The Visa Waiver Program and ESTA takes far less planning than applying for a visa, but is it the right fit for you?
The Visa Waiver Program (often used interchangeably with “ESTA”) is quite possibly the easiest way for individuals from 38 countries to visit the U.S. for up to 90 days. ESTA is commonly used for tourism, however, ESTA is also a convenient option for many types of business trips. Whether you’re a startup founder who needs to meet with investors in Silicon Valley, a scientist visiting family and attending conferences in the same trip, or simply a tourist, you should familiarize yourself with ESTA and understand whether or not you qualify. We’ll delve into the details below!
What is the Visa Waiver Program?
The Visa Waiver Program (VWP) allows citizens and nationals from 38 countries to travel to the U.S. for business or tourism for 90 days without having to apply for a visa.
What is ESTA?
The Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) is an automated system that determines VWP. To come to the U.S. as part of the VWP, you must fill out an online ESTA application before arriving in the U.S. The process of applying for ESTA is much simpler than applying for a visa. You can do it by yourself from your computer without having to work with an attorney.
Is ESTA a visa?
No. ESTA is not a visa.
Do I qualify for ESTA?
To see the most updated list of which countries participate in the VWP and ESTA, check here. If you are a citizen or national of a country on the list, you can apply for ESTA!
What types of activities can I do in the U.S. with ESTA?
- Certain business activities (more on this below)
- Visiting family and friends
- Medical treatment
What can I do on a business trip to the U.S. with ESTA?
If you need to come to the U.S. to do business for your foreign company, ESTA might be a good choice. A few examples of what you can do include:
- Attend business events such as trade shows, business accelerators, or competitions
- Meet with customers (or prospective customers)
- Meet with investors (or prospective investors)
- Negotiate contracts
- Deliver products to U.S. customers or suppliers
What is not allowed on ESTA?
Working for a U.S. company: While many business-related activities are allowed, you cannot work in the U.S. on ESTA. If you intend to work and be paid by a U.S. employer, you’ll have to apply for a work visa instead of ESTA. Examples of U.S. work visas include the H-1B, O-1, E-2, and L-1.
Extending ESTA Status: ESTA is only valid for 90 days, and cannot be extended while in the U.S. If you will need to stay in the U.S. longer than 90 days, you may want to consider the B-1 visa instead.
Changing Status: You cannot change your status on ESTA. In other words, if you would like to work on a visa but are currently in the U.S. on ESTA, you’ll have to leave the U.S., apply for the visa, get it approved, attend a visa interview, and then reenter the U.S. on the new status.
Adjusting Status: Adjusting status is also not possible on ESTA, which means that you cannot file a green card application in the U.S. if you are on ESTA. Adjusting status is possible on most visas, and if you’d like to discuss your visa options, reach out to our team.
Do I need to book my return flight before applying for ESTA?
Yes, you’ll need to have a round-trip ticket with a return date on or before the 90 day limit.
What other documents do I need to have in order to apply for ESTA?
Besides a round-trip plane ticket, the only other document you’ll need to provide is a valid passport from one of the 38 countries participating in the Visa Waiver Program. Pro tip: Be sure your passport does not expire for at least six months after you return home!
You’ll also need to pay a $14.00 USD application fee when you apply for ESTA.
How do I apply for ESTA?
The ESTA application is fairly straightforward and can be found here.