Entering the USA – ESTA or Visa?

usa visa

What do you have to consider before entering the USA? As a German citizen you do not need a visa. You can enter visa free with ESTA. However, if you want to explore the United States longer, you can apply for a tourist visa. In the following I have briefly summarized the information that explains the difference between ESTA and the visa.

Current information on USA entry

U.S. President Donald Trump imposed entry bans on nationals from 6 Middle Eastern nations in January 2017 as one of his first official acts. It is quite conceivable that further restrictions on entry will follow.

A tightening of the security regulations is the questioning at the airport in Germany before entering the country. These changes were introduced in October 2017. This will increase the check-in time at the counter and you should be there much earlier than before for flights to the USA, preferably 3 hours before.

Before departure, be sure to check the website of the German Foreign Office and the U.S. Embassy. You can find the links at the end of this article.

Apply for a tourist visa or ESTA?

If you want to enter the USA as a tourist, then either visa-free with ESTA or with a tourist visa. There are other visas. These differ in visas for immigration and non-immigration. For vacationers, travelers and tourists, however, they do not come into consideration.

Therefore, as a potential visitor to the USA, you should concentrate on the central question: ESTA or tourist visa. Without one of these options, travelers to the U.S. will not be allowed on board the plane.

USA Entry with ESTA for up to 3 months

For most German vacationers, tourists and world travelers to the USA the visa free entry with the "Visa Waiver" program might be appropriate. This is what is called ESTA or in long form: "Electronic System for Travel Authorization". The information is stored electronically and is transmitted by the U.S. authorities on the airline.

With the application you don't get a visa, but an electronic entry permit. With this, the US Department of Homeland and Security grants permission to board the flight to the USA.

There are many reasons for ESTA: If you want to travel in the USA for less than 3 months, ESTA is the right choice for you. ESTA is much easier and cheaper: you fill out a short application online and pay 14 US dollars. The entire process is done completely online and takes a maximum of half an hour. This is fast and easy. And can also be applied for at short notice shortly before departure.

After 3 days you will receive your confirmation online. You can log in to the website and check your status there.

Visa free entry is the right thing for you if you can answer yes to these questions:

  • you want to stay up to 90 days in the USA
  • You have a valid flight ticket out of the USA within these 90 days, which does not end in Mexico or Canada

A special case, especially important for people traveling around the world: if you are traveling overland from Mexico or Canada, you can apply for ESTA without a valid return ticket.

There are further restrictions for entry via ESTA. For example, if you were in Iran or Iraq after 2011. The German Foreign Office has summarized the entry requirements here:

Tip: If your case is not easy to answer or you are not sure: call the US Embassy and describe your situation.

You can apply for ESTA here on the official site.

USA entry with tourist visa B-1/B-2 for up to 6 months

Tourist visaB-1/B-2 is a combined business and visitor visa. The two visas B-1 for business travel and B-2 for visitors (which includes tourist travel to America) are not issued separately from each other. You should only think in advance exactly why you want the visa and how you justify this. Because that is what is asked for.

You are eligible for the visa for the United States if you can answer "no" to at least one of the above questions at ESTA. For example because your road trip leads across the USA to Canada. Or because you are traveling around the world and have not booked a return flight. In this case you should apply for the B-1/B-2 visa.

The tourist visa for the USA currently costs 128 EUR. Plus the travel costs to the interview at the consulate. And you have to take the time off for the interview at the consulate. This is clearly stated in the visa guidelines: you are seen as a potential immigrant and must prove that you are not. You should have good reasons for not staying permanently in the USA. As long as you have a residence and job in Germany, this is not a problem. If you are permanently traveling around the world, you should make a good case for it.

If you want to know how to apply for the visa, please read my article on how to apply for a visa to the USA.

ESTA and visa comparison

I have compiled relevant decision criteria in a table here again. I think it will be clear that ESTA is the much easier option.

ESTA Tourist visa
Duration of stay up to 3 months up to 6 months
Costs 14 USD / approx. 14 EUR 128 EUR
Application time 1-3 days 3-5 weeks
Interview in US Consulate no yes
Expenditure low medium to high
Questions about your income situation no yes

Conclusion: USA Entry

The clear winner in all categories is ESTA. For most vacations and trips to the USA, ESTA is the cheaper and easier option. Only if your trip has XXXXL format, you should consider the tourist visa.

I myself would avoid applying for the visa for the United States of America, if possible. Because the effort is high, as well as the costs. Honestly: it is not worth it in most cases.

I myself have successfully applied for the B-1/B-2 visa. How that went and what experiences I had with it, I will describe in the next article. If you also think about it, read the next article. Here you can read about my experiences applying for a tourist visa for the USA

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