for other types of non-immigrant visa, not least for petition-based work visas where you require a US sponsor, are much more complex, and will require extensive documentation in support. As such, seek expert advice on your options.
What is the process to apply for a US visa from the UK?
Applying for a non-immigrant work visa can involve a fairly lengthy process, often taking several weeks, if not months, for a decision to be made.
These types of visa are far less straightforward than the visitor visa whereby either you, or a US sponsor on your behalf, will be required to file your petition at the US Embassy in London or Belfast, where you will also attend a visa interview.
Each consular posts has its own procedures and requirements for the visa interview, and you are advised to take careful note of the documents you are expected ot bring with you to the interview. As a minimum, this would usually include:
- 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 six months
- Documentary evidence to prove the purpose of your trip, your ability to cover the costs and your intent to depart the US at the end of your stay.
Depending on the category of visa, you may also be asked to bring various other documents with you in support of your application, such as employment information or for the E-2, a business plan.
Processing leadtimes will depend on the visa category you are applying for and the caseload of the Embassy. Straight forward visitor visas applications for example can be decided on the day of the interview, whereas work visas can take weeks or even months to process.
Do you have a question about making a US visa application from the UK?
NNU Immigration are a team of London-based US attorneys, specializing solely in US immigration law and visa petitions. We provide eligibility and process guidance to US visa petitions across all categories, with particular expertise in complex applications involving criminal waivers and requests for further evidence. For advice on making a US visa application, speak to our experts.
This article does not constitute direct legal advice and is for informational purposes only.