Applying for a visa is the component of travel planning that is often the least fun.
For UK citizens who haven’t travelled outside of Europe before, or just haven’t had to worry about visas before, it can be overwhelming and confusing.
Even for people who travel a lot and are familiar with many visa processes, travel bureaucracy can get tiring very quickly. It can start to feel like banging your head against a brick wall.
Travel to the USA from the UK is no exception.
There is a lot of confusion surrounding the US visa for UK citizens.
But, luckily for UK citizens, travel to the US doesn’t necessarily require a time consuming visa application process.
Many travellers don’t realize that a visa for the USA from the UK isn’t always necessary and that they are exempt from standard visa requirements under the Visa waiver program.
The Electronic System for Travel Authorization, known as ESTA, allows for a quick and easy online application, authorizing your travel to the U.S. without requiring an official visa, provided you fulfill certain requirements.
This guide will introduce you to ESTA and then go into more detail about the cases where you may actually need a visa if the ESTA isn’t enough.
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The visa waiver program allows citizens of 39 countries, including the UK, to enter the USA for up to 90 days for business, transit or travel without a visa, provided they arrive via air or sea. Instead of a visa, citizens of these countries are instead required to obtain an ESTA, or Electronic System for Travel Authorization.
Established in 2009, the ESTA isn’t actually a visa, but it can be thought of as a quicker and more simple version of a visa. It has made travel to the USA from the UK much easier and means that a visit to the USA from the UK doesn’t necessarily need to include a lengthy visa process.
So, if you are looking for a visa to the USA from the UK for a holiday, and your trip will be less than 90 days, you may not need to apply for a US tourist visa from the UK!
Instead, with the ESTA, you are free to travel in the US (provided you aren’t studying or working) for up to 90 days. All you need to do is complete the simple online application and pay the fee.
Read on to find out if you comply with the criteria for traveling to the USA with the ESTA.
Requirements for the ESTA
Unfortunately, being a citizen of a country within the Visa Waiver Program like the UK does not automatically entitle you to an ESTA. There are a few other requirements that you need to fulfill in order to be issued with an ESTA.
Requirements of the ESTA include:
- Having an e-passport (this means that it is machine readable and contains an electronic chip which holds your personal information).
- Having a passport which is valid at the time of application and for the duration of your stay in the USA.
- Holding proof of onward travel, either a return ticket home or a flight to another country.
- Being in the country for 90 days or less.
- Not working or studying while in the country (this includes working for the foreign press, journalism and competing in professional sports).
- Traveling via plane or ship to the USA. (Overland visitors to the USA from countries in the Visa Waiver Program don’t require an ESTA but do need to fill out a I-94W form.)
If you comply with all of these requirements you can go right ahead and apply for the ESTA without having to go through the visa application process.
If you don’t meet all of the requirements above, you will need to apply for a visa, even if you will only be visiting the states for 90 days or less.
How to Apply for ESTA from the UK
The ESTA can be easily applied for online. All you need are your passport and a valid credit or debit card for the payment. Currently, the U.S. Government fee for each new ESTA application is USD 14. Depending on which website you apply though, there may be a handling fee that is additional to this.
The ESTA application form asks for basic personal information including your name and contact details, your parents’ names, your passport details and your date of birth. It then asks about any criminal offences and citizenships with other countries that aren’t in the Visa Waiver Program.
Finally, it asks for information surrounding your trip to the USA, including where you will stay (you will need to provide the address of where you will be staying when you arrive), your reasons for traveling, and whether you will be earning money in any way while in the country. It may also request your most recent employment information.
Assuming you are eligible for the ESTA, it needs to be applied for and received before boarding the plane or ship that will take you to the USA.
The application for your ESTA is quick to complete, usually only taking around 5 minutes. Confirmation of your ESTA, if approved, it usually received within 20 minutes, although the Government website recommends that you apply 72 hours prior to departure to be safe.
You do not want to get pulled up at check-in without having an ESTA and have to apply frantically on an airport computer before you can go through security.
You will be sent an email with a reference number confirming your approval to travel to the USA. Though you may not need to show this when you check in, as the airline should already have the information automatically, you should have it on hand just in case.
Once received, the ESTA is then valid for two years and can be used for multiple entries, unless your passport expires before the two years are up. In that case, your ESTA will expire along with your passport and you will need to make a new ESTA application.
If you have applied for an ESTA in the past and are not sure if it still valid, you can check the status of your ESTA to save applying again. Note that having had an ESTA in the past is no guarantee of getting it again. It can be revoked at any time at the discretion of US immigration.
Reasons You Might be Denied an ESTA
When you are applying for your ESTA, it is extremely important that all information is true and accurate, and that it is entered into the application correctly. One of the most common reasons for an ESTA being denied is a mistake in the application process.
Double check that everything is spelled correctly, and be extra certain that the way you have written your name matches how it is written in your passport. For example, if your middle name is written on your passport, you need to include your middle name on your ESTA application.
Other reasons for your ESTA being denied include:
- Having previously been denied entry to the USA.
- Having previously been deported from the USA.
- Having been arrested.
- Having a criminal record.
- Having previously overstayed a visa or ESTA.
- Having certain communicable diseases.
- Having travelled through certain countries in recent years.
- Having dual citizenship with certain countries.
If you apply for an ESTA but are denied, you don’t have to give up hope. You are still allowed to apply for the B1 Business visa or B2 Tourist visa. You can find more information about these visas in the following sections.
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ESTA versus Visa
As mentioned earlier, the ESTA is not actually a visa. This means that aside from not meeting the requirements above, there are cases when a visa will still be required, even if you are from a country in the Visa Waiver Program.
For example, if you are traveling to the US for reasons other than business, transit or travel, you will need a visa. These other reasons could include studying towards a higher qualification (such as a university degree, internship or vocational qualification) or working in any kind of paid work. This includes participating in professional sporting events, journalism, or participating in a paid performance of any kind.
If you are planning to enter the country for more than 90 days, regardless of the reason, you will also need a visa, as the ESTA is only valid for visits up to 90 days.
Read on to find out if you need to apply for a US visa from the UK.
Types of US Visas for UK Citizens
The main visa types available for UK citizens traveling to the USA who do not fulfill the requirements for an ESTA are variations of temporary work or study visas. There is, of course, the chance that you are going to be a tourist, visiting family and friends or receiving medical treatment for more than three months. In this case, you’ll require a UK tourist visa for the USA.
The list of possible non-immigrant visa types to the USA is as follows.
B-2 - Tourism and Medical Treatment
This visa is for people traveling to the USA for enjoyment, visiting friends, travel or receiving medical treatment if the visit will last longer than 90 days or you are ineligible for the ESTA. If you need to apply for a tourist visa for the USA from the UK, this is the visa you will need.
B-1 - Business meetings and Conferences
This visa is for UK citizens traveling to the USA for consultations, meetings, negotiations, litigations and conventions of a business nature, if the trip will last longer than 90 days or you are ineligible for the ESTA.
E-1 or E-2 Investor Visas
These visas are for UK citizens who will be negotiating investments and trade deals in the USA.
F-1 Student Visa, M-1 Vocational Visa or J1 Exchange Visitor Visa
These visas are for UK citizens who wish to complete a course of study in the USA that will be contributing to a higher qualification. The F-1 Student visa is typically for academic study for a semester or more at a university institution. The M-1 visa is for vocational study, while the J1 visa is appropriate for people taking part in a pre-arranged program that has been organized by an approved institution. This program could involve study, training or paid work.
Non-Immigrant Work Visas
Applying for a temporary work visa for the USA from the UK, is, unfortunately, not an easy process. Unlike other countries, the US Government does not issue temporary work visas for casual employment, unless you have already been offered employment by a US employer.
Once you have been offered employment, your potential employer is required to take part in your visa application (in the form of a petition), and there is still no guarantee that you will actually get a visa.
Once you have received an offer of employment, the possible non-immigrant work visas that are available for you to apply for are:
H-1B Visa - Specialty Occupation
This visa is for those who hold a Bachelor’s, or higher, degree in a specialty occupation and have received an offer of employment in that specialty.
H-2B Visa - Skilled and Unskilled Worker
This visa is for temporary or seasonal workers needed for roles which currently have a shortage of US workers.
H-3 Visa - Trainee
This visa allows visitors to the US to receive training from an employer provided it is non-medical in nature and of a form that is not available in their home country.
L-1 Visa - Intra-Company Transfer
This visa is for employees of international companies which have branches in the US and who have received a transfer to that branch. To be eligible, you must have been employed by the same company outside of the US for at least 1 year within the 3 year period prior to the transfer.
0-1/0-2 Visa - Persons with Extraordinary Ability, Members of the Entertainment Profession, Athletes, Artists, Entertainers & Support Personnel
This visa is available for individuals with extraordinary abilities to enable them to take part in a single event such as a tour or performances or lectures. The 0-1 visa is for the individual parking in the performances while the 0-2 visa is for essential support personnel.
P-1/P-2/P-3 Visa - Athletes, Entertainers, Artists & Essential Support Personnel
The P-1 visa allows for individual athletes, teams and groups of the entertainment industry to enter the USA. The P-2 visa is specific to reciprocal exchange programs while the P-3 visa is specific to unique cultural programs.
Q-1 Visa - International Cultural Exchange
This visa is for cultural exchange programs involving practical training and employment, that take place in a location or institution where the public will be exposed to foreign culture through a structured program.
R-1 Visa - Religious Ministers or Workers
This visa allows for members of religious denominations that are recognized in the US to carry out work in a professional capacity.
Work Options for Young People
Unlike Canada, Australia and New Zealand, the USA also doesn’t offer a working holiday visa for young people. But, if you are between 18 and 26, there are some options that are a little easier than the work visas above.
For example, the J-1 visa allows young people from the UK to work for up to 12 months as an Au Pair. It is considered an exchange rather than a job, so you won’t be paid on an hourly basis, but you receive food, board and an allowance.
Another common way to work in the US on the J-1 Exchange visa is as a Camp Counsellor at a summer camp. Similar to the Au Pair role, you don’t receive an hourly wage but you do receive food, board and an allowance that is generally enough to travel on for a while after your position finishes.
Other options include the Summer Work Travel Program which is available to university students in their summer holidays, the Intern Program, and other exchange programs for specific professions such as teaching and research.
How to Apply for a US Visa from the UK
If, after reading through the visas above, you think you may need to apply for a US visa from the UK, this can be done directly through the US Embassy in London or the Consulate General in Belfast, depending on where in the UK you are located.
Applying for a US visa in the UK isn’t too complicated provided you give yourself plenty of time and follow the instructions of the visa application process.
Usually, one application is required per person traveling to the US.
If you are aged 14-79, you will be required to apply for the US visa from the UK in person at the embassy for an interview. This will require making an appointment for an interview, at which you will need to bring your appointment confirmation and completed application form (DS-160).
It is then expected that you will need to spend between two and three hours at the embassy. Your passport remains with your application while it is processed and is then couriered back to you, usually within one working week.
A US visa application from the UK requires certain documents. They will differ depending on the visa you are applying for, but all applications all require:
- A valid passport.
- A passport sized photograph of yourself that is less than six months old.
- A printed, completed copy of the application form for your selected visa type.
- Documentation of any previously attained US visas (for example in an old passport).
- Proof of funds to cover the duration of your stay in the US.
- Appointment confirmation.
Once you have attended your interview and been provided with your visa, there is still no absolute guarantee that you will be allowed to enter the US. The final call is made by the US Immigration official who reviews your documents on arrival in the US.
Hopefully, this article has answered your questions surrounding the ESTA and US travel visas for UK citizens. If not, read on for the FAQs.
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1.What is an ESTA?
ESTA stands for Electronic System for Travel Authorization and is a simpler alternative to a visa for visitors to the USA who are citizens of countries within the Visa Waiver Program. It allows people from certain countries, including the UK, to enter the USA without needing a visa, provided you and your trip fulfil certain criteria.
2.Is an ESTA a Visa?
No, an ESTA is not a visa, it is a way of allowing people to travel to the USA without a visa. But it will ask some similar questions to a visa, it is just much quicker and simpler.
3.Can I get an ESTA if I am a resident of the UK?
If you are a resident of the UK and citizen of another country within the Visa Waiver Program, then you can get an ESTA using your passport of that other member country. However, if you are a resident of the UK but citizen of a country not in the ESTA program, then you will need to apply for visa.
4.Do I need a visa for the USA from the UK?
This depends on whether you are a citizen of the UK or just a resident, how long your trip is for and the reason for your trip. If you are not a citizen of a country in the Visa Waiver Program then you will need a visa. If your trip is more than more 90 days or you will be participating in paid work or studying, then you will need a visa.
5.What countries are in the Visa Waiver Program?
6.Does a UK citizen need a visa for the USA
If your trip is under 90 days and you are not going to the USA to work or study, then citizens of the UK do not to visas for the USA. This is what the ESTA is for.
7.How to apply for a US visa from the UK
Refer to the information above under subheading “Apply for a US Visa from the UK”. You will need to fill out the application forms and attend an interview at the US Embassy in London.
8.ESTA vs Visa - What is the difference?
An ESTA is an alternative to a visa, that makes travel for citizens of Visa Waiver countries, quicker, cheaper and easier through not requiring a visa, provided the trip is for less than 90 days and is not for work or study. Visas need to applied for if your trip will be for longer than 90 days and/or you will be working or studying. The type of visa you need will be decided by the purpose of your trip. For example, if you will be studying, you will most likely need a F-1 Student Visa. Refer to the section above titled “US Visa for UK Citizens” for more information.
9.How to get a tourist visa for the USA from the UK
You will need to apply for a B2 - Tourism and Medical treatment visa from the US Embassy in London or the Consulate in Dublin depending on where in the UK you live. You will need to complete an application form and then attend an interview.
10.Student visa for USA from UK?
There are 3 different visas designed for different types of study in the USA. You will need to either apply for the F-1 Student Visa, M-1 Vocational Visa, or J-1 Exchange Visitor Visa. These all need to be applied for through the US Embassy in London or the Consulate in Dublin.
11.What about working visa?
Unless you are looking to emigrate to the USA, you will require a non-immigrant work visa. However, this is difficult to get as it generally depends on receiving an offer of employment from a US employer who will sponsor your visa application. The US Government does not offer temporary work visas for casual employment. If you have received offer of employment, your prospective employer is required to file a petition with the US Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS). There are 8 possible non-immigrant work visas that can be applied for. Refer to the section above titled “Non-immigrant work visas” for more information.
12.What about if you travel from the UK but are not a UK citizen?
Unfortunately the ESTA is only for citizens for countries in the Visa Waiver Program. Traveling from the UK is not enough if you are not a citizen. You will still need to apply for a visa. This also includes residents of the UK who are not citizens. Even if you live in the UK with a different title, for example a British Overseas Citizen, you are not eligible for the ESTA and will need to apply for a visa.
13.How secure is my information when applying for ESTA?
At usaestaonline.com, your information is secured in every possible way using the latest encryption technology. US ESTA Online and the US Government do not release any personal information to third parties, unless in case of a serious security risk or in order to protect your safety.
14.How secure are my credit card details when applying for ESTA?
In the same way as above, US ESTA Online uses the latest encryption technology to ensure that your credit card details are safe and protected from third parties.
That concludes this guide on the ins and outs of ESTAs and Visas to the USA from the UK. I hope you found what you’re looking for and now know exactly what you need to do in preparation for your US trip!