US visit visa requirements
The following guide looks at US visit visa requirements for both business visitors and tourists, including the permissible activities under each type of visa, the eligibility criteria, the visitor visa duration, the application process, as well as those who qualify for visa-free travel.
Do you need a visa to visit the USA?
You may be eligible to enter the USA without a visa if you meet the requirements for the US Visa Waiver Program (VWP) and are granted ESTA authorization. The VWP allows citizens of over 35 countries to travel to the United States without a visa for the purposes of business or tourism.
The VWP is only intended for occasional short visits to the USA. Visa-free travel does not cover those who plan to study, work or remain in the United States for more than 90 days. If you wish to stay in the US for longer, you will need to obtain a visitor visa.
There are also defined circumstances in which you may be denied visa-free travel, for example, where you have been arrested for certain crimes, you have previously overstayed on the VWP or been denied entry, or where you have a serious communicable illness.
Applying to visit the US visa-free with ESTA
Travellers that qualify for the VWP must still first obtain ESTA authorization to enter the United States under the Electronic System for Travel Authorization system. You will generally be granted authorization if you are a citizen of one of the listed VWP partner countries and you hold a valid e-passport with an electronic chip.
To apply for visa-free travel you will need to complete an online pre-registration form on the ESTA website. US Customs and Border Patrol advise to do this at least 72 hours before you intend to travel to the US.
If your application for visa-free travel is denied, you will need to make an application for a B visitor visa from your nearest US Embassy or Consulate. As this is likely to significantly delay your travel plans, you should always check your eligibility for visa-free travel prior to making any non-refundable travel arrangements.
B visitor visas
There are two main types of US visitor visa: the B1 visa and the B2 visa. The B1 visa is a non-immigrant visitor visa for those travelling to the United States for the purposes of business, while the B2 visa is a non-immigrant visa is for the purposes of tourism, pleasure or visiting friends and family.
The B1 visa can be used if you are travelling to the United States for a temporary stay for the purpose of business activities, attending a conference or seminar, or other legitimate activities of a commercial or professional nature.
It will not, however, allow for gainful employment or productive activity such as operating a business. However, some limited additional activities can be carried out under the B1 visa, such as participating in a voluntary service program of benefit to a US local community.
The B2 visa, on the other hand, can be used for the purposes of tourism, pleasure, to visit friends and family, or in addition to the following activities:
- Undergoing a medical procedure or medical treatment
- Performing as an amateur entertainer or athlete, but you cannot in most cases be paid for your performance – take advice to ensure you do not contravene the visa conditions
- Participating in social events hosted by fraternal, social or service organisations
- Undertaking a short-term, recreational study course, provided your primary purpose of travel is still tourism
As with the B1 visa, you will not be permitted to work in a professional capacity under the B2 visa, either paid or unpaid, nor undertake gainful employment of any kind. In respect of both the B1 and B2 visa, where your proposed activity falls outside those permitted within either classification, you will usually need to apply for a different type of visa.
US visit visa requirements
To be eligible for either a B1 business or B2 tourist visa you must satisfy the following US visit visa requirements:
- The purpose of your trip is to enter the United States temporarily for the purposes of either business and/or 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 USA at the end of your visit.
It is your responsibility to ensure you understand and meet the US visitor visa requirements before you travel to the United States. Moreover, even if you are successfully granted a visa, this does not necessarily guarantee entry.
A visitor visa will simply allow you to travel to the USA for the purpose(s) permitted under the visa, namely for business and/or pleasure. It remains at the discretion of immigration officials at the port of entry to determine your eligibility for admission.
As such, it is always prudent to carry with you the documentation to demonstrate your reason for travel to prove your intentions. You should also be prepared to fully answer any questions in relation to, for example, where you are staying, for how long, how you are financing your trip and whether you intend to leave the United States at the end of your stay.
How to apply for a US visitor visa
To apply for a B1 or B2 visitor visa you will need to complete online Form DS-160, pay the non-refundable application fee and schedule an interview at your local US Embassy or Consulate, typically in your country of residence.
You will be required to bring the following to the interview:
- a print-out of your appointment confirmation
- a print-out of the confirmation page for Form DS-160
- your application fee payment receipt, where you have already paid
- a colour photograph compliant with US photo regulations, taken in the last 6 months, unless you have successfully uploaded a photograph during the online application process
- your passport or other travel document, in most cases valid for at least 6 months beyond your stay in the United States.
In addition, you will need to attend your interview with supporting documents to evidence your eligibility to travel, proof of your reason for travel, as well as evidence of your funds to pay for your trip. Additionally, you may have to prove your ties to your home country, for example, evidence of your residence in your home country, to show you will leave the US within the visa validity period.
You may also need, where applicable, documentary evidence of the following:
- your status in the country in which you reside
- any previously issued US visas
- any serious communicable medical condition
- any arrests, convictions or cautions, regardless of when they occurred
- being denied entry to or deported from the US.
How long does a US visitor visa last?
Your eligibility for a US visitor visa will be determined by the interviewing consular officer who has powers to approve or deny your application, or to request further information in order for a decision to be made in possession of all facts.
In the event that your application is successful, this can take just a few short days to process. However, it is important to apply for a visitor visa well in advance of your intended travel departure date, as additional processing can take several weeks, if not months.
Once granted, your visa will be for a period of up to 6 months. In some limited circumstances, you may be able to extend your stay whilst in the United States, although you must file a request with US Citizenship and Immigration Services before your authorised stay expires, or risk being deported.
This article does not constitute direct legal advice and is for informational purposes only.