What is the difference between ESTA and Visa?

ESTA is not a visa, although it is often referred to as one. ESTA stands for Electronic System for Travel Authorization under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP). There are 38 countries taking part of the VWP. Citizens of these countries may apply for an ESTA. The main difference between the ESTA and visa is that an ESTA can be obtained through an online form, while the US tourist visa must be obtained through an embassy or consulate.

If you are wondering if the ESTA is the same as a visa, the short answer is no. The electronic travel authorization, ESTA, was introduced in 2009 as a requirement for citizens of 38 visa exempt countries. If you are not a citizen of one of the 38 countries in the VWP, you are expected to apply for a U.S. visa. The visitor visa is a requirement to travel to the United States and must be obtained by following several steps.

A successful ESTA application means its holders are granted a two-year authorization to travel to the United States. Each visit should not be longer than 90 days. The ESTA also grants multiple entries to the country. The ESTA is valid for two consecutive years unless your passport expires. If your passport expires, the ESTA is no longer valid and you will need to apply online for a new ESTA with a renewed passport.

ESTA holders do not need to make a new application before each trip, as the travel authorization grants them the right to an unlimited number of trips. However, they must not overstay the 90-day period as this will have negative consequences on future ESTA or visa applications, as well as admission in the country.

Another difference between the visa and ESTA is that a visa is granted by an immigration official, while the ESTA application is processed electronically. When travelers apply for a visitor visa, they must go through an interview at an embassy or consulate.

A visa is a legal permit to enter the United States, which is required of all foreign citizens by law. Aliens who do not have a visa or any other legal authorization will not be allowed through the border control in the United States.

The two most common nonimmigrant visa types to the U.S. are:

  • B1 business visa (Click here for more information about B1 visa)
  • B2 tourist visa (Click here for more information about B2 visa)

Both of these visas might be granted for a period of 1 to 6 consecutive months or can be granted for up to 10 years, it depends on the case. However, unlike the ESTA, a visa cannot be renewed through an online application. The biggest difference between the ESTA and visa is that the visa application process requires more documentation as proof of the traveler’s intention to return to their country of origin, after visiting the U.S. As we mentioned earlier, applicants must go through a one-to-one interview at a local U.S. embassy or consulate, which will be the final step of their application.

Making an ESTA application is a significantly easier process. Citizens of any of the Visa Waiver countries should apply for an ESTA. Those who cannot participate in the Visa Waiver Program can apply for a B1 or a B2 visa.

The different requirements between ESTA and visa

The requirements to obtain an ESTA and a U.S. tourist visa or business visa have clear differences, with applicants for a visa having to provide more documents and follow more steps. The requirement they both have in common is to have a valid passport before they apply.

These are the requirements needed in order to obtain the U.S. ESTA:

  • Valid passport
  • Debit or credit card
  • Email address

To apply for the ESTA, the traveler needs a valid passport. When completing the ESTA online form, the applicant must provide their personal details and passport information. Applicants must also answer a series of security questions before paying for the ESTA fee with a debit or credit card. The email address is needed to receive information about the status of the ESTA. The applicant will be notified via email when their ESTA is approved.

To apply for a U.S. visitor visa, the applicant needs to meet the following requirements:

  • A completed DS 160 application form
  • A valid passport with six months validity beyond the planned stay in the U.S.
  • Receipt of the paid visa

To make the payment of the U.S. visa the applicant must go to a local bank with their printed DS 160 form. Once the visa has been paid for, the applicant will be able to schedule their appointment at the embassy or consulate. Some of the additional documents that a visa applicant must have include:

  • Passports that contain previous American visas, even if they have expired
  • Birth certificate (original or certified copy)
  • Voting card if you are over 18 years old
  • Economic proof (Ban account statements, tax documents)
  • Proof of education (University Diplomas, Professional Certificate)
  • Proof of employment (Payroll receipts, company credentials, letter from the Human Resources department)

The last step to obtain the U.S. visa is to pass the interview at the embassy or consulate. The visa applicant must take with them their printed DS 160 form, their passport, and all supporting documents. Applicants are advised to arrive on time and to leave at home all electronic devices, backpacks, lighters, etc. To enter the embassy, applicants must go through a metal detector and a security check.

As you can see, obtaining a visitor U.S. visa is a much more complex process and takes longer than the process of obtaining an ESTA. A big difference between the visa and the ESTA is that an ESTA can be obtained within minutes, whereas obtaining a visa can take several days. Before applying for an ESTA or a visa make sure you meet all the requirements.

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