US Visitor’s Immigration Guide: Applying for your B Visa or Visa Waiver Entry to the US

Welcome to those of you planning to travel to the US!!

Maybe for the first time? Maybe not? (Or maybe you're helping someone come to the US for a visit.) Here is a guide that will help new US visitors, or even veteran visitors who feel that Immigration Officers act like you’re wearing out your welcome.

Most travelers who are not U.S. Citizens or Permanent Residents will get questions from an Immigration Officer about their intent. The common question is as simple as “why are you coming here?” While it may seem simple enough, that question can sometimes lead to detailed follow-up questions, possible delays, or even a denial of entry to the U.S.

If you come to the US as a visitor, you must prove that you only intend to come to the US on a temporary basis. And the temporary nature of your visit could come under scrutiny by an Immigration Officer.

Visitors come to the U.S. in either

·         B-1 Status for Business Visitors (marked WB in passports for visa waivers)

·         B-2 Status for Tourists (marked WT in passports for visa waivers)

Immigration, Customs, and Visa Officers have been increasingly strict about admitting visitors in the past two or three years. Officers are going to deny anyone who has “immigrant” intent, as opposed to “non-immigrant.” Notice that the term “immigrant” basically means permanent. Officers want to ensure that you don’t “overstay” the expiration of your status in the U.S. and instead try to stay here long-term. Officers will also be concerned that you intend to work without authorization in the US.

** A quick note: If you are from a visa waiver country, you do not have to apply for a visa prior to traveling to the US. But as a visa waiver traveler, you can still be denied any time you attempt to enter the US. That can make for a very unpleasant experience after waiting in the customs line at the US airport. Because denial can mean a costly flight back home, it is important to have good documentation with you.

So, how do I show my trip is temporary?

You will want to show an Immigration Officer evidence proving your stay is temporary, which makes you eligible as a visitor. You should put together a packet of documents showing that your intent is temporary. (Read below for more information on what activities might be considered “temporary,” which can help you in answering questions and developing your evidence.)

Documents showing you plan to return home can be the best evidence to prove temporary, “non-immigrant” intent. Here are many examples of common evidence that will be persuasive to convince an Immigration Officer that you are eligible as a temporary visitor to the US.

Strong evidence showing that you will “return home:”

·         Employment outside the US: This is one of the best ways to show you plan to leave the US after your visit. If you are employed outside the US, get a couple recent paystubs, and, ideally, a letter from your employer saying that you are expected to return to work. Employment contracts may also be helpful.

·         Home outside the US: Rental or purchase agreements, mortgage statements, or utility bills can establish that you maintain a residence outside the US.

Other good “return home” documents:

·         Banking outside the US: Holding “foreign” accounts is evidence of your intent to keep a life outside the US. A couple bank statements may be helpful, particularly when your statement shows a lot of activity in your country of residence.

·         Family outside the US: Show that you have parents, siblings or other close relatives outside the US. Get a utility bill or some other document showing their name and address, as well as birth certificate(s) or marriage certificate(s) showing that you are family.

Documents showing your specific plans:

·         Airline tickets: Having a return ticket showing the date you intend to leave the US is strong evidence.

·         Itinerary: Write out a list of things you plan to do in the US and the dates you plan to do them. The more detail the better.

·         Invitation letter: If you are visiting a relative, friend, school, potential employer, or for short conference or business meeting, get a letter from your US connection confirming your dates of travel, where you will stay, etc.

Documents about your activities in the US:

·         Tourist?? Bring some brochures. Visiting the Grand Canyon? Graceland? The Smithsonian? Bring some tri-folds or internet printouts about your favorite attractions. (Grand Canyon fans, for example, it won’t hurt if you and the Immigration Officer might just happen to both be avid hikers, photographers, armchair geologists, or what have you.)

·         Businessperson?? Bring conference brochures, meeting agendas, sales ledgers, and other business documents. It will also help to bring documentation about the company you work for: an annual report, website printout, P&L statement, or whatever that shows you are advancing international business coordination.

The longer your stay, the more chances of denial, and the more quality documents you will need. If you’re only here to visit Las Vegas for a week, your hotel reservations, your return tickets, and your unbridled enthusiasm may be enough to convince an Immigration Officer: if you’re willing to take a gamble with reasonable odds.

Your planned activities in the U.S. may also have an impact on whether an Immigration Officer views your visit as “temporary.”

What is considered temporary?

Temporary visitor status can be for trips ranging from a couple days to couple weeks to over a year. An Immigration Officer may grant up to six months of status at a time. You can get extensions over six months, but proving your visit is temporary gets harder the longer you stay here.

Immigration Officers will ask about your activities to determine whether your stay is temporary. What you do while you’re here says a lot about your intent. Some activities are okay for visitors, some are not.

Some of main activities for visitors include:

“Tourist Visitor” (B-2/WT) Activities

·         Tourism – Nature lovers to see the Grand Canyon, Culture buffs to visit the Smithsonian, Elvis fans to see Graceland, you get the idea.

·         Amateur artists and entertainers – You can come to open mic, unless you’re a professional who normally gets paid, even if you don’t get paid in the US

·         Visiting family and friends – You can come to visit your friends and family, but Immigration Officers may be suspicious of visitors with US-based family, particularly immediate relatives. Citizen or Permanent Resident immediate relatives can sponsor you for Permanent Residence, and visitors are supposed to be temporary. That said, you have the right to visit family, including a U.S. Citizen spouse or fiancé. However, spouses or fiancé’s of US citizen may have a hard time proving their “non-immigrant” intent. Consult an immigration attorney. [Legal cite: 9 FAM § 402.2-4(B)]

·         Medical – people seeking healthcare may be classified as B visitors, though Immigration Officials will be concerned about you not being able to leave – serious illness may require “humanitarian parole.”

“Business Visitor” (B-1/WD) Activities

·         Conferences – Academic conventions, professional conferences, trade shows, etc. – Your attendance is fine, and B-1 visitors can be presenters – include the conference brochure/itinerary in your packet.

·         Business meetings, consultations, and negotiations – You can attend limited meetings if you are a board member, consultant, salesperson for a foreign interest, or otherwise engaged in multi-national business negotiations or coordinating a multinational business venture. You cannot engage in any activities, including managerial activities, that could be seen as a regular part of operations for a US business.

·         Seeking or readying for authorized employment – You can come to the US to seek employment sponsorship or to prepare for future employment. So, if your H-1B is approved for the upcoming October, and you need to seek a house or apartment before you start work, you can come as a B visitor. You can also come, for instance, to interview with US employers who might sponsor you.

·         SOMETIMES OKAY ACTIVITIES: There are a number of activities that can be allowed under a B visa, but only in very limited circumstances. Consult an immigration attorney if you are interested in coming to the US in one of these roles: Professional athletes, investors, certain artists and musicians, volunteer program participants, religious ministers or workers, domestic workers of families temporarily in the US, short-term employees of international traveling shows, maritime crew and officers, very short-term clerkships or training (on many of these, typically stays of more than a few days, maybe a couple weeks, will require a different status).

Activities that are NOT appropriate for visitors include:

·         Working for compensation: You cannot provide services in exchange for compensation, with some exceptions like limited honorariums for speakers. Volunteering might be okay, but be careful. You cannot engage in activities that would normally be paid.

·         Pursuing Permanent Residence: You cannot have had the intent to seek Permanent Residence when you first enter the US. Attempts to obtain Permanent Residence can violate your visitor’s status. That said, true love, magic business ventures, and sensible career moves sometimes come unexpectedly. Contact an immigration attorney if your plans have changed since you arrived.

·         Overstaying your expiration date: Immigration Officers are very concerned about visitors who overstay their B visitor’s status. Overstaying may make you ineligible for future entry, and you will also be deportable. You should check your expiration date on your I-94, see below, to make sure you know your status expiration date.

Got it, what’s my next step?

There are two routes to come to the US as a visitor, depending on your home country.

1. Visa Waiver

·         Visitors from certain countries are eligible for a visa waiver. Find out if you apply for a visa waiver here: https://www.cbp.gov/travel/international-visitors/esta  (Click on Frequently Asked Questions for a list of visa waiver countries.) If you do qualify for a visa waiver, you will need to apply for the ESTA program at the above website. The application is much easier than a visa application, and does not require an interview.

2. Applying for a Visa

·         Those who are not from a visa waiver country must apply for visa at a US consulate outside the US. It is usually preferred to apply in your home country, particularly for your first visa. Some countries provide third-country processing, but it’s best to call the consulate ahead of time. To find a consulate, go to the US Department of State’s website at https://www.usembassy.gov/. When you have found your consulate, follow instructions on how to apply for a “non-immigrant visa.” You will need to pay the visa application fee, schedule an appointment, and complete form DS-160 online, for you and each family member.

Ready to travel...

You will want to bring your packet of documents with you at both your visa interview (if you are applying for a visa) and when you enter the US. If you are denied a visa or entry to the US, politely ask the Immigration Officer for a written reason for the denial. Then contact an immigration attorney.

Visitors visas are stamped B-1/B-2. If you are admitted to the US as a visitor, either with a visa or visa waiver, you will get an I-94 document. Most border crossers get a physical I-94 card stamped to their passport, or those with certain documents may only get a stamp. Air travelers usually get an I-94 online. You should keep a copy of your I-94 with you while you are here and for the future. (You will lose it when you exit the US). You can get your online I-94 copy here: https://i94.cbp.dhs.gov/I94/.

Carefully monitor your expiration date. Make sure you arrange to leave before your expiration, or contact an immigration attorney if that becomes a problem. We hope to enjoy having you in the US often in the future!!!