Are you planning to visit the United States of America in the foreseeable future? This vast country of 9,834 million km² offers innumerable sights and experiences for travelers, from the skyscrapers of New York, to the neon lights of Las Vegas, to the Great Lakes region. Whether you’re visiting only one of the 50 states or journeying the USA from East Coast to West Coast, from Maine to California, you’re guaranteed to have an incredible time and make lasting memories.

Of course, before you can set foot in the Land of Freedom and Opportunity, you’ll likely have to arrange your travel visa to obtain permission to enter. This is the case for almost all the world’s nationalities, with a few notable exceptions, such as Canadians and, in certain circumstances, citizens of the Bahamas or the British Overseas Territories.

In particular, there are two kinds of travel pass available to visit America: (1) the ESTA, which stands for Electronic System for Travel Authorization and is technically a visa waiver, and (2) the B1/B2 visa. Which pass you’re eligible for depends on your country of citizenship. What’s more, the application process for each document is different, as are the conditions to visit America that they permit.

In the following article, we provide an overview of both the ESTA and the B1/B2 visa, courtesy of online visa service This includes who’s eligible for each pass, how to obtain yours, how long you can visit the USA for and what activities each one allows. Read on to learn more, to get your trip to the home of the Grand Canyon, Mount Rushmore and Yosemite National Park off to a flying start!

All You Need to Know About the ESTA Visa Waiver

The US Visa Waiver Program (VWP) introduced the ESTA in 2009 to facilitate certain nationalities’ entry to the United States. As a visa waiver, it’s easier, faster and cheaper to obtain the ESTA than it is a traditional visa. For example, you can apply for the waiver entirely online, you typically receive approval within just 24 hours, and it only costs $14.00. If you’re eligible for the ESTA, visiting the USA will be notably more straightforward for you.

39 nationalities are eligible for the ESTA, mostly from developed countries. These are:

  • Andorra
  • Australia
  • Austria
  • Belgium
  • Brunei
  • Chile
  • Czech Republic
  • Denmark
  • Estonia
  • Finland
  • France
  • Germany
  • Greece
  • Hungary
  • Iceland
  • Ireland
  • Italy
  • Japan
  • Latvia
  • Liechtenstein
  • Lithuania
  • Luxembourg
  • Republic of Malta
  • Monaco
  • Netherlands
  • New Zealand
  • Norway
  • Poland
  • Portugal
  • San Marino
  • Singapore
  • Slovakia
  • Slovenia
  • South Korea
  • Spain
  • Sweden
  • Switzerland
  • Taiwan
  • United Kingdom

With the ESTA, you can visit the United States for up to 90 days per visit multiple times, and the waiver is valid for two years from the date of issue. You can use the ESTA to visit for tourism (pleasure) or business. On the other hand, if you’re traveling to America to study or to find work, you’ll require an alternative travel document, in which case it’s worth consulting your nearest US embassy or consulate.

All members of your traveling party require a waiver, including any children. As such, if you’re traveling with minors, it’s advisable to apply for their ESTA on their behalf.

It’s important to note that, even if you’re a citizen of a country that’s eligible for the ESTA, you cannot apply if you’ve traveled to Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Sudan, Syria or Yemen on or after March 1, 2011. Similarly, you’re ineligible if you’re a dual citizen of Iran, Iraq, Sudan, or Syria.

Furthermore, as we state above, some nationalities are exempt from requiring either an ESTA or any other travel document to travel to America. These are:

  • Citizens of Canada. If you’re entering the US by air, you need only present a valid passport or a NEXUS card to gain entry. If you’re arriving by land or sea, you require either a valid passport, a NEXUS card, a Free and Secure Trade card (FAST) or an enhanced driver’s license or ID card.
  • Citizens of the Bahamas. You’re visa-exempt if you’re entering America via one of the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Preclearance Facilities in the Nassau or Freeport International Airport.
  • Citizens of British Overseas Territories. These include Bermuda, the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands and the Turks and Caicos Islands. You may be visa-free, although conditions vary from territory to territory, so it’s best to consult the State Department’s website.

Steps to Apply for the ESTA

To apply for the ESTA, you’ll need a passport with at least six months of validity left after your planned entry date. In addition, your passport must be an electronic passport (ePassport), meaning that it has a digital chip with your biometric information. You’ll also require your Personal Identification Number (PIN), which you can find in your passport.

Once you’ve checked that your passport meets these criteria, you enter your personal details into the online form. You must fill in the form no less than 72 hours before your departure. This information to fill in includes:

  • An email address, where your approved ESTA will be sent.
  • Your intended entry and exit dates to and from the USA.
  • Your full name, as it appears on your passport.
  • Your gender.
  • Your date of birth.
  • Your nationality.
  • Your country of birth.
  • Your country of residence.
  • Your home address and phone number.
  • Your passport number, and its issue and expiry dates.
  • An emergency contact’s name and email address.

The application fee for the ESTA is $14.00. You can pay by MasterCard, VISA, American Express, Discover (JCB or Diners Club only) and PayPal. Then, you submit your application.

As we say above, an ESTA application typically takes 24 hours to process, although in rare cases it can take up to 72 hours. Once you receive your waiver in your inbox, it’s recommended that you print a copy to take to the airport and show at America’s customs control if need be. 

With your valid visa waiver, you can enjoy everything that the USA has to offer!

Introduction to the B1/B2 Visa for Travelers to the USA

If you hold a nationality other than the 39 that are eligible for the ESTA, then you require what’s called a B1/B2 visa to enter the United States. To explain this visa’s name, ‘B1/B2’ refers to its legal categories: ‘B1’ is for business trips, while ‘B2’ is for tourism (pleasure) visits. As such, you can apply for the B1, B2 or the combined B1/B2, depending on the purpose of your visit. 

In particular, you can travel to the USA with this visa for reasons including:

  • B1 (Business)
    • To attend a professional convention or conference.
    • To buy goods or materials.
    • To conduct independent research.
    • To negotiate contracts.
  • B2 (Tourism)
    • To go sightseeing (on a holiday or vacation).
    • To receive medical treatment.
    • To visit friends or family.

Bear in mind that the B1/B2 visa is only intended for applicants with a regular passport. If you have a diplomatic, official or service passport, then you require an alternative travel document.

Also, similarly to the ESTA, you cannot apply for the B1/B2 visa if you’re visiting the USA to study, find work, or reside permanently. If these are your plans, it’s best to consult at your nearest US embassy or consulate about the visa you need.

Moreover, please note that if you’re a Chinese citizen, then as well as a B1/B2 visa, you’re also required to enroll on the EVUS (Electronic Visa Update System) in advance to enter the United States.

Typically, once issued, the B1/B2 visa is valid for 10 years, visits of up to six months each, and multiple trips to the USA. Equally, though, your visa’s validity period can vary depending on your nationality, so be sure to check this both while you’re applying and once you receive your approved visa. 

Furthermore, the max length of time you can visit will be determined at the customs checkpoint by the US Customs and Border Protection Officer who examines your paperwork. This will depend on the purpose of your visit to America, and you’ll normally be asked questions about this, so be prepared to provide answers if and when asked.

How to Apply for the B1/B2 Visa

Acquiring this travel visa for the USA involves several steps. First, you must fill in the DS-160 Online Nonimmigrant Visa Application form online. Once you’ve done this, you book an appointment at your nearest US embassy or consulate where you’ll be interviewed. When you successfully pass the interview, you’re issued your B1/B2 visa to visit the US.

Here are these steps in detail:

1. Fill in Form DS-160 online.

To do this, first visit the Department of State’s website. You’ll need:

  • Your personal details.
  • Information about your intended trip to America.
  • Details about any US visas you’ve held in the last five years.
  • Information about your trips to any other countries in the last five years.
  • Some supporting documentation, namely:
    • A passport with at least six months’ validity remaining after your intended stay.
    • A recent scanned passport photograph of yourself to upload as part of your application.

All in all, the DS-160 online form takes about 90 minutes to fill in. Usefully, you can save your application and come back to it later if need be. To do this, be sure to jot down your Application ID to return to the in-progress form.

Once you’ve filled in the form, the next steps are to:

  1. Print the confirmation page, which you’ll need to take to the embassy.
  2. Schedule your interview at the US embassy or consulate.
  3. Pay the $160 application fee, and print the receipt to take to your interview.

2. Attend Your Interview at the US Embassy

Next, at the date and time of your appointment, go to the American embassy or consulate for your visa interview. You’ll need:

  1. Your passport.
  2. The DS-160 confirmation page.
  3. Your application form’s payment receipt.

Also, you may be required to:

  • Demonstrate the purpose of your visit.
  • Show proof that you can financially support yourself and your dependents during your stay.
  • Provide a return or onward ticket out of the USA. 

So it’s worth taking these documents to the interview too.

The purpose of the interview is to determine your eligibility for a B1/B2 visitor visa. As such, you may be asked a range of questions on a variety of topics, including but not limited to:

  • Is this your first time visiting the USA?
  • What are your plans for during your visit?
  • What’s your budget for your stay?
  • Where are you staying while you’re in America?
  • Who will you be traveling with and visiting?
  • What is your job and your annual income?

So long as you provide satisfactory answers to these questions, you’ll be issued your visa to enter the USA. Then, simply take your B1/B2 visa with you on your trip to show at the US customs checkpoint. Here, as we’ve stated above, your max visit length will be determined. Once you’re past the customs checkpoint, you’re free to get on and enjoy your visit to America!

To conclude, with the information we’ve provided here, you can see both if you’re eligible for a US ESTA waiver or a B1/B2 visa, and how to apply. Whether you’re visiting the USA for a business trip to Chicago, to go sightseeing in San Francisco, or to enjoy the beaches of Hawaii, you can feel confident that your visa is one less thing you’ll need to research.

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