Published: May 15, 2018, Updated: Nov 01, 2022
Travelers visiting the U.S. without a Canadian or U.S. passport with either need a U.S. visa or an ESTA, which stands for Electronic System for Travel Authorization. An ESTA is an electronic travel authorization which must be obtained via an online application form. A U.S. visa also requires completion of a paper-based or online DS-160 application form, yet also requires applicants between the ages of 13 and 80 to attend an appointment at a U.S. embassy in their country of residence or citizenship. An approved ESTA does not guarantee a traveler entry into the United States, however it does serve as proof that the traveler has been cleared to travel by land, air or sea to the United States under the Visa Waiver Program. Admission into the United States under the Visa Waiver Program is ultimately decided by border guards of Customs and Border Protection (CBP). A U.S. visa differs in the rights granted to the holder, in that admission and immigration rights are stronger for switching to different visa categories or extending the duration of stay when in the United States.
The differences between an ESTA and the most common type of U.S. Visitor Visas such as the B-2 Tourist Visa, B-1 Business Visa and B-1/B-2 Tourist/Business Visa are as follows:
Determining the traveler’s actual need for either form of travel authorization will depend on a few factors.
If you are seeking to visit the United States for tourism, visiting friends or family, business, transit, medical or other similar short-term purpose, you should determine if you are eligible for ESTA. Applying for an ESTA can be performed online. You can check your ESTA eligibility to see if you hold a passport from one of the 40 Visa Waiver Program countries.
There are additional factors such as medical, criminal, immigration and travel history which impact an applicant’s ability to obtain an ESTA. For the most current information on these eligibility questions, visit official-esta.com/apply and view the current eligibility questions at the lower part of the form.
Travel Circumstances - An approved ESTA is required for travelers entering the United States by land, sea or air.
If you are not eligible for ESTA, or wish to stay in the United States for more than 90 days, then you will need to obtain a B-2 Tourist Visa for tourism purposes, or a B-1 Business Visa for business purposes.
A B-2 Tourist Visa can be used to visit family and friends, sight-see and holiday, receive medical treatment, or attend a short course without receiving university credit. The B-2 Tourist Visa can be used for stays of up to 180 days per visit and is usually issued for a period of 10 years, however this may vary depending on the applicant's personal circumstances.
A B-1 Business Visa can be used to attend meetings, conduct negotiations or settle an estate. The ‘business’ activity conducted by the foreign national must be allowable in that the applicant should generally not receive income from a U.S. source whilst travelling on a B-1 Business Visa. The B-1 Business Visa can be used for stays of up to 180 days per visit and is usually issued for a period of 10 years, however this may vary depending on the applicant's personal circumstances.
Those who are ineligible for a Visa Waiver are transiting through the U.S. onward to another destination will need to apply for a C-1 Transit Visa. Those wishing to work, invest, study or perform other activities lawfully in the United States, regardless of their duration of visit or ESTA eligibility, should seek more information on the relevant visa type most suitable for their needs.
If you do require a USA Visa, please visit usa-visas.com for more information. Visa applications typically take between 4-8 weeks. However, this depends on the processing timelines and workloads of the U.S. embassy where the application was submitted. Thus, ensure you plan for these processing timelines prior to booking your travel itinerary via or to the United States. For an up-to-date check on U.S. embassy appointment wait times for visitors, immigrant visas and other types, please visit https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/us-visas/visa-information-resources/wait-times.html for more information.
If you are not eligible for an ESTA or have been denied a U.S. visa, seek the services of an experienced and accredited U.S. immigration lawyer to find out if you may benefit from their services in helping you obtain a U.S. visa. Beware of misleading claims of ‘guaranteed’ visa schemes and other tactics aimed at deceiving users from parting with their money.
Knowing the differences between an ESTA and a Visitor Visa will help travelers better prepare for applying for the right form of travel authorization. Remember to consider your personal circumstances and timelines before applying for any form of travel authorization. Also be mindful that you will not need to book accommodation or airfare before applying for an ESTA or a visa.