Traveling to the US on Business: Visa Guide
If you’re wanting to travel to the United States on a short business trip, the following guide will help you to decide whether or not a visa should be obtained in advance and, where applicable, the type of visa you’ll need for your ‘business travel US’. We also look at how to apply for a business visa, and what will be both permitted and prohibited under the rules.
Can you travel visa-free for business travel US?
Depending on your nationality, you might be eligible to visit the United States to carry out certain unpaid business activities under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP). However, to be able to travel visa-free under the VWP, you must meet all of the following requirements:
- be planning to travel to the US for business purposes for less than 90 days
- be a citizen or national of one of 40 eligible countries, including the UK
- hold a valid and machine-readable e-passport, with an electronic chip
- hold a return or onward ticket if entering the US by air or sea
- not be ineligible to receive a visa under US visa law.
To travel visa-free under the VWP, you’ll need to apply for travel authorization under the Electronic System for Travel Authorisation (ESTA) at least 72 hours before you depart.
If you’ve ever been arrested, convicted or cautioned, even if a conviction is spent, or if you’ve been refused admission or deported from the US, have previously overstayed on the VWP or have a serious communicable illness, you’ll not be eligible to travel visa-free.
Similarly, if you’ve travelled to or have been in Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen on or after 1 March 2011, or to Cuba from January 12, 2021, you’ll also normally not be eligible for a visa waiver.
If you’re not eligible to travel visa-free, or your ESTA application has been denied, you will need to apply for the relevant visa to travel to the USA.
What type of visa is needed for business travel US?
Unless you’re eligible to enter the US visa-free under the VWP, or if you’ve applied for ESTA authorization and your registration has been denied, you’ll require a B-1 visa. This is a nonimmigrant visa to temporarily travel to the US to engage in unpaid business activities of a commercial or professional nature, with an initial stay of up to a maximum of 6 months.
A B-1 visa holder is defined as an overseas national — other than one coming for the purpose of either study, or performing skilled or unskilled labour, or as a representative of foreign information media coming to engage in such vocation — having a residence in another country which they have no intention of abandoning and who is visiting the US temporarily for business. To be eligible for a B-1 visa, you must therefore be able to show that:
- the purpose of your trip is to come to the US for business of a legitimate nature
- you have sufficient funds to cover all your expenses
- you plan to stay in the US for a limited period of time only
- you have a residence outside the US, and other binding ties, ensuring your return home.
How do I apply for a visa for business travel US?
You should always check if you need a business visa before you apply as, depending on where you’re from, you may be able to visit the United States without needing one. You can do this by visiting the US Embassy or Consulate website for your country of residence. However, if a business visa is required, you must obtain an appropriate visa before you travel.
To apply for a B-1 visa, you’ll need to submit an online application using Form DS-160. You’ll also need to pay the non-refundable $185 application fee, schedule a visa appointment at your local US Embassy or Consulate, and arrange for an approved courier service to deliver your passport if your application is successful. At your visa appointment, you’ll be required to attend with a number of documents in support of your application, including:
- a printout of Form DS-160 confirmation page
- a printout of your appointment confirmation
- a receipt for your application fee payment
- a valid passport or other travel document
- a 5 x 5 cm (2” by 2”) recent colour photograph, if not already uploaded
- evidence of your status in your country of residence if you’re not a national of that country
- evidence of any previously issued visas for the United States
- relevant documents if you’ve ever been denied entry or deported from the United States
- a police certificate, known as an ACRO, if you’ve ever been arrested, cautioned or convicted
- a letter from your doctor discussing your current state of health if you have a medical condition that could have a bearing on your eligibility for a visa
- evidence of your intended business activities in the United States, where you should visit the US Embassy or Consulate website for your country of residence, or seek expert advice, for further guidance on the specific documentation needed in support of your application.
The Consular officer may also ask for evidence of funds sufficient to cover all expenses while in the United States, as well as evidence of any residence abroad to which you intend to return.
As processing times can vary, you should check with the US Embassy or Consulate to see how long your application will take. Some applications may be subject to additional administrative processing, so it’s important to apply for your B-1 visa several weeks in advance of your intended departure date or not make any final travel plans until you’ve received your passport with your visa in it. You don’t need firm travel plans before you apply for a B-1 visa.
What is permitted and prohibited under a business visa?
You can apply for a B-1 visa if you want to visit the US for a wide range of different unpaid business-related activities. Examples of permissible B-1 activities include:
- performing industrial or commercial services, such as negotiating contracts, consulting with business associates, attending meetings or taking part in litigation, provided you’re not receiving remuneration from a US employer or business for any of these activities.
- taking part in an exhibition, signing contracts and taking orders for merchandise produced in and delivered from your country of residence, although a B-1 visa holder may not sell or take orders for merchandise produced in the United States.
- installing, servicing or repairing equipment or machinery sold by an overseas company to a buyer in the United States, where the purchase contract requires that the company provide such services. However, you must possess the specialised knowledge essential to the seller’s contractual obligation, receive no remuneration from a US source and the overseas company for which you work must not receive any additional payment for these services.
- undertaking a speaking engagement, provided there’s no remuneration from a US source, other than expenses incidental to your visit. If you’re to receive a token payment for your professional services, known as an honorarium, the activities must last no more than 9 days at a single institution, and that institution must be either a nonprofit or governmental research organisation, an institution of higher education, or a related or affiliated nonprofit entity, and such activities must be conducted for the benefit of that institution or entity. You must also not have accepted payment from 5 such institutions during the past 6 months.
- surveying potential sites for a business and/or to lease premises, although you cannot remain in the US on a B-1 visa to actually manage the business moving forward.
- participating in scientific, educational, professional or business conventions, conferences or seminars, and other legitimate activities of a commercial or professional nature.
- engaging in independent research, provided there’s no remuneration from a US source and the results of your research will not benefit the US institution.
- undertaking a medical ‘elective clerkship’ in the US as an overseas medical student, to gain practical experience and instruction as an approved part of your overseas medical school degree, provided this is done without remuneration from the US medical school’s hospital. The clerkship is only for medical students pursuing their normal 3rd or 4th year internship in a US medical school as part of their degree, and doesn’t apply to graduate medical training, or cover those seeking training as either physiotherapists, dentists, nurses or vets.
- participating in a voluntary service programme which benefits a local community in the United States, provided you can establish that you’re a member of, and have a commitment to, a recognised religious or nonprofit charitable organisation. The work to be performed must traditionally be done by volunteer charity workers, you must not receive remuneration from a US source, other than reimbursement for expenses, and you must not engage in the selling of articles and/or the solicitation and acceptance of donations.
The B-1 visa doesn’t generally allow for gainful employment or productive labour, such as managing a business or consultancy work. If your proposed activities are not as described above, or otherwise permitted under the rules (as this list is not exhaustive), you’ll need a different visa, such as a temporary work or exchange visitor visa.
What documents will I need to bring for business travel US?
When travelling to the United States on a business trip, you must ensure that you have sufficient documentation in your possession to show the purpose of your trip, your ability to fund the costs of that trip and your intent to depart the US at the end of your stay.
Even if you’ve been granted a B-1 visa, this doesn’t guarantee entry to the US, where Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials have the authority to permit or deny admission. This means that you’ll still need to satisfy CBP officials at the port of entry that the purpose of your trip is legitimate, you have sufficient funds to cover your expenses, and you intend to return back home once you’ve undertaken your intended business activities.
In most cases, you’ll need at least a letter from your overseas employer and/or host organisation providing your personal details, and information regarding the purpose, location, duration and source of funding for your US business trip. You may also need more specific documents, such as evidence showing that you possess the specialised knowledge essential to perform services under a service contract between an overseas and US company.
What happens if I breach the conditions of my business visa?
Having been admitted entry to the United States under either the VWP or a B-1 visa, you must ensure that you don’t undertake any prohibited activities, such as engaging in unlawful employment, or otherwise violating the rules. The consequences of breaching the conditions of your B-1 status can be serious, including having your stay curtailed and being ordered to leave the United States, and being subsequently denied re-entry into the US on a new visa.
US business travel FAQs
Can I travel to USA for business purposes?
You can travel to the USA for business purposes under the Visa Waiver Program, provided you’ve been granted visa-free travel authorisation prior to boarding a US bound air or sea carrier, or by applying for a B-1 visa.
Can foreign citizens travel to USA?
Foreign citizens can travel to the USA but, depending on their nationality and the purpose of their visit, they may need a visa to do so, unless they qualify for visa-free travel under the Visa Waiver Program.
Can visa holders enter US right now?
Visa holders can enter the US, provided the visa is suitable for their intended activities during their stay, for example, a B-1 visa for a short-term business trip. However, a visa doesn’t guarantee entry to the United States.
What is the travel requirement to enter the United States?
You’ll either need a visa waiver under the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA), or a suitable visa, to travel to the United States. In either case, you must apply for a visa or ESTA travel authorisation before you depart.
This article does not constitute direct legal advice and is for informational purposes only.