When it comes to traveling to the United States, candidates are categorized into two different groups: those whose country forms part of the VWP (Visa Waiver Program) and those whose country is not part of this group. The requirements for travel to the U.S. differ significantly for these two groups, so we will discuss them separately.
Travelers From VISA Waiver Countries
The VWP (Visa Waiver Program) enables citizens from participating nations to visit the United States for tourism or business for a maximum of 90 days without the need for a visa.
At the time of writing this, 41 countries participate in the VWP:
Australia, Andorra, Austria, Brunei, Belgium, Chile, Czech Republic, Croatia, Denmark, Estonia, France, Finland, Greece, Germany, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Ireland, Israel, Japan, Korea (Republic of), Latvia, Lithuania, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Monaco, Malta, Netherlands, Norway, New Zealand, Portugal, Poland, San Marino, Slovakia, Singapore, Spain, Sweden, Slovenia, Switzerland, Taiwan, and the United Kingdom.
Citizens of what used to be the Netherlands Antilles (St Maarten, Saba, St Eustatius, Bonaire, and Curacao) do not qualify to visit the United States under the VWP program if they apply for admission using passports from these five countries.
Passport requirements for travelers from Visa Waiver Countries
Under the U.S. Visa Waiver Program, travel is restricted to those who possess passports with specific security features. These requirements include:
- The passport has a machine-readable area on its biographic page
- The passport has to be an electronic one with a digital chip that contains biometric data about its owner
Starting April 1, 2016, all visitors who want to use the VWP program should have what is known as an ‘e-passport.’ This refers to a passport with enhanced security features and an embedded electronic chip.
These documents have to meet global standards for storing and securing data related to the passport and its bearer and also have to be issued by the official passport issuing authority.
Every country that is a member of the Visa Waiver Program must issue passports with a digital photograph printed on the data page. Otherwise, its citizens will have to apply for a visa if they want to travel to the U.S.
In this regard, a digital photograph refers to one that has been printed on the page as opposed to one that has been laminated or glued into the passport.
In case your passport was issued without this feature, you will still be able to travel to the United States without a visa provided that:
- You are a citizen of a nation that became part of the Visa Waiver Program before 2008, and you have a valid passport that contains a machine-readable zone that was issued no later than October 25, 2005.
- Yours is an e-passport that contains an integrated computer chip that can store biographic data from its data page, a digital photo, and related biometric data.
- If your passport was issued after October 25, 2005, and it does not comply with the requirements mentioned above, you will have to apply for a visa.
Every country that belongs to the Visa Waiver Program must issue passports with a machine-readable area. This type of passport has two lines of text, numbers, letters, and chevrons at the bottom of the page, which contain the bearer’s personal information and photographs.
You only have two alternatives if your passport does not adhere to these requirements:
- Apply for a new passport that meets these requirements or
- Apply for a U.S. Visa
ESTA or the Electronic System for Travel Authorization
ESTA, or the Electronic System for Travel Authorization, is a completely automated electronic system used to screen travelers’ passports before they commence their trip to the United States under the VWP (Visa Waiver Program).
Nationals or Citizens from VWP countries have to be pre-approved by the ESTA system before they can embark on a journey to the United States. Travelers from these countries are encouraged to submit an online application for an ESTA as soon as they start planning a visit to the United States.
Travelers From Non-Visa Waiver Countries
A citizen of a country that is not part of the Visa Waiver Program must first apply for a visa before he or she can enter the U.S. This would be a non-immigrant visa for a temporary visit, and for permanent residence, it would be an immigrant visa.
A visitor visa is a type of nonimmigrant visa for individuals who would like to visit the United States temporarily for tourism (B-2), business (B-1), or a combination of these (B-1/B-2).
Below are a few examples of what is permitted on a visitor visa:
Tourist visa (B-2)
- Holiday (vacation)
- Visiting the country as a tourist
- Visiting relatives and/or friends
- Receiving treatment for a medical condition
- Taking part in social events organized by social, fraternal, or service organizations
- Participating in amateur sports, musicals, or similar events without getting paid
- Enrolling in a relatively short recreational course that does not count for credit toward any formal qualification (such as a degree). An example is attending a 2-day cooking course while you are on vacation in the U.S.
How does one apply for a U.S. visa?
Tourist visa (B-2)
There are quite a few steps involved. The order and how they should be completed could vary from one U.S. Consulate or Embassy to the next.
Fill out and submit an online visa application
- Start by completing the online visa application form DS-160
- Print the confirmation page and take it with you to the visa interview
- While you are completing the above form, you will have to upload a photo of yourself in the prescribed format
- Next, you should book an interview. This is the general rule, although there are a few exceptions (see below)
Business Visa (B-1)
This visa is for activities such as consulting with U.S. business associates, attending a professional, educational, scientific, or business conference or convention, setting up an estate, or negotiating a contract. Is it <i>not</i> meant for working in the U.S.
Gather the necessary documents so you have them ready for your visa interview:
- A passport that is valid for traveling to the U.S. It has to be valid for a period of no less than 6 months after your planned visit to the United States (unless there is a country-specific agreement that exempts you from this requirement)
- Every person who requires a visa has to submit his or her own application, including family members that might be listed in your passport
- The confirmation page proving that you submitted a visa application (form DS-160)
- A receipt showing that you paid the relevant application fee, if you have to pay before the visa interview
- Your photo has to be uploaded while you fill out form DS-160 online. If this upload is not successful, you have to bring a printed photo of yourself in the prescribed format to the interview
Additional documents could be required to prove that you qualify for the visa. Examples include proof of:
- The reason for your journey
- That you intend to leave the U.S. at the end of your trip
- That you are able to cover all the costs associated with the trip
Attending the visa interview
You will be interviewed by a consular officer who has to determine whether or not you qualify for a U.S. visitor visa. You will have to prove that you meet the relevant requirements under United States law to get a visa.
Digital (ink-free) fingerprint scans will be taken during the application process. This usually happens as part of the interview, but it can vary depending on the location.
After the visa interview, the officer could decide that your application needs additional administrative processing. In that case, you will be informed of this by him or her.
After your visa application has been approved, depending on your nationality, you might be asked to pay what is known as a visa issuance fee and make the necessary arrangements for how your passport with the visa should be returned to you.
A final reminder about how long must be left on a passport to travel to the USA
To qualify for a U.S. visa, your passport has to be valid for travel to that country, and its validity date should be at least six months beyond the end of your planned visit to the U.S. (unless your country has specifically been exempted from this requirement).