Visa application requirements for The United StatesAre you planning a brief or extended trip to the United States, either for an educational or employment opportunity, or perhaps just for a holiday or family vacation? Have you familiarized yourself with the visa policy in the United States, the policy governing the various types of travel documents required for certain individuals and situations? As a country formed by immigrants and centered on multiculturalism, the United States welcomes millions of foreign visitors each year from every corner of the earth. Collectively these visitors add greatly to the nation’s cultural, educational and economic life. However, as committed as the leaders of the United States are with regard to showcasing their beautiful country to those living abroad, they are equally committed to keeping the borders safe.
In the following article we will discuss the United States visa policy at some length, including a brief definition of the visa, an explanation of who does and does not need a visa for United States travel, the different types of visas available for entry into the United States and the process for obtaining one.
What is a Visa?When a citizen from a foreign country wants to enter the United States, he or she will generally need to obtain a United States visa, which is placed in the traveler’s passport, a travel document issued by the traveler’s country of citizenship. Certain international travelers may be eligible to travel to the United States without a visa (explained later), assuming they meet the requirements for visa-free travel.
Being in possession of a United States visa allows you to travel to a port of entry, airport or land border crossing, and request permission of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Customs and Border Protection (CBP) inspector to enter the United States. Although having a visa does not always guarantee entry into the United States, it does signify that a consular officer at a United States Embassy or Consulate abroad has determined you are eligible to seek entry for a specific purpose—a purpose that is determined by the type of visa you possess. Department of Homeland Security and Customs inspectors are the guardians of the nation’s borders, and are responsible for admission of travelers to the United States for a specified purpose and predetermined amount of time. Homeland Security also has the responsibility for immigration matters while you are present in the United States.
Do I Need a Visa to Travel to the United States?Whether or not you need a visa to travel to the United States depends on a number of factors, including your country of residence and the purpose and length of your stay. All foreign nationals planning to relocate permanently, or immigrate to the United States must of course apply for an immigrant visa—a process that can also take place both within and outside of the United States. For the purpose of temporary travel in the United States, however, the following rules and situations apply:
Citizens of Canada and Bermuda
If you are a Canadian citizen planning to visit the United States, regardless of the length of your stay, you do not require a visa, except for the travel purposes outlined below. Also, if you are traveling to the United States from the island country of Bermuda, you do not need a visa for travel up to 6 months (180 days), except if you are traveling for the same purposes outlined below:
- Foreign government officials
- Treaty traders and investors
- Fiancé(e)s and children of fiancé(e)s
- Spouses of a United States citizen traveling to the United States to complete the immigration process
- Children of a foreign citizen spouse
- Informant supplying critical information with regard to criminal and terrorist organizations
Those who wish to work in the United States as professionals under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) are typically eligible to do so without obtaining a United States visa, provided that the following conditions apply:
- Applicant is a citizen of Canada or Mexico.
- Profession is on the list of NAFTA occupations.
- The open position in the United States requires a NAFTA professional.
- Applicant will work in a prearranged full-time or part-time capacity for an employer (self employment is not permitted).
- Applicant has the qualifications, meeting the specific requirements, education, and/or experience, of the profession.
Visa Waiver ProgramThe Visa Waiver Program (VWP) allows citizens of “participating countries” to travel to the United States without a visa for 90 days or less, assuming they meet all the requirements. Visitors must be eligible to use the VWP and have a valid Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) approval prior to travel.
Only certain types of travel—for certain purposes—are permitted under the Visa Waiver Program. These purposes include business, tourism, medical appointments, visiting or pleasure. Transiting or traveling through the United States to Canada or Mexico is generally allowed for travelers under the VWP. Below we have listed just a few samples of the types of activities allowed under the VWP.
People traveling for business can engage in any number of business activities, for 90 days or less, under the Visa Waiver Program. For example, they can consult with foreign business associates, attend scientific, professional or educational conferences and symposiums, attend training sessions and classes and negotiate contracts.
Tourism or Visiting
Individuals seeking to visit the United States for vacation or pleasure can do so under the VWP for 90 days or less without having a visitor visa. They can visit for the purpose of tourism, to visit with family and friends; they can seek medical treatment, participate in social events hosted by fraternal, social or service organizations, participate in musical, sports or other types of events and contests, and enroll in recreational classes.
Travel Purposes Not Permitted under the Visa Waiver Program
Certain activities are prohibited when traveling on the Visa Waiver Program. These activities, which usually require a separate type of visa, include:
- Studying for credit
- Working as foreign press, radio, film, journalists or other information media
- Taking up permanent residence in the U.S.
To apply for entry into the United States under the Visa Waiver Program you must hail from one of the following 38 VWP-participating countries.
Andorra, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brunei, Chile, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Monaco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, San Marino, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, United Kingdom.
Those who intend to travel on the Visa Waiver Program must have authorization through the Electronic System of Travel Authorization (ESTA) prior to boarding a United States bound air or sea carrier. For more information on ESTA visit the website for the United States Bureau of Consular Affairs at “travel.state.gov.”
People who reside in one of the 37 countries outlined above, and want to (a) visit the United States for a purpose other than those listed above and/or b) wish to stay longer than 90 days will need to apply for the appropriate type of entry visa into the United States. Applications can usually be found at the United States Embassy or Consular Office in their particular country of residence.
Types of United States VisasThere are essentially two main types of United States visas: Immigrant Visas, required for all citizens who plan to travel to the United States for the purpose of taking up residence; and Nonimmigrant Visas, for travel to the U.S. on a temporary basis. Below we will discuss the various types of visas in the latter category, Nonimmigrant or Temporary Visas.
Individuals who do not qualify for the Visa Waiver Program can still receive entry into the United States by securing the correct type of temporary visa, of which there are many. Below we have provided a table outlining the various types of visas available based on the purpose of an individual’s visit.
|Purpose of Travel to U.S. and Nonimmigrant Visas||Visa Type|
|Athletes, amateur & professional (compete for prize money only)||B-1|
|Au pairs (exchange visitor)||J|
|Australian professional specialty||E-3|
|Border Crossing Card: Mexico||BCC|
|Diplomats and foreign government officials||A|
|Domestic employees or nanny -must be accompanying a foreign national employer||B-1|
|Employees of a designated international organization, and NATO||G1-G5, NATO|
|Foreign military personnel stationed in the U.S.||
|Foreign nationals with extraordinary ability in Sciences, Arts, Education, Business or Athletics||O|
|Free Trade Agreement (FTA) Professionals: Chile, Singapore||
H-1B1 - Chile
H-1B1 - Singapore
|International cultural exchange visitors||Q|
|Medical treatment, visitors for||B-2|
|NAFTA professional workers: Mexico, Canada||TN/TD|
|Performing athletes, artists, entertainers||P|
|Physician||J , H-1B|
|Professor, scholar, teacher (exchange visitor)||J|
|Specialty occupations in fields requiring highly specialized knowledge||H-1B|
|Students: academic, vocational||F, M|
|Temporary agricultural workers||H-2A|
|Temporary workers performing other services or labor of a temporary or seasonal nature.||H-2B|
|Tourism, vacation, pleasure visitors||B-2|
|Training in a program not primarily for employment||H-3|
|Treaty traders/treaty investors||E|
|Transiting the United States||C|
|Victims of Criminal Activity||U|
|Victims of Human Trafficking||T|
The following chart is the same chart that appears on the website for the United States Bureau of Consular Affairs. The various numbers and letters you see under “visa type” correspond to a particular type of visa based on the purpose of the visit. As you might guess, some of the more popular types of visas include those for students (Visa F, for academic study, or Visa M, for vocational classes), business visitors (B-1) and for tourism, vacation purposes, and medical treatment (B-2).
Applying for a United States VisaFor each type of United States nonimmigrant visa there are very specific application requirements. Here we will go over some of the basic requirements that apply to the main types of United States visas, including those for visitors and students.
U.S. Visas: Application Requirements
The visa is a type of nonimmigrant document for persons who wish to gain entry into the United States temporarily for business (B-1) or for pleasure, tourism or medical treatment (B-2), or for those who wish to come to the United States for educational purposes.
Several application steps are required for individuals seeking either a visitor or student visa into the United States, beginning with the completion of the online visa application form. This application, called the DS-160, is available on the US State Department website. The application is designed to gather identifying information about you and the purpose of your visit. Once completed, the DS-160 application must be printed from the confirmation page so that you may bring it to your interview. You will also need to upload a current photo of yourself during the application process.
The Visa Interview
Although interviews are generally not required for those 13 years of age and under, or those 80 years of age or older, the U.S. consular officers around the world have the discretion to require an interview of any applicant, regardless of age.
Although you can schedule your interview at any United States Embassy or Consular Office, your best bet (for approval) is to schedule your interview at the US Embassy or consulate in your country of residence. Bear in mind that wait times for interview appointments vary by location, season, and visa category, so be sure to schedule your interview well in advance of your planned departure and entry into the United States. More specific information pertaining to wait times at your location can be obtained by contacting the United States Embassy in your country.
While preparing for your interview there are several steps you will need to take. Usually you will need to pay a non-refundable visa application fee prior to your interview. The amount of this fee varies depending on your location and visa category. You can also review the visa instructions available on the website of the embassy or consulate where you will plan to apply, where you can also obtain more detailed information regarding the fees.
There are several documents you will need to prepare and take with you to your visa interview appointment, including:
- Valid Passport for United States travel
- Non-immigrant Visa Application—form DS-160
- Application Fee Payment Receipt
- Backup Photo of Yourself (in case the upload of your photo fails)
- Details regarding the purpose of your trip
- Your scheduled entry date into the United States and planned departure date
- Your proof of ability to pay all of the costs of your trip
- (For Student Visas Only) Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant (F-1) Student Status-For Academic and Language Students, Form I-20A-B or Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant (M-1) Student Status for Vocational Students, Form I-20M-N – Your school will send you a SEVIS-generated Form I-20 once they have entered your information in the SEVIS database. You and your school official must sign the Form I-20. All students, their spouse and minor children if they intend to reside in the United States with the student, must be registered in the Student and Exchange Visitor System (SEVIS). Each person receives an individual Form I-20.
Depending on your nationality, once your visa is approved you may have to pay an issuance fee. Generally, an official at the embassy or consulate where you underwent your interview will inform you as to when you can pick up your new visa. You can also have your visa delivered to you via courier for an extra fee.
Finally, if you intend to travel to the United States for the purpose of medical treatment, you will need the medical diagnosis from a local physician, explaining the exact nature of your illness or injury and the reason you need treatment. You must also have a letter from the physician or medical facility in the U.S. stating they are willing to treat you. These documents must be obtained prior to your interview appointment for the B-2 visitor visa.