Questions and Answers on Permitted Business Activities under the Visa Waiver Program

Published on: Jan 13, 2020, Last Edited: Mar 11, 2020 | Tags: ESTA for Business, ESTA Requirements

This article covers a range of questions and answers on how an ESTA can be used for conducting business related activities in the U.S. while traveling under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP). We received a number of the following questions in response to the information on using an ESTA for business purposes and thus have provided more information to travelers with case-specific enquiries.

Questions and Answers on Permitted Business Activities under the Visa Waiver Program
Questions and Answers on Permitted Business Activities under the Visa Waiver Program

Can I enter to U.S. on an ESTA to carry out or offer commercial or industrial activities or services?

You may come to the U.S. on an ESTA to perform or offer commercial or industrial activities as long as you are not compensated for those activities from a U.S. source, such as a company or an employer. Some of the commercial or industrial activities that would be permitted include attending professional or business meetings and events, carrying out non-remunerated independent research, negotiating contracts, litigating, or meeting with business associates.

Can I enter the U.S. on an ESTA as the representative or seller of a foreign equipment or machinery firm for the purposes of installing, maintaining, or repairing equipment, or to train U.S. employees in the use of this equipment?
You may, as long as certain conditions are met. First, the equipment or machinery must be manufactured outside of the U.S. Secondly, you cannot receive any compensation that originates from a U.S. source for the work performed. And thirdly, the provision of such services must be specified in the contract of sale between the seller and a U.S. company, and you must have the required specialized technical know-how to deliver these services.

Can I be financially compensated for work done in the U.S. as a professional athlete traveling on an ESTA?

You cannot receive financial compensation from a U.S. source if such compensation is your primary source of income. However, as a professional athlete you may come to the U.S. to participate in competitions or sports events for which you may receive monetary prizes.

Is it possible to enter the U.S. on an ESTA as a professional athlete of a foreign sports team for the purposes of taking part in sports competitions?

Usually you may, as long as both you and your team have your established place of business outside of the U.S. In addition, any wages you receive as a professional athlete must originate from foreign (non-U.S.) sources, and your team’s activities must have an international aspect or be part of the activities organized by an international organization.

What if I’m an amateur athlete? Can I come to the U.S. on an ESTA to take part in sports tests or try-outs for a U.S. team?

You may do this, with some limitations. First, the purpose and duration of your visit should be exclusively to participate in try-outs and not to live and work in the U.S. Moreover, you cannot receive any financial compensation from a U.S. team outside of payment strictly related to your expenses during the try-out (i.e. round-trip fare, accommodation, and meals).

As a professional entertainer, can I carry out activities related to my profession in the U.S. on an ESTA?

You may do this, as long as your performance is compensated by a foreign company or organization. The only compensation you may receive from a U.S. source is limited to expenses such as accommodation, meals, or in some cases, to any prizes you may receive for your performance. It is also possible to carry out activities as a professional performer if such activities are part of a cultural exchange program.

Can I use an ESTA to enter the U.S. if I am employed to provide services in a private yacht?

This should most likely not be an issue and you are permitted to sail through U.S. waters as long as certain conditions are met. Irrespective of which country the yacht is registered under, the vessel must have originally sailed from a port in a foreign country. In addition, any tasks or duties you perform must be exclusively related to the vessel’s activities.

Can I seek investment in the U.S. on an ESTA?

Only if your activities are not considered productive labor or involve the active management of a U.S. business, since these activities require an E-2 visa. Under an ESTA, activities permitted include attending professional or business meetings and events, carrying out non-remunerated independent research, negotiating contracts, litigating, or meeting with business associates.

Can I use an ESTA to work as a contract sulky driver, groom, trainer, or jockey on behalf of a foreign employer if I’m already working for another employer?

No, these activities are not permitted on an ESTA.

Can I use an ESTA to enter the U.S. to work at or set up a new branch, affiliate, or subsidiary of a foreign company?

No, you will need to apply for an L-1 visa.

Can I use an ESTA to visit the U.S. for observing a business operation?

Yes, you can if your role is limited to observing.

Can I use an ESTA to train, volunteer, or be employed by the Peace Corps?

No, you cannot partake in such activities in the Peace Corps on an ESTA. However, you may perform these activities on an A or B visa. Please ensure you meet the requirements outlined in sections 9 and 10 (a)(4) of the Peace Corps Act.

Can I use an ESTA to visit the U.S. to take part in the United Nations Institute for Training and Research internship program?

You may, as long as you are not employed by a foreign government. If you are employed by a foreign government and wish to take part in this internship program, you’ll need to apply for a visa.

Can I use an ESTA to enter the U.S. to work on exhibitions, fairs, or similar international events?

You may, but only if you have a foreign employer and your income and work responsibilities are based abroad and not in the United States.

Am I allowed to enter the U.S. on an ESTA to volunteer with a religious or non-profit organization?

This depends on the scope of your volunteer activities. Volunteer construction work is not permitted, but you may attend meetings, provide general assistance, or speak at conferences or religious events.

As the foreign director of an American corporation, can I use an ESTA to enter the U.S. if I am compensated to attend a Board of Directors Meeting?

You may carry out such activities on an ESTA.

Can I use an ESTA to enter and work in the United States as an emergency worker (e.g. fire, health, medical, etc)?

Emergency responders are not permitted to work in the U.S. in their professions under an ESTA. Emergency responders must go through different entry procedures according to the requirements of Customs and Border Protection (CBP).

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