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Do I Need a Visa for USA?

By Nita Nicole Upadhye

Table of Contents

Do I Need a Visa for USA?

If you’re planning to go to the USA, you’ll need to make sure you hold the relevant permission before you travel, not least to avoid issues at the border when attempting to gain entry. This may mean applying for a visa, or you may be able eligible to travel visa-free.

When asking ‘Do I need a visa for the USA’, a primary consideration, among others, will be your reason for travel.


Are you going on vacation or visiting relatives or friends?

If you’re visiting the US for tourism and your trip will be shorter than 90 days, you may be able to travel visa-free under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP).

To be eligible for travel under the VWP, you will need to be a national of a visa waiver country.

Citizens or nationals of the following countries are currently eligible to travel to the United States under the VWP:

  • Andorra (1991)
  • Australia (1996)
  • Austria (1991)
  • Belgium (1991)
  • Brunei (1993)
  • Chile (2014)
  • Croatia (2021)
  • Czech Republic (2008)
  • Denmark (1991)
  • Estonia (2008)
  • Finland (1991)
  • France (1989)
  • Germany (1989)
  • Greece (2010)
  • Hungary (2008)
  • Iceland (1991)
  • Ireland (1995)
  • Italy (1989)
  • Japan (1988)
  • Korea, Republic of (2008)
  • Latvia (2008)
  • Liechtenstein (1991)
  • Lithuania (2008)
  • Luxembourg (1991)
  • Malta (2008)
  • Monaco (1991)
  • Netherlands (1989)
  • New Zealand (1991)
  • Norway (1991)
  • Poland (2019)
  • Portugal (1999)
  • San Marino (1991)
  • Singapore (1999)
  • Slovakia (2008)
  • Slovenia (1997)
  • Spain (1991)
  • Sweden (1989)
  • Switzerland (1989)
  • Taiwan (2012)
  • United Kingdom** (1988)

Importantly, to travel visa-free you must hold valid ESTA authorization. ESTA is an online, security pre-screening process of all travelers intending to travel under the VWP. Those who travel without an approved ESTA may be denied boarding.

If you’re not eligible for ESTA or the VWP, you will need to apply for the relevant visa; for example, for tourism, you would apply for the B-2 visa.


Is your trip business-related?

The VWP is not just for tourism. Individuals who are eligible for travel under the VWP are also permitted to carry out business-related activities during their trip.

Business-related activities can include:

  • Attending conferences, meetings, trade shows, etc. in a non-functional (i.e. no work duties) capacity.
  • Surveying potential sites for a new business or lease.
  • Attending expositions or trade shows as an employee of a foreign exhibitor.
  • Acting as a lecturer or speaker.
  • Conducting independent research.
  • Taking orders/negotiating and signing contracts for products, which must be produced outside the U.S. Service engineer activities for a foreign company that sells to U.S. customers.
  • Participating in a training program that is not designed primarily to provide employment.

Permissible activities are however limited in scope. Media workers on assignment for example are not permitted entry on a B-1 visa. Take advice if you are uncertain as to whether a visa is needed to avoid issues at the border when attempting to gain entry.


Will you be working?

Most non-US citizens will need a visa to work legally in the United States. This means if you’re planning to work in the US, either as paid employment, or if you are setting up or investing in a US business, you will need to apply for the relevant employment visa.

Requirements for work visas differ depending on the route that best matches your needs and planned activity.

If you are a highly skilled worker for example, and you can find qualifying employment with a sponsoring employer, the H1-B may be the visa for you.

To set up your own company in the US, or to invest in and take over the running of an existing US enterprise, you would look at the E-2 visa.

If you are trading substantially with the US and are looking to enter the USA to further that trade, the E-1 Treaty Trader visa could help you make the move.

But if you are an employee of a multinational company and are looking to be transferred to a US branch or subsidiary, the L1 would be appropriate.

Since you are not allowed to enter the US under the VWP to carry out media-related work, media professionals are required to secure permission to work under the I visa route. This visa scrutinizes both the applicant and the media content they intend to create while in the US.

Whichever visa you are considering, taking professional advice will ensure you pursue the most appropriate route and build a robust application – essential given what is at stake with a work visa petition.


Will you be studying?

If you plan to study in the US, you will need to apply for the relevant study visa. Studying is not permitted under the VWP.

The type of visa will depend on the type of education or training you’ll be undertaking. The F1 visa is for academic studies and the M visa is for vocational training.


Will you be in the US on an exchange program?

J visas are for individuals approved to participate in exchange visitor programs in the USA.

Examples include camp counsellors, interns and au pairs.


Will you be staying for longer than 90 days?

Even where you otherwise qualify for visa-free travel, if you are planning to stay for longer than 90 days you will need to apply for a visa, based on your planned activity.


Do you have a criminal record?

If you have criminal conviction(s), you are unlikely to be eligible for ESTA and as such will need to apply for a visa and potentially a waiver of inadmissibility.


Need assistance?

NNU Immigration’s US immigration attorneys provide specialist guidance on all aspects of travel to the US, including advice on whether you require a visa, and if so, which category would be most appropriate for your circumstances. For expert guidance, contact us.


Do you need a visa for the USA FAQs

Can you visit America without a visa?

Some visitors are allowed to travel to the US without a visa, provided they have obtained ESTA authorization.

Do I need a visa to visit USA from UK?

If you are eligible to travel under the Visa Waiver Program, you can apply for ESTA to visit the US.

Which countries can visit USA without visa?

There are currently 40 countries participating in the Visa Waiver Program, including the UK, France and Australia.

This article does not constitute direct legal advice and is for informational purposes only.


Founder & Principal Attorney Nita Nicole Upadhye is a recognized leader in the field of US business immigration law, (The Legal 500, Who's Who Legal and AILA) and an experienced and trusted advisor to large multinational corporates through to SMEs. She provides strategic immigration advice and specialist application support to corporations and professionals, entrepreneurs, investors, artists, actors and athletes from across the globe to meet their US-bound talent mobility needs.

Nita is an active public speaker, thought leader, immigration commentator, and immigration policy contributor and regularly hosts training sessions for employers and HR professionals.

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