Absolutely. While an ESTA may be occasionally referred to as a visa, it’s not technically a visa. ESTA is only a ‘travel authorization’ and is strictly related to an initiative of the United States government called the Visa Waiver Program (VWP). Intending travellers to the United States who are not from a Visa Waiver Country or are not authorised for an ESTA are required to obtain a visa before they can be admitted into the country.

If you find yourself in a situation where you would require a U.S. visa, an ESTA will not satisfy the legal or legislative requirements, so you must apply for a visa at a U.S. embassy or consulate office.

What are the differences between an ESTA and a visa?

Among the differences between ESTA and a visa are:

  • Only citizens of any of the 38 Visa Waiver Countries are eligible to apply for ESTA Travel Authorization, whereas citizens of all other countries can apply for a U.S. visa as long as they meet all necessary requirements.
  • With an ESTA, visitors to the U.S. are allowed entry into the country for transit, business, or tourism, however, a visa allows entry into the United States for a long list of purposes other than business, pleasure, or transit.
  • While ESTA application and authorization is an exclusively online process, you must visit a U.S. embassy or consulate in person to apply for a visa.
  • An ESTA permits visitors to stay in the United States for a maximum period of 90 days, whereas a B1 business visa or a B2 visitor visa may be issued for a stay lasting between one and six months.
  • An ESTA does not allow the user apply for an extension of stay, neither does it let the holder change their status to another immigrant or non-immigrant classification.
  • While an ESTA visa permits multiple entries for periods not exceeding 90 days over a two year period, a B1 business visa or a B2 business visa won’t permit multiple entries.
  • While an ESTA application may be approved almost instantly, the visa application and authorization process will take a much longer period.
  • An ESTA authorization only costs $14 to process while the cost of processing and applying for a visa is considerably higher.

Do I need to apply for an ESTA if I have a visa?

It is not necessary to apply for an ESTA if you have a valid travel visa.

Do I need to apply for a visa if I have an ESTA?

You don’t have to apply for a visa if you have a valid ESTA, unless you’re planning to stay in the United States for a period exceeding 90 days or wish to visit the country for a reason other than business or tourism.

I have neither a visa nor an ESTA, which should I apply for?

If you are not a citizen of a VWP country or do not meet the requirements for any other U.S. visa exemption policies, you must apply for a visa to be permitted to enter the United States. You may also need to apply for a visa if your application for ESTA authorization was not approved.

You should apply for an ESTA if your country of citizenship is one of the 38 VWP countries and if you do not intend to visit the U.S. for a purpose other than business or tourism for a period not exceeding 90 days.

What if I am a citizen of a VWP and a non-VWP country?

If you would prefer to enter the United States with an ESTA, then you must submit an application for ESTA authorization with your VWP passport. If you must use or prefer to use your passport from the non-VWP country, then you will have to apply for a visa at a US embassy or consulate because you will not be eligible for ESTA.

Meanwhile, even if you’re a citizen of a VWP country, you may no longer be considered for ESTA under the new modifications made to the VWP program. You will be unable to obtain ESTA authorization to enter the U.S. if:

  • You hold dual citizenship in Syria, Sudan, Iraq, and Iran.
  • You have made a trip to Yemen, Syria, Sudan, Somalia, Iraq, Iran, or Libya anytime since March 2011.

Do I need ESTA as a VWP citizen entering the U.S. from Canada or Mexico?

You don’t need ESTA authorization if you’re travelling by land.

Is it easier to secure an ESTA than a visa?

Well, that depends. Before now, you would only have been required to submit your passport at the US consular office if your ESTA visa expired. Now, you would have to go through the entire application process again.

With the recent modifications made to the system, the Visa Interview Waiver Program has been suspended and now demands that ESTA visa holders visit a US consular office for a physical interview with an officer whenever their ESTA visa expires.

Are there other visa categories?

There is a long list of other types of visa, however, they all fall under two broad classifications:

  • Immigrant or permanent residency visas

Permanent residency visas are issued to immigrants, giving them permission to stay in the United States permanently. The holder is issued a Green Card once the immigrant visa has been processed. With a Green Card, a holder will be a permanent U.S. resident with the right to live and work legally in the country and can become a citizen after 5 years or more from the date the Green Card was issued, if they are not married to a U.S. citizen. A Green Card holder does not need to apply for an ESTA as they are free to enter the United States anytime.

  • Non-immigrant or temporary visas

Temporary visas permit only temporary stay in the United State for reasons such as research, business, work, tourism, or studying.

Is an ESTA different from a visa?

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