How ESTA differs from a visa
If you are considering travel to the U.S.
Every visitor to the U.S. must obtain either ESTA or a visa. Applying for ESTA is recommended for those traveling to the U.S. for up to 90 days for sightseeing or a business trip. In January 2009, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) began requiring travelers to apply for the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA). ESTA is required for foreign nationals visiting the U.S. for up to 90 days for sightseeing or other purposes, and they must complete the ESTA application process prior to boarding their U.S.-bound flight or vessel. A visa, on the other hand, is required for stays of longer than 90 days. The visa system can be described as one intended for those vising the U.S. mainly for business purposes or to attend school. When deciding whether to apply for a visa or ESTA for travel to the U.S., you need first of all to make certain the period of time you intend to stay in the U.S. and the reason for your trip.
Cases in which applying for ESTA is appropriate when traveling to the U.S.
|1. When visiting for sightseeing purposes
(for up to 90 days)
|Individual travel, family travel, group travel, visiting homes of friends or relatives, volunteer activities, participation in events or contests without remuneration|
|2. When visiting on business
(for up to 90 days)
|Participation in business discussions or negotiations, attending meetings, attending educational, scientific, or other specialized conferences or events without remuneration|
|3. When transiting in the U.S. to a third country
(including temporary transit or transfer)
|When transiting at an airport in the U.S. to a third country|
Cases of traveling to the U.S. for ordinary sightseeing or short-term business travel can be described as cases in which applying for ESTA is appropriate before traveling to the United States. Also, since you must apply for ESTA even when staying in the U.S. for just a few hours or transiting in the U.S., be sure to apply for ESTA if traveling to a third country via the United States. One condition of applying for ESTA is that the applicant have a machine-readable passport with an IC chip. (At present, all passports issued in Japan have IC chips.) Also, when applying for ESTA your passport must be valid through the date you will leave the U.S., therefore be sure to check your passport’s expiration date and your planned period of travel. If you plan to travel to the U.S. for employment, study, or permanent residence, you must apply for a visa, not ESTA. You will need a visa, instead of ESTA, if you plan any paid labor or employment in the U.S. even if staying no longer than 90 days. Consider applying for a visa if you plan on staying in the U.S. for a long time.
Cases in which applying for a visa is appropriate when traveling to the U.S.
|1. When you want to stay in the U.S. for more than 90 days||You must apply for a visa (B2 visa) if you want to stay in the U.S. for more than 90 days, no matter what the reason.|
|2. When traveling to the U.S. for paid employment or long-term business purposes||You must apply for a visa (B1 visa) if you are traveling to the U.S. for employment or business purposes involving remuneration, even if not staying longer than 90 days.|
|3. When you plan to study in the U.S.||You need the designated visa if you plan to study for 18 hours or longer in a week, no matter how long you plan to be in the U.S.|
|4. When staying for a long period in connection with a specialized field, special skills, or an artistic field||Those planning to stay in the U.S. for a long period for purposes such as activities in specialized fields like education, science, history, or medicine, instruction in specialized skills, or entertainment or sports should consider applying for the designated visa.|
There are various types of visas for various purposes of travel to the United States. The period you may be permitted to stay in the U.S. varies with the type of visa. Since different types of visas for studying in the U.S. in particular involve numerous different periods of stay, we recommend applying for a visa suited to your own purposes of travel.
|F-1 visa||Accredited universities and high schools in the U.S., licensed language study in the U.S.|
|M-1 visa||Study at specialized schools and trade schools in the U.S.|
|J-1 visa||Cultural-exchange visits and study as exchange students at schools in the U.S.|
Staying in the U.S. for more than 90 days requires a B1 visa, or a B2 visa for a long-term visit for business purposes. B1 and B2 visas are referred to as “B visas,” and these probably could be the most common visas for the United States. Since B visas are available for a wide range of uses, they are relatively easy to obtain as long as the applicant has not committed a serious violation or crime in the past. Basically, obtaining a B visa permits one to stay in the U.S. for up to 180 days. However, a visa merely permits one to enter the U.S. and does not guarantee the period of stay. It will be decided by the immigration officer when one is entering the U.S., so please understand that the valid period of a visa does not necessarily equal the time you may stay in the country. While you may apply to extend your stay in the U.S. for another six months the longest if necessary after your period of stay has been decided, there must be a good reason for the extension. Since extending the period of stay for reasons of long-term sightseeing may be identified as a possible case of overstay, it is recommended that travelers plan their trips carefully before going to the United States.
The Visa Waiver Program and U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Act
Article 214 (b) of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Act states that every alien present in the United States or undergoing immigration screening shall be presumed to be an immigrant until he establishes to the satisfaction of consular or immigration officers that he or she is entitled to nonimmigrant status. This means that by definition all people with foreign nationality who enter the U.S. are deemed to be doing so with the intention of immigrating to the country. In light of this definition, the U.S. has adopted the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), under which nationals of certain countries are permitted to enter the U.S. without obtaining visas if they satisfy certain conditions. Since January 2009, obtaining ESTA has been required as one of the conditions of using the VWP. Applying for and obtaining ESTA enables smooth entry to the United States. The nature of ESTA differs from that of a visa in that ESTA is a system of authorization to travel to the United States. Even for those babies who do not require air tickets must have ESTA when traveling to the U.S., therefore remember to apply for ESTA for any babies traveling with you.
Cases ineligible to use the VWP
Not everybody in the world can use the Visa Waiver Program (VWP). Be forewarned that persons who meet the descriptions below may not use the VWP:
- Those who have committed serious violations or have criminal records overseas
- Those who have, or are being treated for, certain infectious diseases as specified by the U.S. government
- Those who have been deported from the U.S. in the past
- Those who have overstayed their time in the U.S. in the past
- Those with dual nationality in Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria, the Sudan, or North Korea
- Those who have entered or traveled to Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria, the Sudan, or North Korea since March 1, 2011
(Travel may be permitted in some cases following screening and an interview at a U.S. embassy.)
Persons who meet any of the descriptions above may not travel to the U.S. using the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) and ESTA. Since applications of such persons are likely to be rejected, they should consider applying for a visa to visit the U.S. instead of using ESTA.
ESTA and visa expiration dates
ESTA expires two years from the date it was authorized. However, unlike a passport there is no renewal system for ESTA. After the two-year period of validity of your ESTA expires, you must apply for ESTA again. However, there is no need to apply for ESTA again if you do not plan to visit the U.S. in the future. While ESTA is not an identification document, it is required when entering the U.S. When traveling to the U.S. for sightseeing or short-term business purposes, we recommend completing the ESTA application process at least three days before boarding your U.S.-bound flight. A visa, on the other hand, is valid for 10 years from the date of issue. While the visa remains valid even if your passport has expired during this 10-year period, in such a case you will need to show both the old and new passports when entering the U.S. To obtain a visa, you need to choose the visa suited to your purpose of travel, prepare the necessary documents and other materials, and undergo an interview at a U.S. embassy or consulate. Those who plan to travel to the U.S. frequently and satisfy certain conditions may be eligible for waiver of the interview when applying for a visa. Check with a U.S. embassy or consulate for details concerning visas.
The number of times you may enter the U.S.
There is no limit on the number of times you may enter the U.S. under either ESTA of a visa. However, if reentering the U.S. using ESTA soon after staying for nearly 90 days, you can expect to be questioned in detail by the immigration officer about the purpose of your visit. In such a case, you will need to demonstrate a valid reason for visiting the U.S., so be sure to prepare detailed documents showing where you will stay, your period of stay, and the date you plan to return to your home country. If you are not permitted entry under ESTA, the refusal of entry will be recorded, and you will be subject to stricter screening when traveling to the U.S. using ESTA in the future. Generally speaking, those who plan to visit the U.S. frequently and those staying for about 180 days in total during the year should consider applying for a visa instead of ESTA.
Be careful not to overstay your period of stay
Being in the U.S. unlawfully after the end of your authorized period of stay is referred to as overstaying. The U.S. is strict about overstaying, and even unintentional violations may be subject to fines or penalties. Those planning to stay for a period of nearly 90 days (the maximum stay under ESTA) in particular need to plan their travels carefully, because staying even one day over the 90-day limit is considered overstaying. Overstaying even once is a violation of the Immigration and Naturalization Act, subject not only to prohibition of entering the U.S. for a period of several years to 10 years in length but also, in some cases, to never being permitted to enter the country again. While there is little fear of overstaying when traveling to U.S. using ESTA for a short period or on a tour organized by a travel agent, if visiting the U.S. for several months using ESTA or planning to stay for almost half a year on a visa, take care to avoid staying in the U.S. longer than planned.
To avoid overstaying your period of stay
Cases of overstaying a period of stay in the U.S. by 180 or more days but less than one year are punishable by prohibition of travel to the U.S. for three years. Overstaying for one year or longer is punishable by prohibition of travel to the U.S. for 10 years. While cases of overstaying for less than 180 days are not penalized, a record of the overstay will be kept. Since an overstay can result in restrictions on travel not only to the U.S. but to other countries as well, those who travel abroad frequently need to plan their trips carefully. There have been cases in the past of overstays resulting from cancelled departure flights and unexpected strikes. While ESTA enables smooth entry to the U.S. and staying for 90 days or longer, travelers themselves are responsible for decisions on when to plan to leave the country. It is recommended that travelers plan to leave the U.S. at least one week prior to the end of their periods of stay, to avoid unforeseen difficulties.