Trip to the USA Planned? What You Need to Know About US Immigration Requirements

The United States sees more tourists each year than any other country in the world save for one (France’s Eiffel Tower and Louvre are hard to beat!).  Adventure enthusiasts and outdoor-types flock to the country’s many national parks (the United States invented the national park, by the way), shoppers head to New York City’s Fifth Avenue or Los Angeles’ Rodeo Drive, and families besiege Florida’s Disney World.  But getting in to the United States for non-citizens or persons without a US green card takes planning - a visit to the USA, even for a short time for tourism, requires special immigration documentation.  This article explains what a USA visa is and describes how to get one.

What’s a visa, and who needs one?

Individuals who do not have US citizenship or a green card (i.e., lawful permanent residence) generally need a visa under US immigration law to be able to enter the country.  A visa is a stamp (referred to be US immigration authorities as a “foil”) that sticks to a page in one’s passport and informs border patrol agents at the border (or more commonly, in airports) that the individual seeking admission to the United States is qualified to enter for the purpose designated in the visa information.  Note that a visa is not quite the same thing as permission to enter the US; it is technically permission to apply for entry - the border patrol agent has the final say, but chances are slim that a person with a valid United States tourist visa will be rejected at the border.  If you are going to the States for tourism you will likely receive a B1/B2 combined visa for business or pleasure - this is commonly called a US tourist visa, for short. 

Citizens from countries participating in the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) do not need a visa, but rather can travel to the US under USA immigration law with only a certificate of approval (a travel authorization) obtained from the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA).  One pays a small fee for the ESTA authorization, which will not be granted if a person is “inadmissible” to the USA or has had a visa application refused in the past.  Such persons can seek a visa through a visa interview, as described immediately below.  The US Department of State website contains information about the VWP, including a list of the 37 participating countries.   

How do I Get a US tourist visa?

One applies for a tourist visa for the USA by submitting online Form DS-160, Online Nonimmigrant Visa Application, to a US embassy or consulate abroad.  There is an application fee, presently $160 USD.  As a general rule, a person should apply for their immigration visa to the United States embassy or consulate closest to where they live (as long as it is in their country).  After applying, one schedules their visa interview, for which they must go to the appropriate embassy or consulate, at which they will be asked a few questions by a consular officer for the purpose of assessing the visa seeker’s eligibility for a US visa.  Questions tend to center on one’s ties to their home country (for the purpose of trying to determine whether a person is likely to return at the end of their authorized stay in the United States) and their motivations and plans for their trip.  Where a tourist visa application is approved, the applicant will receive the visa, placed in their passport, usually within a just couple or few days.  Visa refusals cannot be appealed, and the application fee is not refunded.

About the author

Author Brad Menzer writes for the blog of the immigration law firm Heartland Immigration.  The firm helps clients with the full range of US immigration issues, including by answering question such as how can I get a green card for the United States.

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