If you’ve ever been to the USA for tourism or work you’ll know that border control is extremely tight. The United States has some of the strictest rules when it comes to entry in to the country and the joys of visas will no doubt be something you’ll have to contend with if you’re planning extended travel or work there. So here’s a little guide to help you get your head around the fun that is US visas.
What is a visa?
Firstly a little background on what visas are. A visa entitles the holder to travel to the United States and apply for admission to enter the country. The visa is issued by a U.S. Embassy or Consulate and technically does not guarantee they will grant you entry in to the country. When you arrive at the airport the staff at border control will check your visa to make sure its genuine and valid. You need a visa even if you’re a tourist although for some countries this is easy to obtain. There are many other types of visas depending on how long you’re staying, who you’re visiting and if you’re working in the country.
I’m going for a week or two, do I need a visa?
This depends on what country you are a citizen of. The USA now has a system called the “Visa Waiver Program” which allows people from certain countries easy entry as long as your passport is valid. You can obtain this online via an application ESTA form. Here’s a list of countries that are eligible. Is yours on the list?
- United Kingdom
- New Zealand
- San Marino
You may be able to get a US entry waiver if you think a past record might hold you back at the border. Just expect a bit of a grilling when you’re at border control as the staff there like to be thorough.
Long term travel visa
With such a vast and varied country to explore you may want to to travel around the USA for longer than a standard tourist visa will allow (90 days). You can get a extended travel visa called a B2 Tourist visa which allows up to 6 months of travel within the USA. It is also possible to extend the B2 visa up to 1 year too so that epic road trip you were thinking of is entirely possible. The B2 visa does not allow you to work or conduct any business and you can expect a lot of questions when you arrive about your plans during your extended stay. You may also be asked to prove you have enough funds to for the duration of your trip so I advise printing out some savings account statements and making sure you have at least theoretically enough money to stay for a few months and afford a journey home. You’re not expected to have enough money to last the full visa length but a clear plan of how you will be funding your travels is always a smart thing to travel with.
Visiting the US Embassy
Its worth noting that if you entered the USA under the Visa Waiver program you can’t apply to extend your stay while you’re in the country. You must return to your country of origin in order to extend. You’ll need to visit the US Embassy in your country and apply for the B2 visa there. As the USA is very strict on immigration you will likely have to make an appointment to be interviewed at the embassy about your travel plans. Expect to spend the day waiting at the Embassy, usually around 3 hours.