ESTA Travel Blogs

04 Nov

Visiting the USA: Visas and the Visa Waiver Program

The traditional way of traveling to the USA entails requesting a visa from a US embassy or consulate. However, the introduction of the Visa Waiver Program now translates into visa-free travel for members of 38 countries.

Learn about the process involved with applying for a visa and the process of applying for ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization). As part of the visa waiver program, it is the ESTA that allows citizens of member countries to travel to the USA without a visa.



US Visa

Coming in many forms, a US visa is essentially the best option for people who wish to work or study in the USA. Now, it’s important to consider the difference between going to the USA to work and going to the USA on business. If visiting on business, and if the trip is less than 90 days in length, there is no need for a visa in this case. It’s also important to note that voluntary work counts as work nonetheless, and so remuneration is not relevant. The visa that generally corresponds with working in the USA is the B1, but this is not always the case, and can depend very much on your type of profession and reason for being in the USA.

Visas can also be acquired for tourists. This is usually relevant in two scenarios: when a person has not been granted an ESTA under the visa waiver program, or when a person will be visiting the USA as a tourist for a period of more than 90 days. This corresponds with the B2 visa, however the vast majority of tourists visiting the USA from visa waiver program member countries make their journey using the ESTA.

The duration of a US visa changes depending on the type of visa that is relevant to your situation, however they all allow for a longer length of stay in the USA than the ESTA, which is limited to 90-day trips. Generally, visa applicants need to arrange an appointment with a US embassy or consulate, which tend to be located in capital cities. This means that a certain amount of travel and expense has to be accounted for before visiting the USA, and there is no guarantee that your visa will be granted. Visas tend to be processed and issued within a period of around 60 days, however this is not guaranteed. For this reason, if intending to visit the USA with a visa, plan well ahead of your trip and ensure that you have all of your documentation in check before your trip. It is also worth commenting that many people believe they can book an emergency appointment to get a last-minute visa, however this is only granted under circumstances that can genuinely be considered an emergency.

With relatively negative points made so far with respect to the visa, it’s no wonder why the visa waiver program was developed. Nevertheless, it should be highlighted that the ESTA is more restrictive than a visa, and that sometimes visas are the only option for those who wish to visit the USA.



The ESTA is the number one way to avoid the complications, long procedures and costs mentioned in the previous paragraphs. Essentially, it represents a refreshing contrast: no waiting times, no appointments and low cost.

Most people who apply for ESTA online are tourists who will be staying in the USA for a period of 90 days or less. Given that most tourism trips tend to be between 1 and 3 weeks, this means that the majority of tourists from visa waiver program member states choose to travel without a visa. Nevertheless, the ESTA also allows travelers to visit for other purposes, such as for business (not forgetting that this is different from working in the states), short study programs, medical purposes and connecting flights.

Remember, if you are traveling to the USA for medical reasons under the visa waiver program, you cannot exceed the 90-day validity. It is not possible to extend your stay with the ESTA once you are in the country; if you wish to stay longer than 90 days, you must return home and complete the visa application process. If you do exceed the 90-day time frame of the ESTA for any reason, it is highly likely that you will have difficulties in re-entering the United States in the future, even with a different ESTA.

It’s useful to highlight the timeframes that govern the ESTA. We’ve mentioned the 90-day maximum trip length repeatedly throughout this article as this is fundamental. However, the validity of the ESTA itself is a different thing altogether. The ESTA is valid for two years, starting on the day you receive authorization. This means that you are authorized to visit the USA with the ESTA repeatedly within these two years, each time for no more than 90 days.

It’s very important to understand that the final decision as to whether or not to allow you to enter the United States lies with border patrol agents. This means that if they feel that you are misusing the ESTA in any way or that you may be trying to stay in the country longer, they are fully within their rights to deny your access. This means that if a visitor makes many trips of 90 days within the time period of his or her ESTA, the border patrol agents are likely to grow suspicious, unless you have a good justification for your reasons.

To expand a little bit on the last point, it should be borne in mind that the 90-day ‘clock’ of the ESTA cannot be reset by crossing into a bordering country. This means that, while you can leave the USA and visit Mexico, for example, if you cross back over into the USA, you will still be within the initial 90-day period of the ESTA.

In order to apply for the ESTA, you simply need to be able to connect to the internet. The application consists of a short form, and takes about 10 minutes or so to complete. The status of your ESTA authorization will be based on the answers you give to the questions on the form. The status of your authorization is sent to you within 24 hours via email, and at no point during the process are you required to send, receive or even print out physical documents. The key to the ESTA is its ease, and the fact that it is electronic.

Once your application is approved, you are assigned a reference number, and some travelers do choose to print this out so that they have it to hand. However, it is not necessary to keep this reference on you; your travel authorization is stored electronically, and when you enter the USA, border patrol agents will be able to see whether or not you have ESTA authorization.

While the vast majority of ESTA applications are approved, some are rejected. Rejections tend to come down to the answers you gave on the form. It is very important that these questions are all answered honestly, as it is possible that you are not eligible for ESTA. Remember, once again, that the border patrol agents get the final say as to whether or not to grant your access into the country; if they feel that you have been untruthful about an element of your application, they will simply not grant this access.

All in all, the ESTA does not need to be applied for a long time in advance, as it takes just 24 hours to receive. Nevertheless, in the unlikely case whereby your application is denied and you are not granted ESTA, you will then need to follow the traditional procedure for acquiring a visa. For this reason, it can be a good idea to apply for ESTA before booking your flight. Whilst the application form itself does ask where specifically you will be going in the country, you can provide this information at a later point, which won’t affect your travel authorization.

When comparing the two forms of travel authorization, the ESTA has many benefits that make it a convenient and ideal first choice for travelers wishing to visit the United States. If you are simply visiting as a tourist, you will save yourself a great amount of time, money and red tape by applying for the ESTA as opposed to a visa. If you are looking at being in the United States for a longer period of time, however, and would like to live and work there, the ESTA does not correspond with your needs, and you should therefore find out which visa is best suited to you.


To have your ESTA authorization by this time tomorrow, simply fill out the online form and start planning your adventure!