Travelers entering the United States without a U.S. or a Canada passport require either a U.S. visa or an ESTA. ESTA stands for Electronic System for Travel Authorization. This is a travel permit that is generated and held electronically and is available by filling out an application form online.
A U.S. visa also requires a DS-160 paper-based or online application form to be completed but also requires anyone aged 18 to 80 years to go to the U.S. embassy in the country that they reside in or hold citizenship in.
There is no guarantee of a travelers entry into the United States, even with an approved ESTA. What this document does do, however, is act as proof that the individual has been given clearance to travel to the U.S. by sea or by air under the Visa Waiver Program. Ultimately, the decision as to who is allowed to enter the U.S. is granted by the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) guards.
A U.S. visa gives different rights to the person who holds it in that they have stronger rights of immigration and admission for switching to another visa category or increasing the length of their visit to the country.
What are the main differences between a visa and an ESTA?
The differences between common U.S. visitor visas such as the B-1 Tourist, B-2 Tourist and B-1/B-2 Tourist/Business visas and an ESTA include:
- The legal right of entry: As mentioned above, a verified ESTA is not a guarantee that the traveler will be permitted to enter the U.S. Also, when submitting an application to ESTA, travelers agree to waive their rights, so any denial cannot be appealed or reversed. Someone that holds a visitor visa has gone through a much more thorough application process to show why they want to enter the U.S., therefore gaining more legal rights to enter into the country under the immigration laws.
- The length of the stay: A visitor visa enables the holder to stay in the U.S. for up to six months per visit. An ESTA only allows ninety days.
- The length of authorization: An ESTA holder has authorization for two years, or until their passport expires; whichever of the dates come first. Those who hold visitor visas have it for ten years, although the representative of the embassy who conducts the visitor visa interview can use their discretion to lengthen or shorten it.
- How many visits it covers: While valid, both of these can be used for multiple visits to the United States.
- Extensions: Neither an ESTA nor a visitor visa can be renewed. If someone has gone over the ninety-day limit on their ESTA, they must immediately leave the country and return to their home country or other non-U.S territories. A visitor visa cannot be renewed, but it can be extended. To do this, the traveler would need to fill out a Form I-539, Application to Extend/Change Nonimmigrant Status before the visitor visa expires.
- Renewals: It is not possible to renew an ESTA. When it has expired, the traveler must submit a brand-new application. Visitor visas can’t be renewed, either. However, it is possible for applicants to not have to attend another face-to-face interview at the embassy if they apply for the same visitor visa, and if the U.S. consulate or embassy that they are applying to offers waivers for appointments.
- Transferability: In the case that an applicant’s passport is lost, stolen or expired, an ESTA cannot be moved to another passport. Even if the original passport on which it was issued has expired, a Visitor Visa can be used as long as the visa on the previous or expired passport has not been damaged in any way and the applicant still travels with a valid and unexpired passport.
- How long it takes to apply: It normally takes 10 to 15 minutes to complete an ESTA submission. Depending on the applicant’s education, jobs, travel, immigration or criminal background, the DS-160 form, which is the mandatory form for visitor visas, normally takes 60 to 90 minutes to fill.
- How long they take to process: An ESTA typically takes no more than five minutes to process and obtain a decision, if not straight away. However, ESTA processing may take up to 72 hours in some cases, which is the longest allowed by the CBP. By comparison, a Visitor Visa typically takes between four and eight weeks to process and this period depends on the workload of the embassy. This can increase to as many as twelve weeks during the high season. In addition, if an application for a Visitor Visa is subject to ‘Administrative Processing’, it can take several months to process the application.
- Uses: Both can generally be used for the same purposes involving tourism activities as well as business activities whereby the traveler is not obtaining income from a U.S. source. More detailed information on permitted uses is provided below.
- How much they cost: The government of the United States charges a fee of $14 for an ESTA. This is made up of an administration fee of $4 and $10 which is given to the Corporation for Travel Promotion. If an ETSA application is rejected the $10 fee is refunded to the applicant. In contrast, a Visitor Visa costs $160. This is made up of the MRV fee, which is charged before an appointment is booked with an embassy or obtaining a waiver for an appointment. If the Visitor Visa is rejected, no part of the MRV fee is returned. On top of the government fees for both the visitor visa or ETSA applications, third-party providers may charge for additional services.
How can I tell which one I need?
Which form of travel authorization you need depends on several factors.
What is the purpose of my visit?
If you are hoping to enter the U.S. for tourism, to visit family or friends, for business, transit, medical or any other short-term reason, you may well only need an ESTA. An application for this can be done online, and you can check whether you are eligible for one by reviewing the ESTA requirements.
What are my personal circumstances?
There are other factors that may have an impact on whether you can obtain and ETSA. These may be down to your medical, immigration, travel and criminal history. This link can help you to see whether any of these factors render you ineligible for approval and look at the questions that are currently asked regarding these factors.
Travel Circumstances – An authorized ESTA is only necessary for travelers entering the United States by sea or by air and is therefore not required for travelers coming from Canada or Mexico by land.
What if I am ineligible for an ETSA?
You will need to obtain a B-2 Tourist Visa for tourist activities or a B-1 Business Visa for business reasons if you are not eligible for an ESTA, or plan to remain in the United States for more than 90 days.
B-2 Tourist visa
A B-2 Tourist Visa can be used to visit family and friends, go on holiday and sightseeing, obtain medical treatment and attend short courses that do not give you a university credit. They can be used for visits of up to 180 days per visit and are usually valid for ten years. However, the personal circumstances of the applicant are taken into consideration when decided on the duration.
B-1 Business visa
To attend meetings, conduct negotiations, or settle an estate, a B-1 Business Visa may be used. The ‘business’ operation carried out by a foreign national must be permissible in that, when travelling on a B-1 Business Visa, the applicant should usually not obtain income from a U.S. source. The business visa can be used for up to 180 days per visit and like the tourism visa, is generally valid for ten years, depending on the personal circumstances of the applicant.
C-1 Transit visa
Individuals who are ineligible for a Visa Waiver will need to apply for a C-1 Transit Visa to transit through the U.S. to another destination. Those who wish to legally work, save, research or carry out other activities in the United States, irrespective of their length of visit or ESTA eligibility, should seek more details on the type of visa most appropriate for their requirements.
ESTA Application Timelines
Please visit usa-visas.com for more details if you need a U.S. Visa. Typically, visa applications take four to eight weeks to process. This depends, however, on the U.S. embassy’s processing schedules and workloads. Therefore, prior to booking your travel itinerary from or to the United States, ensure that you prepare for these processing timelines. For more information, please visit https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/us-visas/visa-information-resources/wait-times.html for an up-to-date check on U.S. embassy appointment wait times for tourists, immigrant visas and other forms.