Options for visitors include the Visa Waiver Program, the B-1 (Business Visitor) Visa, and B-2 (Tourist) Visa.
Visa Waiver Program
The Visa Waiver Program is a quick and easy way to visit the U.S. for tourism, business, or training, but not suitable for employment or extended stay in the United States.
The Visa Waiver Program allows citizens of eligible countries to enter the U.S. without first going to a U.S. consulate to obtain a visitor visa. A list of eligible countries can be found at the U.S. Department of State website.
After applying online for travel authorization, a visitor from one of these countries can simply board a plane to the U.S., fill out an immigration card during the flight, and explain the purpose of his visit to a U.S. immigration inspector upon arrival. If the inspector is satisfied with the visitor’s purpose and eligibility, the visitor will be admitted and authorized to stay for 90 days.
Travel Authorization, Passport and Airline Requirements
Effective January 2009, all persons using the Visa Waiver Program must obtain travel authorization from the U.S. government before traveling to the United States.
Applications for travel authorization are filed online through the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) website.
The website checks information provided by the applicant against U.S. government databases and provides an automated response. If the application is approved the travel authorization is valid for two years, or until the applicant’s passport expires if sooner than two years.
If the application is not approved the applicant cannot use the Visa Waiver Program and must apply for a B-1 or B-2 visa as described in Section 2 below.
- A visitor using the Visa Waiver Program must have a machine-readable passport, which has two lines of block printing that can be read by an optical scanning device.
- A passport issued on or after October 26, 2005 must have a digital photograph printed on the identification page (not laminated onto the page).
- A passport issued on or after October 26, 2006 must also contain an integrated computer chip.
Duration of Stay
Visitors for business or pleasure using the Visa Waiver Program are routinely authorized to stay in the U.S. for 90 days, even if they ask for less time.
- They are not allowed to extend the duration of their stay, except in cases of medical emergency, and then only for 30 days longer.
- They are not allowed to change to another temporary visa status without leaving the U.S. They are also not eligible to obtain permanent resident (green card) status without leaving the U.S. unless they are the spouse or child of a U.S. citizen or the parent of an adult U.S. citizen.
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B-1 (Business Visitor) and B-2 (Tourist) Visas
Visas are also required for visitors from countries (other than Canada or Bermuda) that are not eligible for the Visa Waiver Program.
A visitor who wishes to stay in the U.S. longer than 90 days, or to change to another visa status after arrival in the U.S., will need to obtain a B-1/B-2 visa stamp in his passport from a U.S. consulate outside the United States.
Applying for a B-1/B-2 visa requires a personal appearance at a U.S. consulate outside the U.S. The applicant must convince a U.S. consular officer that s/he has a residence outside the U.S. and no intention of abandoning that residence to remain in the U.S.
- The applicant is presumed to be ineligible on this ground and must overcome this adverse presumption.
- The applicant must also have a proper purpose for coming to the U.S. (business, tourism, medical treatment, etc.) and have the financial ability to support himself in the U.S. without working.
- The maximum duration of a B-1/B-2 visa is 10 years, but shorter durations are prescribed for citizens of countries such as China that limit U.S. citizens to shorter-duration visas.
A B-1 business visitor or a B-2 visitor can be admitted to the U.S. for up to one year, but in practice the initial period of authorized stay rarely exceeds six months.
B-1 business visitors are sometimes limited to the duration of the expected visit. Both can apply for extension of stay or change of status to another visa category, so long as that application is filed before the initial period of authorized stay expires.
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