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U.S.A. – visa or ESTA?

Formalities required before visiting the USA

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Visas or visa waivers, eligibility, costs, time

Formalities. Tourist visas or ESTA?

 Anyone planning to visit the USA as a tourist, a student, to visit family, to work or for any other purpose – except US citizens living in other countries and Canadian citizens – needs either to obtain a visa, or to sign up to the official ESTA visa-waiver scheme.

Visa or visa-waiver

    Take care. There are some websites offering visa services that many travelers do not need. The following statement, which features prominently at the top of the tourist visa page on one such website, is misleading. "To enter the United States, citizens of foreign countries typically need to obtain a visa."
    Some do, others do not. The word "typically" is meaningless. Most people traveling as tourists to the USA for a stay of up to 90 days do not need a visa. They need to sign up to the ESTA program, which can be done online.
    So read the following paragraphs first before signing up to any commercial website offering US visa services. Or avoid unnecessary costs, and sign up for ESTA or apply for a visa directly, using the official US government services. Everything except visa interviews can be done online.

ESTA - the Electronic System for Travel Authorization

    Specifically, visas are not required for short-stay tourists who are citizens of most countries of Europe or other countries for which the USA has a visa waiver program (41 countries in all, as of late 2023, including countries such as Japan, Australia, Singapore. See full list below).  Tourists visiting the USA under the visa waiver agreements must first sign up to a visa exemption through the online ESTA scheme. This is best done at least a week before a trip.
    ESTA applicants must be in possession of an electronic or biometric passport. ESTA allows the visitor to enter the USA using a scheduled airline or cruise ship, or by vehicle over a land border. Visitors arriving by air or sea should have a return or onward ticket out of the USA before applying. If in doubt, contact your nearest US consulate. (► Find my nearest US consulate)
    To register with ESTA, simply visit the official ESTA page, and sign up. It's a fairly simple process, so there's not normally any need to use the costly services of a commercial agency. Registration with ESTA costs just $21 and lasts for two years, and those registered can make multiple visits to the USA in this period, not exceeding 90 days at a time.

B1 / B2 short stay visas

    These "nonimmigrant visas" are required for anyone visiting the USA for a short stay, but ineligible for the ESTA scheme, most frequently because they are citizens of a country not included in the scheme. Basically a B1 visa is for work, and a B2 visa for tourism, though the two may be obtained together. The standard cost in 2024 of a US tourist visa is $ 185, though it will be higher in certain cases.
    The application process for a B1/B2 visa may take two months to complete, and will involve an interview at the nearest US consulate. Find your nearest US consulate on the official US government web page on travel.state.gov.
    It may be possible to obtain an interview at short notice in the event of an emergency, for instance for the funeral of a close relative, but this cannot be guaranteed
    B1 / B2 visas last for 90 days or 180 days.

Travelers without a visa or ESTA will be refused boarding onto flights to the USA. This includes passengers who are transiting via a US airport on their way to a further destination, even Canada.

Official list of countries whose citizens qualify for the ESTA scheme (2023)

Citizens of the United Kingdom, Andorra, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brunei, Chile, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Israel, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Monaco, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Republic of Korea, San Marino, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and Taiwan.
    (ESTA applications are not possible for citizens of the above countries who have visited Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Sudan, Syria, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen since 2011)


Travel Insurance

It is vital for anyone visiting the USA to take out travel insurance, covering illness, accident, medical care and repatriation. It's not that the average tourist falls ill or has a mishap while in the USA. Most don't, but the cost of medical care or treatment after an accident, not to mention civil liability, can be enormous in the USA, where litigation is part of life. Don't expect your embassy to pick up the tab; embassies don't do this, and they don't take kindly to tourists who run into trouble and don't have the necessary insurance cover to see them home.  See health care.

For more background to the USA.....

Book / ebook     A Background to modern America -  people, places and events  that have played a significant role in the shaping of modern America. A C1-level Advanced English reader for speakers of other languages, and anyone wanting to  learn some of the background to today's USA.  Twenty-two texts, with vocabulary guides and exercises.

For California, discover About-California.com, a short guide for visitors.

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Discover the U.S.A.
its past, its present, its future.
The people, places and events that made modern America - Elvis Presley, M-L King, J-F Kennedy, the Mississippi, Route 66 and a whole lot more....  

Health care for visitors and tourists to the USA

People visiting the USA as a tourist, even those with US citizenship, are very strongly advised to take out a travel health insurance policy to cover their stay/s in the USA. Medical costs in the USA can be very high, and even a simple visit to a doctor can cost typically between $100 and $200, and a day in hospital may well cost over $3,000.

About-the-USA.com is an independent guide to the USA, free of external advertising. Pages may contain links to useful external websites, including US government websites  and other official sources, as well as  affiliate links to relevant travel service providers. A small commission may be  earned from purchases made through these affiliate links.

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