Updated: Aug 24, 2023
Travelers visiting the U.S. without a Canadian or U.S. passport with either need a U.S. visa or an ESTA, which stands for Electronic System for Travel Authorization. An ESTA is an electronic travel authorization which must be obtained via an online application form. A U.S. visa also requires completion of a paper-based or online DS-160 application form, yet also requires applicants between the ages of 13 and 80 to attend an appointment at a U.S. embassy in their country of residence or citizenship. An approved ESTA does not guarantee a traveler entry into the United States, however it does serve as proof that the traveler has been cleared to travel by land, air or sea to the United States under the Visa Waiver Program. Admission into the United States under the Visa Waiver Program is ultimately decided by border guards of Customs and Border Protection (CBP). A U.S. visa differs in the rights granted to the holder, in that admission and immigration rights are stronger for switching to different visa categories or extending the duration of stay when in the United States.
The differences between an ESTA and the most common type of U.S. Visitor Visas such as the B-2 Tourist Visa, B-1 Business Visa and B-1/B-2 Tourist/Business Visa are as follows:
Legal right of entry: An approved ESTA is not a guarantee of admission into the United States. Travelers also waiver their right to an appeal when submitting their ESTA application, thus ESTA denials cannot be reversed. A Visitor Visa holder has undergone a more stringent application process for the purposes of determining their intentions of entering the United States, and thus, has gained more legal rights to enter the United States under immigration laws.
Duration of stay: An ESTA can be used for stays of up to 90 days per visit. A Visitor Visa can be used for stays of up to six months per visit.
Duration of authorization: An ESTA is granted for a period of 2 years, or until the date of passport expiry, whichever comes first. A Visitor Visa is usually granted for a period of 10 years, yet this can vary based on the discretion of the embassy representative conducting the Visitor Visa interview.
Number of visits: Both can be used for multiple visits to the United States during their period of validity.
Ability to extend: An ESTA cannot be extended. If an applicant has exceeded the 90 day limit on an ESTA they must return to their country of origin or non-U.S. territory. Visitor Visas' cannot be renewed either, however, they can be extended if a Form I-539, Application to Extend/Change Nonimmigrant Status form is submitted prior to expiry of the Visitor Visa.
Ability to renew: An ESTA cannot be renewed. When an ESTA has expired, an applicant must submit a new application. Visitor Visas cannot be renewed either, however, applicants may be exempt from attending another embassy interview should they apply for the same Visitor Visa and the U.S. embassy or consulate where they are applying offers appointment waivers.
Ability to transfer: An ESTA cannot be transferred to another passport, in the event the applicant's passport is lost, stolen or expired. A Visitor Visa can be used even though the initial passport it was issued to has expired, just as long as the visa on the previous or expired passport has not been damaged in any way and the applicant is also traveling with a valid and unexpired passport.
Application duration: An ESTA application usually takes 10 to 15 minutes to complete. A DS-160 form, which is the required form for Visitor Visas, usually takes 60 to 90 minutes to complete depending on the applicant's education, employment, travel, immigration or criminal history.
Processing duration: If not instant, an ESTA usually takes 3-5 minutes to process and receive a decision. However, in some cases, ESTA processing may take up to 72 hours, which is the maximum period allowed by CBP. A Visitor Visa by contrast, takes usually 4-8 weeks to process and this timeline depends on the embassy workloads. During peak seasons this may increase to 10-12 weeks. Furthermore, if a Visitor Visa application undergoes 'Administrative Processing', the application may take several months to process.
Permitted uses: Both can generally be used for the same purposes involving tourism activities as well as business activities whereby the traveler is not obtaining income from a U.S. source. More detailed information on permitted uses is provided below.
Cost: The ESTA fee charged by the U.S. government is $21, which comprises of a $4 processing fee and a $17 fee that goes to the Corporation for Travel Promotion. The $17 fee is refunded if an ESTA is denied. By comparison, the cost of submitting a U.S. Visitor Visa is $185, which is comprised of the MRV fee charged before scheduling an embassy appointment or obtaining an appointment waiver. No part of the MRV fee is refunded if a Visitor Visa application is denied. Third party providers offer additional services that are charged on top of the government fees for either ESTA or Visitor Visa applications.
Determining the traveler’s actual need for either form of travel authorization will depend on a few factors.
If you are seeking to visit the United States for tourism, visiting friends or family, business, transit, medical or other similar short-term purpose, you should determine if you are eligible for ESTA. Applying for an ESTA can be performed online. You can check your ESTA eligibility to see if you hold a passport from one of the 41 Visa Waiver Program countries.
There are additional factors such as medical, criminal, immigration and travel history which impact an applicant’s ability to obtain an ESTA. For the most current information on these eligibility questions, visit usa-esta.com/apply and view the current eligibility questions at the lower part of the form.
Travel Circumstances - An approved ESTA is required for travelers entering the United States by land, sea or air.
If you are not eligible for ESTA, or wish to stay in the United States for more than 90 days, then you will need to obtain a B-2 Tourist Visa for tourism purposes, or a B-1 Business Visa for business purposes.
A B-2 Tourist Visa can be used to visit family and friends, sight-see and holiday, receive medical treatment, or attend a short course without receiving university credit. The B-2 Tourist Visa can be used for stays of up to 180 days per visit and is usually issued for a period of 10 years, however this may vary depending on the applicant's personal circumstances.
A B-1 Business Visa can be used to attend meetings, conduct negotiations or settle an estate. The ‘business’ activity conducted by the foreign national must be allowable in that the applicant should generally not receive income from a U.S. source whilst travelling on a B-1 Business Visa. The B-1 Business Visa can be used for stays of up to 180 days per visit and is usually issued for a period of 10 years, however this may vary depending on the applicant's personal circumstances.
Those who are ineligible for a Visa Waiver are transiting through the U.S. onward to another destination will need to apply for a C-1 Transit Visa. Those wishing to work, invest, study or perform other activities lawfully in the United States, regardless of their duration of visit or ESTA eligibility, should seek more information on the relevant visa type most suitable for their needs.
If you do require a USA Visa, please visit usa-visas.com for more information. Visa applications typically take between 4-8 weeks. However, this depends on the processing timelines and workloads of the U.S. embassy where the application was submitted. Thus, ensure you plan for these processing timelines prior to booking your travel itinerary via or to the United States. For an up-to-date check on U.S. embassy appointment wait times for visitors, immigrant visas and other types, please visit https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/us-visas/visa-information-resources/wait-times.html for more information.
If you are not eligible for an ESTA or have been denied a U.S. visa, seek the services of an experienced and accredited U.S. immigration lawyer to find out if you may benefit from their services in helping you obtain a U.S. visa. Beware of misleading claims of ‘guaranteed’ visa schemes and other tactics aimed at deceiving users from parting with their money.
Knowing the differences between an ESTA and a Visitor Visa will help travelers better prepare for applying for the right form of travel authorization. Remember to consider your personal circumstances and timelines before applying for any form of travel authorization. Also be mindful that you will not need to book accommodation or airfare before applying for an ESTA or a visa.