Travelling to America: Visa Considerations

If you’re planning to go to the USA, arguably the most important item on your to-do list will be making sure you have permission to travel. You will also need to be sure you understand and comply with any restrictions in force.

What type of US visa will I need?

If you are planning to travel to America for just a short trip, for example, to attend a business conference or to visit friends and relatives, you may qualify for visa-free travel under the Visa Waiver Program. To qualify, you will need to be a national of one of the VWP countries, you must have a valid e-passport and you will need to have been granted ESTA authorization. VWP only applies if you are travelling for short-term business or tourism, allowing you to stay for up to 90 days.

If you are not eligible for visa-free travel, for example you are travelling to America for employment or other purposes, or for a period beyond that permitted visa-free, you will need to apply for a nonimmigrant visa for temporary stay or an immigrant visa for permanent residence in the United States.

There are various different classifications of visa. For example, a visitor visa under the B-classification will allow you to travel to the US for the purposes of business or tourism for a period beyond 90 days, while an E, L, H or O visa will permit you to undertake employment in the US in various different capacities. Some classifications also allow you to be accompanied by dependent relatives.

How long will my visa last?

If you are travelling to America visa-free you will only be permitted to stay in the United States for a period of up to 90 days. If you are planning to travel under a nonimmigrant visa, the duration can differ significantly depending on the classification of visa applied for.

When applying for a nonimmigrant visa there are specific requirements that must be met under US immigration law, not least that you plan to remain for a specific limited period of time. As such, you will be required to show your intent to depart the US by way of evidence of your residence, and other binding ties in your home country, that will ensure your return abroad at the end of your visit.

If your visa application is approved, the validity period of your visa relates only to the time in which you may travel to the US and apply for admission. It does not indicate how long you may remain, although it may allow for multiple separate admissions over a period of time.

The customs official at the port of entry will advise you on how long you may stay on each occasion and stamp your passport accordingly, or issue you with a Form I-94. The amount of time will usually reflect the period reasonably necessary to carry out your planned activities, subject to any limitation on the maximum amount of time permitted under that particular visa classification.

If you are travelling to America for a time-limited stay under a nonimmigrant visa, it may be possible to extend the duration of your trip while in the US in the event that you wish to remain for a further period.

How long you can extend your stay for will depend upon the visa classification under which you fall, as well as your ability to continue to meet the necessary requirements under that category.

By way of example, the maximum total duration permitted under a visitor’s visa on any one trip is generally 1 year – you would ordinarily be granted an initial period of up to 6 months, which could potentially be extended by a further 6 months, provided you will be maintaining your visitor status and can provide good reason to USCIS for the extension. However, as you are not allowed to work under this type of visa, you must also prove you can afford to stay in the US for this additional length of time.

In other cases, for example, in the employment visa categories, extensions of stay can be granted for several years, if not on an indefinite basis. By way of example, there is no maximum limit to the number of extensions that a trader or investor in the US may be granted under the E visa classification, although you must still maintain an intention to depart the US once their status eventually expires.

If you wish to stay in the US beyond the time permitted, you must either apply to renew your visa or, where appropriate, file an application with US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to extend your stay.

Will my visa guarantee entry?

A visa does not guarantee entry into the United States, rather it will only allow a foreign national travelling to America to lawfully arrive at a US port of entry and request permission to enter. This equally applies to anyone with permission to travel under ESTA.

The customs officials at the port of entry, for example, at the airport or land border crossing, have authority to permit or deny your admission to the US.

While having a visa does not guarantee entry to the United States it does, however, demonstrate that a consular officer at a US Embassy or Consulate abroad has determined you are eligible to seek entry for that specific purpose.

That said, you should always carry with you any documentation in support of your proposed intentions when travelling to America to show to the customs officer on arrival. This could include, for example, evidence of where you will be staying, including hotel bookings or the address of any friend or relative, as well as evidence of how you propose to fund your planned trip.

Once you are allowed to enter the United States, the customs official will provide an admission stamp or electronic/paper Form I-94, “Arrival and Departure Record”. Form I-94 will include your admission date, the class of admission and the permitted duration of your status.

This article does not constitute direct legal advice and is for informational purposes only.