Should I travel with an ESTA or a Visa? 2021


The United States is well-known for being a melting pot of people and cultures from around the planet. Indeed, as a ‘new-world’ country, its very range of societies today is a result of this historic crossover of people. And today, the country remains one of the most popular choices of destinations for citizens around the world, as a tourist spot, or to live, study or work.

As UK citizens, it is very easy to visit the United States for a wide variety of purposes. The easiest way for us to do this is by applying for an ESTA online. The ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorisation) is a form of visa waiver, whereby citizens of 38 countries can apply to travel to the USA for business or tourism purposes, for periods of up to 90 days at a time.

Wherever possible, ESTA Visa Waiver Programme is the ideal way to visit the United States, as it saves on the hassle and expenses associated with applying for a traditional US visa. Nonetheless, in some cases the ESTA is not valid for our travel purposes, and so we’ll need to apply for the corresponding visa. Here we will take a look at some of the most common types of visa, so you can establish whether you can travel with ESTA or whether you need to request a traditional visa. This should serve as a guide as to the kinds of visas available, but it is also worth mentioning that this is just a fraction of what is available; realistically, there are around 185 types of US visa, and so it’s important to get proper advice as to which one best suits your needs from your US consulate or embassy.

First things first, there are two main categories of visa: immigrant and non-immigrant. Of course, the immigrant visa is designed for those who are looking to permanently migrate to the United States. However, here we will be dealing with the most common visas intended for temporary stays, based around tourism, business, work, studies, etc.

B visas

The most common type of visa for those visiting the USA is the B visa, which is split into two categories: B1 and B2. This is also known as the visa for temporary visitors for business or pleasure. In most cases, the purposes associated with travelling with a B visa are the same as those of the ESTA. Of course, the ESTA is only available to citizens of countries that participate in the ‘Visa Waiver Programme’, so many travellers have to apply for the visa instead. However, this visa is also valid for those who would also be eligible to travel with ESTA. In particular, if somebody is travelling on business or as a tourist to the United States, and the journey is to exceed 90 days, then the ESTA cannot be used. Instead, the traveller would need to apply for a B visa.

F2 visa

In some cases, those travelling to the United States to study can do so with the ESTA. However, the course cannot exceed 90 days, and it cannot constitute official university credit. Therefore, in most cases, foreign students coming to the USA need to apply for an F1 visa. The F1 visa is used for academic studies, or those enrolled on English Language Programmes. This visa also allows for up to 20 hours of on-campus employment, and an extra year after the academic programme for ‘optional practical training’.

M1 visa

The M1 visa is designed for people who want to take study courses that are not principally academic. These courses must be taken at established vocational or non-academic institutions (as may be the case with business schools, for example). M1 visa holders cannot work during their studies, and applicants must provide evidence that they have sufficient funds to pay for their tuition and living costs throughout the period of their studies.

J1 visa

The purpose of the J1 is specifically to accommodate those who require practical training that they cannot get in their home country, with a view to completing an academic programme. As with the F1 visa, it also allows for a certain amount of employment as well. At this point, it is worth emphasizing that the ESTA cannot be used to work in the USA in any way, paid or unpaid, or to receive practical training for an academic course.

K1 visa

The K1 visa is for the fiancé/fiancée of a US citizen, and is required in order for that person to enter the United States to get married. The K1 holder must marry the US citizen within 90 days of entry, or leave the USA. Once married, the foreign spouse can then follow the steps to become a green card holder.

O visa

The O visa is particularly well known among actors and musicians hoping to work in the United States. Again, the ESTA cannot be used for this purpose. Specifically, it is granted to foreigners who possess an extraordinary ability in the sciences, arts, education, business or athletics, or who have a demonstrated record of extraordinary achievement in the motion picture or television industry, and have been ‘recognised nationally or internationally for those achievements. Assistants/family members can also receive this type of visa.


Whilst not a visa, ESTA still comes with a strict set of conditions and limitations for use. Perhaps the most important condition is the 90-day trip limit that comes with the ESTA – under no circumstances can an ESTA holder spend longer than 90 days in the country in any one trip. Predominantly it is used for business and tourism purposes, but can also be used for studies (as we mentioned earlier), for medical procedures, and for transit. ESTA is valid for two years upon approval, during which time you can make multiple trips to the country (unless your passport expires at this time, in which case the ESTA becomes no longer valid).

Visa application

To apply for a visa, you should inform yourself in detail about the various options and requirements. This can be done in your nearest US embassy or consulate, which will have a website explaining your options. With respect to the actual application, this will also be done through an embassy or consulate, and will require an in-person interview at some point during the procedure. The whole process can take weeks, if not months, and so should be planned for well in advance.

ESTA application 

To apply for an ESTA, all you need to do is fill in an online form, where you will provide basic personal details and answer a range of security questions. The form takes around 10-15 minutes to complete and is filled out and submitted online. Once you have completed and paid the ESTA fee, you will receive an email within 24 hours informing you of the outcome of your application. As soon as you receive an approval confirmation, your ESTA is valid and you are able to travel to the United States.

It’s very important to mention that you cannot travel with ESTA initially and then apply for any of these visas once you have already arrived in the USA. Once you visit the United States with under the Visa Waiver Programme, you must not stay in the country for any more than 90 days. If you do want to apply for a visa, you must return to your home country and apply from there.

Finally, it is important to emphasize one thing that is common for all types of US visa and the ESTA. Essentially, these are all types of travel authorisation, whereby they allow a person to travel to a US port of entry. If you fly commercially from the UK to the USA, you will need some form of travel authorisation even just to board the plane. However, once you arrive in the country, regardless of the travel authorisation you are using, you will be met by a Border Patrol Officer, who will have the final say as to whether or not to let you in to the country. Of course, if you have valid travel authorisation, then there is little reason for the officer to have any suspicions, but travellers should still be prepared to answer a few questions about their travels upon arrival.

Make sure you know exactly what type of travel authorisation you need for your trip, and avoid any worries you may have when it comes to your travel documentation.

Have questions? Contact us via live chat near the bottom of the screen. We are happy to help. 

Need more information? Check out our complete and updated guide for ESTA in 2019


Travelling to the United States? Do you have your pre-planning checklist in order? Visit our ESTA Guide for more information about obtaining your travel permit. We'd love to hear from you. Send us your comments or questions for travel assistance.

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