US Visitor Visa Guide
If you’re planning to visit the US, one of the items on your to-do list will be to ensure you have the required permission to travel. This means either having a valid visitor visa or, if you are eligible to travel visa-free, securing authorization under the ESTA program.
Your first step then will be to determine if you need to apply for ESTA authorization or a visa.
Visa Waiver Program & ESTA
The Visa Waiver Program (VWP) permits eligible nationals of participating visa waiver countries to travel to the US without a visa.
ESTA applications are considerably less complex and costly than visitor visa applications, making them the preferred option for travelers. However, not everyone is eligible. Each traveler will need to complete the ESTA application form, either on the official ESTA website or ESTA app, and pay the $21 application fee. The application form will ask questions to determine qualification for visa-free travel.
For the VWP to apply, there are a number of eligibility criteria that must be met:
- The visit can be no longer than 90 days.
- The purpose of travel must be limited to tourism, certain business-related activities or medical visits.
- The traveller must hold a valid ESTA and valid passport with an electronic chip.
You will not be eligible to travel visa-free under ESTA in the following circumstances:
- You have been arrested for certain crimes or have a criminal record. Note that this applies even if the arrest did not result in criminal conviction.
- You have been denied entry to or deported from the US.
- You have previously overstayed on the VWP.
- You have a serious communicable illness.
Some travelers who are citizens of a visa waiver country may still be unable to travel to the US visa-free if they have travelled to Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan, Syria, Somalia or Yemen any time after 1 March 2011, although there are some limited exceptions. For example, the rule does not apply to VWP-eligible travellers who were there to perform military service on behalf of the relevant VWP-eligible country.
You may also be ineligible if you have traveled to Cuba on or since January 12, 2021.
If you are a dual national of Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Sudan, or Syria, you will not be eligible to travel without a visa.
ESTA travel is for visitors. You are not permitted to work in the US if you have entered under the VWP. Certain business-related activities are allowed for VWP travellers, but gainful employment is prohibited. Similarly, visa-free travel does not extend to those who plan to study, work or remain in the United States for more than 90 days.
You are advised to apply at least 72 hours before departure to ensure your ESTA is in place for when you arrive at the port of entry at the US.
If you are ineligible for ESTA travel, you should look at the B visa classification for visitors.
B visitor visa
If you don’t qualify for VWP (eg your proposed business activity falls outside those permitted within the B-1 category) or your ESTA application is refused, you will need to consider your US visitor visa options across the nonimmigrant visa categories.
Applying for a US visa from the Embassy will in all likelihood result in a delay with your travel plans, particularly if you have left your ESTA application close to your intended travel date.
For general visiting purposes, individuals would generally look to apply for the B visa classification.
B visas allow holders to stay in the US for up to six months, and can be extended for a further six months on application. The application process isn’t always straightforward. It will require a petition to be filed and supporting documentation to be submitted and you will need to attend a visa interview at the Embassy or Consulate where you filed your application.
B-1 Business Visitor Visa
The B-1 visa is for travelling to the USA on a temporary basis to carry out business activities including:
- Attending business meetings
- Attending business or industry conventions
- Meeting with prospective clients
- Contract negotiations
In the same way as the VWP, paid-for employment is prohibited under the B-1 visa. You would instead have to apply for the relevant employment visa.
If you are aged between 14 to 79 years old you are required to apply for a visa in person through a pre-arranged interview at the US Embassy or Consulate, by appointment only. Applicants under 14 or 80 years and over may be eligible to apply by courier.
To apply you will need to create an online account, complete form DS-160, pay the application fee and schedule an interview.
You will also need, where applicable, documentary evidence of the following:
- your status in the country of 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
- sufficient funds to support yourself during your stay
- ties to your country or residence such as proof of mortgage
If your application is successful, this can take only a few short days to process. If additional processing or a waiver of ineligibility is required, your application for a visa for US temporary travel could take several weeks, if not months.
B-2 Tourist Visa
To visit the USA for tourism purposes such as a vacation, visiting friends or relatives who live in the USA, the B-2 visa would be the most suitable option. The B-2 visa also allows short-term stays relating to medical treatment.
The B-2 visa in a non-immigrant visa that allows you to visit the USA for the purposes of tourism or medical treatment on a short-term basis where you are ineligible for the Visa Waiver Program.
Pleasure, Tourism, Medical Treatment Visitor Visa – If the purpose of your planned travel relates to tourism, visits with friends or relatives, or medical treatment then a visitor visa (B-2) would be the appropriate type of visa for your travel.
In this context, activities covered under ‘tourism’ could include:
- taking a holiday
- visiting friends and family
- participating in an amateur event, e.g. a sports contest, where you are not being paid to take part
- attending a short study course that does not result in or count towards a qualification
A B-2 visa may also be used to visit the USA for medical treatment, as long as the treatment falls within the 90-day time limit. There are, however, further requirements relating to your medical condition:
- A person who has contracted a contagious disease will not be granted a visa.
- Documentation must be provided in the case of donating an organ, to prove that you are a suitable donor.
- The treatment you intend to visit the USA to receive must not be available in your own country.
- A letter from your doctor, outlining your condition and necessary treatments, must be provided.
- You must provide some form of acceptance from the US doctor or establishment who will provide the treatment.
- You must provide evidence that you can afford to pay for any costs incurred.
To be eligible for a B-2 visa, the main requirement is that you prove that you do not intend to stay in the USA past the time limit of your visa.
You should provide evidence of the purpose of your visit to the USA. This could be in the form of a travel itinerary or any other document that explains the trip.
You should prove that you only wish to stay in the USA for a limited amount of time. Your return air tickets could serve this purpose.
You must prove that you have sufficient funds to cover your trip to the USA, including your return travel home. Proof of income, including bank statements, should therefore be provided.
You must prove that you have a permanent residence in a country other than the USA and that you have economic and social ties there that require you to return home after your visit. Details of your employment, home ownership, status and family in your home country would serve this purpose.
B-1/B-2 Combined Visa
Many people choose to combine tourism with business activity while they are in the US. That is allowable where prior permission has been sought and the appropriate visa granted.
It would, strictly speaking, be in breach of your visa conditions to carry out business-related activity while on a B-2 visa, for example.
As such, in practice, visitors are typically issued the combined B1/B2 visa as standard to allow for both types of activity.
Challenges with B visa applications
A B visa application may be rejected where any of the following occur:
- insufficient documents and proof are provided
- the purposes of the visit are not eligible for a B-2 visa
- you have a criminal record
- you cannot satisfactorily prove that you intend to visit the USA for a temporary time only
- you cannot demonstrate that you have sufficient funds to pay for the visit
- you provide information that is later found to be fraudulent
- you previously stayed in the USA for a longer period than you had permission to do so
In the event that your application to travel to the US is delayed or denied, this is likely to significantly impact on your travel plans.
You should always apply well in advance of your intended travel date and not make non-refundable travel arrangements until you have been issued a visa and are in receipt of your validated passport.
This article does not constitute direct legal advice and is for informational purposes only.
Last updated: 13 July 2023