It could be the career break of a lifetime… or it could be an embarrassing wait at an airport while an immigration official checks over your paperwork.
You don’t want to get the wrong sort of visa when you visit the USA. Especially if you’re travelling for work.
If you’re travelling from the UK to the US on business, this article will explain if you need a visa or not, and how the application process works, so that you can travel across the pond with confidence.
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As you might expect, the US has a variety of different visas for different types of visitor to the country. As well as business visas, there are student visas, work visas, tourism visas, and so on.
Business visas are a type of Visitor Visa - a category, given the letter B, that also includes tourism visas. Business visas specifically are category B-1. They’re for short visits to the country, rather than anything longer-term¹.
British citizens, though, might not need a B-1 visa for short business trips. The UK is one of the countries whose citizens are often eligible to travel to the US under the terms of the Visa Waiver Program (VWP)². However, that doesn’t mean you can just rock up to the airport - you’ll still need to prepare carefully. There’s more information on this below.
The name “Business Visa” sounds quite broad, as indeed it is. But you need to remember that it doesn’t cover actual employment in the US: if you want to actually work in the US, rather than simply attend some meetings or conferences, you need to be travelling there on an Employment Visa³. And if you’re starting your own business in the US, you might need something like a Treaty Investor Visa (E-2) ⁴.
How long your B-1 Business Visa is valid for depends on how long it’ll take you to carry out your business in the US - it’ll be determined during the application process. Generally speaking, visas are valid for between 1 and 6 months. But if your business demands it, you could be able to stay for up to around a year⁵.
Travelling via the Visa Waiver Program, you’ll only have 90 days. If that’s not enough, travel on a visa - you’re allowed to apply for a visa even if you’re eligible for the VWP².
With some more paperwork, you might be able to get an extension on your visa. The form you’ll need to complete is called I-539. You’ll need to submit some documents with it⁵⁺⁶.
But if you’re on the Visa Waiver Program, you can’t extend your stay beyond the 90 days you get - you’ll have to leave the country²⁺⁶.
The application process can be a little complex. Before going through it step by step, here are the eligibility requirements for both the B-1 Business Visa and the Visa Waiver Program.
The B-1 visa is for you if⁵:
- You’re going to the US to conduct legitimate business
- You’re staying for a limited time period that you can specify
- You have enough money to pay for the trip
- You live abroad and aren’t planning to abandon your home there, and you have other “binding ties” to your country of residence
- You're “otherwise admissible” to the US - there’s nothing else impeding your application.
Needless to say, you have to be able to prove all that.
You should also note that this visa doesn’t cover work for foreign media. So if your trip is to work for a foreign newspaper, for instance, you’ll need a different visa type⁹.
The Visa Waiver Program is an option if²:
- You’re from one of the eligible countries. Check the list - it includes the UK, Ireland, France and Germany
- Your travel would be permitted on a Visitor Visa (type B). Check the list above to see if you meet the B-1 criteria. Type B also includes tourism
- You have a valid ESTA. That’s right - you may not need a visa, but you do still need some valid paperwork. This is explained below.
- You have a passport valid for at least 6 months more than the duration of your trip.
- Your passport has to be an e-passport¹⁴.
What’s an ESTA? Well, it stands for Electronic System for Travel Authorization. Effectively, it’s a document that proves you don’t need a visa to enter the US. You need one if you want to travel via the VWP⁷.
Is it ironic that you need one sort of document to prove that you don’t need another sort of document? Yes, a little bit. Think of the ESTA as a sort of mini-visa.
There are various documents you’ll need to show, whatever you’re applying for. They’re summarised in the table below.
For a B-1 visa, you’ll need to fill out form DS-160 as part of your application process. Later, you’ll need to attend an interview. You can find a complete summary of the process in the next section.
|ESTA⁷, DS-160⁸, visa interview⁹||Passport|| |
|ESTA⁷, DS-160⁸||Contact information|| |
|ESTA⁷, DS-160⁸||Employment information|| |
|DS-160⁸||Travel itinerary|| |
|DS-160⁸||Dates of your last 5 US visits|| |
|DS-160⁸ / visa interview⁹||Photo|| |
|Visa interview⁹||DS-160 confirmation page|| |
|Visa interview⁹||Application fee payment receipt|| |
|Visa interview¹⁰||Any previously issued US visas|| |
|Visa interview⁹||Digital fingerprint|| |
|DS-160⁸, visa interview⁹||“Other Information”|| |
Here’s an overview of the steps you’ll need to go through if you need to travel from the UK to the US on business.
- Work out what to apply for. If your trip is definitely going to be less than 90 days and you have no intention of staying longer than that, the best option is to go for the Visa Waiver Program². Otherwise, you’ll need a Visitor Visa B-1, or B-1/B-2 if you’re also going to be there as a tourist⁹.
- Assemble your documents. Check the list above and get everything ready.
- Fill out your forms online. Regardless of whether you’re applying for a visa or an ESTA⁷ (which you need for the Visa Waiver Program), you can begin the application process online. The form to start your visa application is the DS-160⁸.
- Pay your fees. The cost of a visa or ESTA is outlined below. Make sure you pay up.
- Schedule and attend an interview. Everyone aged between 14 and 79 will usually need to be interviewed before a visa is issued⁹. The interview will be at the US Embassy in London or the Consulate in Belfast, so you might need to make a trip¹³.
The process as a whole can take a while, but the exact time depends on numerous specifics.
If you’re applying for an ESTA before travelling via the Visa Waiver Program, you mustn’t leave it any later than 72 hours before your trip begins. If you think you have a previously used ESTA that is still valid, make sure you check that well in advance too, just in case¹⁵.
If you’re applying for a Visitor Visa, the wait time for an interview in London is estimated at 3 days. In Belfast, however, the estimated wait time is 14 days. The waiting time for an interview can fluctuate, depending on how busy the Embassy or Consulate is, so be sure to check the up-to-date wait time in advance⁹.
In either case, you’ll need to wait 3-5 days after the interview for your application to be processed, and you should also allow a further 2 working days, at least, for the embassy or consulate to return your passport. Any complications in your application may of course delay the process¹⁴.
In sum, it’s worth applying as early as you possibly can.
Whether you’re going to travel via the Visa Waiver Program or on a visa, there will be fees to pay.
A successful ESTA application will cost you the grand sum of USD 14. You can pay with major credit/debit cards or PayPal¹⁵.
A Business Visa application, on the other hand, will likely cost USD 160 ⁹. There’s sometimes a visa issuance fee as well, depending on your nationality, but not for UK citizens applying for this sort of visa¹¹.
Paying this fee might be the first of many international money transfers you need to make, as details of your trip fall into place. Unless you have a US bank account, these international payments could end up getting costly. That’s why it’s worth considering TransferWise, which can handle international payments at the real mid-market rate, with none of the hefty markup you usually get when sending money overseas.
A borderless multi-currency account with TransferWise might be even more useful, as it gives you virtual US account details, so you can even receive money like a local in the US without having a US bank account. Plus, UK customers can get a debit Mastercard, making international payments even easier still. All for no monthly fee.
But first things first - good luck with your visa (or ESTA) application, and keep your eyes on the prize of that fabulous American trip.
Sources used for this article:
*All sources checked on March 11, 2019
This publication is provided for general information purposes only and is not intended to cover every aspect of the topics with which it deals. It is not intended to amount to advice on which you should rely. You must obtain professional or specialist advice before taking, or refraining from, any action on the basis of the content in this publication. The information in this publication does not constitute legal, tax or other professional advice from TransferWise Limited or its affiliates. Prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome. We make no representations, warranties or guarantees, whether express or implied, that the content in the publication is accurate, complete or up to date.
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