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Planning a trip to the US and not sure about the different types of USA visas and which one is right for you? Then read on…
With such a vast range of climates, cultures, and experiences, there is something for everyone in the United States of America. The tourist figures prove this. The USA is the third most visited tourist country in the world, with almost 80 million people traveling there per annum in recent years.
Moreover, that’s just international tourists, and you’ll know that on top of that the majority of Americans take their vacations in their home country, though not necessarily in their home state.
Tourism is a massive industry in the USA. According to the Travel and Tourism Satellite Account, the industry produced close to $1.6 trillion in total economic output in 2018! No other country in the world comes close to these figures.
So how easy is it to get into the USA for your vacation? This depends on your nationality, and the important thing to bear in mind is that the vast majority of travelers fall into two entry types. These are called the ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization) visa waiver and the B1/B2 visa.
In this article, we’ll explain America’s visa policy for international visitors as a whole, as well as go into more detail about these two main types. Also, what sort of experiences can you choose from when you’re actually in America? Well, we’ve thought about this too and added some travel ideas! Read on to learn more.
Introduction To Types of USA Visas
Do the Different US States Have Different Visa Regulations?
No, and this is because the United States is a single country. There is one common border applying to the entire territory, be it the islands of Hawaii, the vast snowy state of Alaska, or the mountains of Colorado. Wherever you land, you will have both the same border controls and the same visa requirements.
Who Needs a Visa to Visit the USA?
The answer is virtually everyone. Unless you’re a US citizen, the chances are you’ll need one of the types of USA visas or a formal visa exemption, like the ESTA, to visit. There are, however, a small number of countries whose citizens are permitted entry to the USA using just a passport. These are:
- Canada – the border is vast and often unpoliced
- Bermuda – using a British passport specifically issued for Bermuda
- Marshall Islands
Additionally, entry is made easier for some categories of citizens of the Bahamas, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, and Turks and Caicos Islands under certain conditions.
What About Mexican Citizens?
People from Mexico can use a Border Crossing Card, which serves as a visa when presented with a passport. Without a passport, the card on its own allows entry by land or sea while remaining within 25 miles of the Mexico–United States border (up to 75 miles in Arizona and 55 miles in New Mexico). It is valid for a stay of up to 30 days.
Guide to the US ESTA Visa Waiver
Who Is Eligible for the US Visa Waiver Program’s ESTA?
The good news for citizens of around 40 countries is that you are eligible for the Visa Waiver Program (VWP). The VWP applies mainly to a specific list of nations that include the United Kingdom, several highly developed Asian countries, Australia and New Zealand, members of the European Schengen Area, and also some European micro-states.
The countries that qualify for the visa waiver are:
- Czech Republic
- New Zealand
- San Marino
- South Korea
- United Kingdom
- Vatican City
If you come from any of these countries, then you do not need a full US visa for relatively short stays, and instead, you have to apply for and obtain an ESTA before you travel.
Argentina and Uruguay were previously VWP countries too, but their membership has been removed in recent years. This shows that the list may change depending on the views of the US immigration department. There are current applications from Argentina, Brazil, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Israel, Romania, Turkey, and Uruguay to be added to the VWP, but none have been approved so far.
Notably, the USA does not guarantee entry with a visa waiver, and the authorities still carry out individual checks, although most travelers with a visa waiver are admitted.
What Are the Requirements for the US ESTA?
If you’re a citizen of a country that’s eligible for the visa waiver, then you’ll need this before traveling either to the USA itself, or the US territories of Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands, Guam, or the Northern Mariana Islands.
However, US visa policy does not apply to American Samoa, as this has its own entry requirements and controls its own borders. As such, neither an ESTA nor a full B1/B2 visa can be used to enter American Samoa.
Visitors need to apply for the ESTA whether arriving by air or sea, and this entry pass allows a person to stay for up to 90 days in the USA as standard. The calculation of these 90 days includes time spent in Canada, Mexico, Bermuda, or the islands in the Caribbean if your arrival is through the United States.
To apply for an ESTA you need a biometric passport, and each applicant must have their own passport – children cannot be included on a parent’s passport.
The USA also prefers but does not strictly enforce, that your passport is valid for six months beyond your expected date of departure from the United States.
Another important qualification is dual citizenship. ESTA holders who are dual citizens of Iran, Iraq, Sudan, or Syria had their ESTA eligibility revoked in January 2016. As such, they are required to apply for a regular B1/B2 tourist visa at a US diplomatic mission. Also, it is worth knowing that previous travel to Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, or Yemen may prevent an ESTA from being issued to you.
How Does the ESTA Work and How Do You Apply?
You apply for your ESTA online at least 72 hours prior to your departure. You don’t need to have bought your flight tickets before applying. ESTA applications are usually turned around pretty speedily, and your entry pass will also be checked before you are allowed to board a plane flying to the USA.
Each ESTA travel authorization is valid for up to two years, but you will need a new ESTA authorization if you are issued a new passport, or if you change your name, gender, or country of citizenship.
The standard fee for an ESTA is $14, and you pay this by debit or credit card when you are making your application.
What Information Do You Supply to Get an ESTA?
When you complete your ESTA application, you need to state the following things accurately:
- Full name, and any other names or aliases
- Date and city of birth (must match your passport)
- Citizenship and passport country, plus details of any other citizenship
- Passport number and expiration date
- Your current address
- Parents’ names if known
- Employer’s name and address (not mandatory if you are not working)
- Emergency contact details including name, phone, and address
- US point of contact (a person or business or hotel you have booked)
- Any membership of the CBP Global Entry Program
Then there is a simple Yes/No section in which you have to demonstrate certain criteria. These include confirming that you will not be seeking work in the USA, that you have never previously been denied entry to the USA, and that you have not traveled to Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, or Yemen on or after March 1, 2011.
Can You Extend an ESTA?
No, there is no facility to extend an ESTA beyond 90 days, and your admission period to the USA cannot be extended under the Visa Waiver Program. If you need to stay for longer, then you will need to go through a different visa application process.
About the US B1/B2 Travel Visa
Which Countries Require a B1/B2 Visa to Enter the USA?
Even with the ESTA visa waiver, almost three-quarters of the world’s countries still need a full visa to enter the USA. This includes if you’re from South Africa or Fiji, for example. For visitors from these countries or territories, you must apply for what’s called the B1/B2 visa, which we explain here.
If you aren’t on the list of visa waiver countries, chances are that you will need to apply for a B1 or B2 visa.
What’s the Difference Between a B1 and a B2 Visa?
If you’re from one of the countries that require a full visa to enter America, it’s worth bearing in mind that the B1/B2 visa is actually two visas combined in one, for both business and tourism. Here’s all you need to know about this:
- B-1 Visa: This is a non-immigrant visa for persons traveling to the United States temporarily to engage in business activities. This includes the negotiation of contracts, consultation with business associates, or litigation. The B1 also permits participation in scientific, educational, professional or business conventions, conferences or seminars, and other legitimate activities of a commercial or professional nature.
- B-2 Visa: This is a non-immigrant visa for persons traveling to the United States temporarily for tourism, pleasure, visits, or medical treatment.
How Do You Apply for a B1/B2 Visa to Enter the USA?
Both B1 and B2 visas are applied for in person at the US Embassy or Consulate. In some larger countries, such as the UK, the USA may have more than one diplomatic mission, such as in Belfast as well as London.
As such, it’s worth you checking this before your visit. The US Embassy will not answer questions concerning your eligibility to apply for a visa in advance. Instead, you must make a formal application.
Every single applicant aged 14 – 79 is required to apply for a visa in person through a pre-arranged interview at the Embassy or Consulate. Meanwhile, applicants under 14 or 80 and over may be eligible to apply by courier. You must book an interview (step two below) or have clearance to do it by courier if you are eligible. The US Embassy is clear that appointments cannot be scheduled by email.
Then, there is a linked two-stage process to go through:
- You must complete the online DS-160 form and print the confirmation page for each person applying for a visa. In doing so, you must answer the questions to the best of your ability and accurately. There are some online videos available from the US government to assist with this process.
- You must have an MRV (Machine Readable Visa) account, which is created by visiting the USA immigration website. You pay your application fee there and are allocated both an account number as well as an interview slot. If you have previously created an MRV account during a previous application, use the same account details as before.
The MRV application fee is non-refundable and non-transferable and is around $160 per application for B1 and B2 visas. Also, citizens of certain countries are required to pay an issuance fee for an approved visa to be issued, and the level of this charge varies depending on your nationality.
What Documents Do You Need to Support the B1/B2 Visa Application?
The following documents are required when you apply for a B1 or B2 visa:
- Your completed application done online. You need to print this off and bring the copy with you. You must show a printout of your DS-160 confirmation page (the page with the barcode) when you arrive at the Embassy.
- Your interview confirmation document.
- If you are undertaking business travel, you will need printed copies of invitations or other relevant business documentation.
- If your travel is for medical reasons, this also needs to be supported with documentation.
- A valid passport containing at least one blank page. For certain nationalities, your passport or other travel document must be valid for at least six months beyond your proposed stay in the United States.
- A passport photo that meets specific size requirements. It must be a 5 x 5 cm (2” by 2”) color photograph taken within the last six months.
- Evidence of previously issued US visas, or any documents issued if you have overstayed in, been denied entry to, or deported from the United States.
- If you have a medical condition that could have a bearing on your eligibility for a visa, you must bring a letter from your physician which discusses your current state of health.
- You must also bring documents pertaining to incidents if you have ever been arrested, convicted and/or cautioned (no matter when, where, or why this happened).
What Is the B1/B2 Visa Interview Like?
You should expect to be questioned about any aspect of your application or the information that you have shared. A set of your fingerprints will be electronically scanned too.
Do not arrive at the Embassy more than 30 minutes before your allocated time slot. You can expect to be at the Embassy for some hours, though in most cases your interview will be around five to 10 minutes.
Successful applications take three to five workdays to process by the Embassy before your passport is handed to the courier for delivery back to you. A further two workdays should be allowed for delivery. The courier will email you a tracking number once they have taken receipt of your passport with the included visa.
Factor these timescales into your application. It is not possible to return to collect your passport in person from the Embassy or Consulate.
What if the B1/B2 Visa Application Is Denied?
If your initial application is denied, this may either be a flat refusal or you may be asked to provide more information. The Embassy will be very clear on this.
What Are the Additional Rules for Chinese Citizens?
Since November 2016, Chinese passport holders with B1/B2 visas are also required to enroll on the Electronic Visa Update System (EVUS) when traveling to the USA.
What if You’re From a Country Subject to the Trump Travel Ban?
In 2017-20, President Donald Trump imposed a travel ban to the USA from a series of countries including Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Yemen, Chad, North Korea, and Venezuela.
These outright bans were revoked in January 2021 by President Joe Biden. This does not mean applications from these jurisdictions will automatically be approved, just that they will no longer automatically be blocked.
Top States to Visit in the USA with Your Approved Visa
Where can you go in the USA with your ESTA or B1/B2 visa? The answer is pretty much everywhere, and you will be able to move freely by land, sea, or air!
The USA is so vast that no single vacation will ever do it justice, and many visitors often go for trips to multiple locations, sometimes to states that are quite far apart. Since internal flights are so cheap in the USA, and there are literally hundreds of airports, planning a vacation with a number of states and stops is really easy.
The USA is much more than just Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and New York. Here are a few ideas for seven states to visit that might give you a different sort of travel experience:
Hawaii is like no other part of the USA, and you can have a variety of experiences here too. With eight main islands that are all unique, you’ll be surprised at the cultural variations and the different paces of life.
The capital, Honolulu, which is home to world-famous Waikiki Beach is bustling and lively in a way the smaller outer islands would never want to be. But what unites them all isn’t just the weather, the beaches, and the water sports – it’s the welcoming ‘aloha’ you get from everyone you meet.
Visit the Big Island for hiking and adventure, Kauai for its beaches, and Maui for its waterfalls and road trips.
At the other seasonal extreme is the mountain state of Colorado, which is the center of America’s thriving snow-sport industry and is home to some of the best hiking in the US.
Denver is the booming state capital with rich and diverse cultural offerings, as well as one of the best beer scenes in the US. Equally, though, you can get to the mountains and all the adventures there from Denver easily.
Don’t miss hitting the road for an epic Colorado road trip to explore the best mountain towns, hot springs, ghost towns, hiking trails, and more in this incredibly beautiful state.
Louisiana offers one of America’s richest tourist experiences. You will be simply blown away by the delicious food, warm welcome, and exciting nightlife of New Orleans, which is definitely one of the top party towns in the world!
The sound of jazz is matched only by the sound of laughter when you’re out and about on crazy Bourbon Street on a Saturday night. No visit is complete without some alligator watching in the bayous, or a night in a wooden house amid the swamps.
With hundreds of lakes and over 3000 miles of navigable waterways, unspoiled and eco-friendly Idaho is a top destination for a more nature-focused vacation.
The state’s 4.7 million acres of designated wilderness includes the largest unbroken wilderness in the contiguous USA! If you want a trip that really gets you away from everything, then Idaho might be the ideal place for you.
Don’t miss the natural hot springs, some of the most beautiful in the US, and get out on a hike – I recommend Alice Lake.
The city of Boston is one of the oldest and most impressive in the USA, shining in history and culture. Despite its age, it has a strong youthful feel and buzzes with energy.
Or, if you want a different sort of vacation, why not visit one of the beautiful small towns in Massachusetts. Visit beautiful and serene Cape Cod, or Salem with its storied and infamous history. If that’s not your thing, then go whale watching or just enjoy the incredible seafood Massachusetts has to offer.
This state is the perfect fusion of scenery, culture, and history. For the scenery, you’ll be impressed every day by the richness of the Smoky Mountains or the power of the Mississippi River. For culture, you’ll be in the musical capital of the USA if you visit Nashville, which is known as “Music City”.
Nashville is home to both the Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum and the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, while Memphis boasts Graceland, Elvis Presley’s former home. Or, if history is your thing, then you’ll have to visit one of the many American Civil War battlefields across the state.
Saving the biggest (and perhaps, best) for last, Alaska is known as the last frontier for very good reasons. There’s incredible wildlife including bears and whales, scenery that’s amongst the best in the world, and if you’re lucky you might even see the Northern Lights!
You can spend weeks touring there without seeing most of the state. It may be cold and mostly empty, but it’s warm and full in its welcome. Visit one of the lovely small towns like Sitka or Talkeetna, Anchorage for Alaskan city life, and the wilderness of Denali National Park.
These are just some states you might consider visiting on your trip to the USA. Yes, there’s paperwork to complete to get in, but it’s definitely worth it. Once you’ve got your ESTA waiver or B1/B2 visa, you’ll be so impressed with the tourism capital of the world that you’ll want to go back again and again.