US Visa for Visits & Tourism: Applicant Guidance
To enter the USA as a visitor, any non-US national must either have permission under the Visa Waiver Program or hold a relevant visa. Whichever of these options applies, you must also have a valid passport.
Visa-free US travel
The Visa Waiver Programme allows non-US nationals who come from Visa Waiver countries to visit the USA on a short-term basis for specific purposes without the need to obtain a visa.
To qualify for the VWP, you must:
- be a national of one of the Visa Waiver Countries
- travel to the USA on an approved carrier, when travelling by air or sea
- stay for no longer than 90 days
- visit the USA for tourism, medical treatment or business
- have ESTA authorization
- hold a current passport
The Electronic System for Travel Authorisation (ESTA) is an online application system that pre-screens VWP travellers before leaving their own countries. It does not, however, guarantee entry to the USA and is subject to the discretion of border control.
How do you apply to travel under VWP?
To travel under the Visa Waiver Programme, you must be authorised through the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA).
You will need a valid passport from a Visa Waiver Country, the ability to pay the application feel and provide your contact details and, if applicable, recent employment information.
Generally, you will find out whether your ESTA application has been successful straightaway. Where more time is required to process your application, you will usually receive a response within 72 hours. The status of your application will be displayed on the above website.
Who is ineligible for VWP?
Not from a Visa Waiver Country
If you do not come from a Visa Waiver Country, you will not be eligible to travel under the Visa Waiver Programme.
Travelling to the USA to study or take up employment
If you wish to enter the USA to study or take up employment, you will generally not be seen as a visitor, and as such will be ineligible for the VWP. You would instead be required to apply for a visa that allows you to carry out your planned activity
Visa Waiver Programme Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015
In accordance with the Visa Waiver Programme Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015, travellers from the following categories are ineligible for travel to and entry into the USA under the VWP:
- Visa Waiver Country nationals who have travelled to or spent time in Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria or Yemen, on or after 1 March 2011. There are some exceptions to this for diplomatic or military related travel in the service of a Visa Waiver Country.
- Visa Waiver Country nationals who are also nationals of Iran, Iraq, Sudan or Syria.
Any individual in the above categories must apply for a visa to travel to the USA.
Incorrect type of passport
Your passport must be valid for a minimum of 6 months after you plan to depart the USA. It must also be an e-passport, i.e. a passport with an embedded electronic chip.
If your passport is not valid for 6 months after your intended departure date from the USA, or is not an e-passport, then you will be ineligible to travel under VWP.
Which visa to visit to the US?
If you are not eligible for the VWP, you will need to apply for a non-immigrant visa to travel to the US.
For short-term travel, this would generally be either a B-1 visa for business, a B-2 visa for tourism or medical treatment, or a combination B1/B2 visa.
B-1 visa for business purposes
The B-1 visa allows for business-related travel to the USA such as to attend a business meeting, attend a conference, or negotiate a contract with a customer.
A B-1 visa can also be used by a personal or domestic employee as long as one of the following conditions applies:
- Your employer is a US citizen who has a permanent residence in a foreign county or is visiting the USA on a temporary basis.
- Your employer is a foreign citizen who is visiting the USA on a non-immigrant visa.
The B-1 visa cannot be used for the purpose of employment, any kind of paid performance or when travelling to the USA as a member of the press.
B-2 visa for tourism and medical treatment
The B-2 visa allows you to visit the USA for the purposes of tourism or medical treatment.
Tourism could include:
- a holiday
- visiting friends and family
- taking part in an amateur event, such as a sports contest, as long as you are not being paid to participate
- attending a short recreational study course that does not count towards a qualification
You may also use a B-2 visa to visit the USA for medical treatment within the 90 day time limit but there will be additional requirements relating to your medical condition including but not limited to the following:
- A person with a contagious disease will not be granted a visa.
- In the case of donating an organ, you must have documentation that proves you are a suitable donor.
- You must prove that the treatment you intend to visit the USA to receive is not available in your own country.
- You must provide a letter from your doctor, outlining your condition and necessary treatments.
- A communication of acceptance from the US doctor or establishment who will provide the treatment.
- Proof that you can afford to pay for any costs incurred.
You must adhere to the purposes assigned to which ever visa you apply for. So, if you apply for a B-1 visa, the purpose of your visit must be for business. If you apply for a B-2 visa, the purpose of your visit must be either tourism or medical treatment. There can be no cross over of purpose on each of these visas.
In a situation where your visit is intended to have dual purposes, staying on for a holiday after a business meeting, for instance, you must apply for a B-1/B-2 combination visa.
US visitor visa requirements
In addition to providing your current and possibly previous passports, the relevant documentation and application fee, you will be expected to show that you have no intention of remaining in the USA long-term and that your visit is temporary for business, tourism or medical purposes. You must provide proof of your residence in your home country and demonstrate that you intend to return there after your visit.
You may be asked to provide:
- property-related documents, such as a mortgage statement, property deeds or a photograph of your home
- employment or professional documents that could include a letter from your employer, a company registration certificate or a business card
- financial documents, such as your latest tax return or a bank statement
- family documents including family photographs, birth certificates or a family tree chart
- travel documents such as a return air ticket or details of where you will stay in the USA
It will also be necessary to make an appointment to attend an interview at your local US embassy or consulate.
Common reasons for refused visitor visa applications
A visa application may be rejected if:
- insufficient documents and proof have been provided
- the purposes of the visit are not correct for this type of visa
- the applicant has a criminal record
- the applicant cannot satisfactorily prove that their intention to visit the USA is only for a temporary time
- the applicant cannot demonstrate that they have sufficient funds to pay for the visit
- proof has been provided that is later found to be fraudulent
- the applicant previously stayed in the USA for a longer period than they had permission to do so
A full list of visa ineligibilities can be found by visiting https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/us-visas/visa-information-resources/waivers.html
Visiting the USA with children
Whether you are from a Visa Waiver Country or need to obtain a visitor visa to travel to the USA, your child will need to make their own separate application, either for an ESTA or a visitor visa.
In the case of the VWP/ESTA application, the child must hold their own separate passport.
To apply for a visitor visa for a child, they may use their own separate passport or, if they are registered in their parent’s passport, they may use that. However, they may only use their parent’s passport for the visa application if the parent will be accompanying the child on the visit.
The process of applying for either a visitor visa or ESTA to be able to visit the USA even for a short time is not always straight forward, depending on your circumstances and in light of changing US immigration policy. You may also have concerns about a past conviction and the impact this may have on your eligibility to travel.
Specialist legal advice can help ensure you are proceeding with the correct type of application, that the correct documents and information are compiled and can guide you through the application process and interview.
If you have a question about a US visitor visa application, or any other US immigration-related matter, please contact us for advice.
This article does not constitute direct legal advice and is for informational purposes only.