Visa or ESTA to travel to the United States

All travel to the United States requires a travel authorization. Whether it is the visa or ESTAThe choice will depend on the length of your stay and the reason for your departure. Are you going there to work, to do an internship or simply to discover the American territory? These reasons determine which official document is best suited to your situation. So visa or ESTA ? Let’s look at this in more detail in the rest of this article.

ESTA, the online travel authorization online

Before detailing the different cases that apply to the ESTA or visa, let’s start by defining what the ESTA is.

The ESTA, also known as the Electronic System of Travel Authorization, is an official document that allows citizens of the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) to travel to the United States for short stays.

Contrary to the visa that comes in multiple documents specific to each situation (J1 visa, F1 visa, M1 visa, etc.), which we will see later, the ESTA is unique and covers several reasons for staying.

The ESTA travel authorization is an initiative of the U.S. government and was created in order to facilitate the processing of visa applications and to secure the country from terrorist threats.

The ESTA form is of great help to the American authorities, as obtaining the ESTA requires meeting several criteria. If applicants do not meet the criteria, they must apply for a visa at the U.S. Embassy or Consulate.

visa usa esta passport
visa or ESTA to travel to the USA

What are the ESTA requirements?

To check your chances of obtaining ESTA travel authorization, here are the requirements:

  • travel to the USA for a maximum of 90 days (note: the ESTA is valid for 2 years, which means that over 2 years you can travel to the USA as many times as you want, provided you never stay more than 90 consecutive days on American soil);
  • travel to the United States for tourism, business or transit;
  • Have a valid biometric or electronic passport (be careful, the passport is very important, always have a valid passport when ordering the ESTA and during your trip);
  • be a national of a member country of the Visa Waiver Program (France is a member);
  • know your return date (when ordering the ESTA, it is not mandatory to purchase your tickets beforehand. However, when you arrive in the USA, you will have to present your return ticket to customs).

The ESTA authorization is only available on the Internet. For an online application, you can go to the official government website or to a specialized website that provides an additional service in filling in your information.

When you meet all the ESTA requirements, but still have the question of visa or ESTA? Several elements can help you choose the ESTA:

  • Its price is much cheaper than the visa: 21$ taxes to pay online on the official ESTA website;
  • its accessibility because the form is filled out online;
  • its ease of obtaining, it is enough to fill in the form to have a passport and an e-mail address;
  • Its speed of obtaining, you receive an answer to your ESTA request in maximum 72 hours.

If you do not meet all of the above criteria or if you wish to travel to the United States to work, intern, study at a university, get married or simply live in the United States, a visa application is mandatory.

The visa and its variations of travel authorizations

The visa and the ESTA are both travel authorizationsHowever, applying for a visa requires a much longer and more expensive procedure than ESTA. However, it offers you more opportunities and possibilities for experiences abroad.

The list of visa travel authorizations is important because each reason has a corresponding visa. To give you an example, here are the main visas requested by foreign nationals:

Each visa requires specific procedures, for example, for international internships (J1 visa), the applicant must find a sponsoring organization certified by the U.S. government, in order to obtain the DS-2019 form.

However, although the administrative procedures vary depending on the visa chosen, all applicants must make an appointment at the U.S. Embassy to be interviewed by a consular officer. This decisive interview with the U.S. Homeland Security representative will determine your ability to live in the U.S. (means of financing, level of English) and the consistency of your plans with the requested visa.

When you make your appointment at the U.S. Embassy, be sure to gather these items:

  • a passport (biometric or electronic) with a minimum validity of 6 months;
  • a chronopost envelope with your address of domiciliation;
  • the DS-160 form that you filled out for the VISA application and your SEVIS number;
  • documents proving your solvency (pay slips, bank statements, etc.).

This is an exhaustive list, additional documents may be requested depending on the reason for departure (letter of commitment from your sponsor, valid job offer, official documents proving admission to a school, etc.).

Visa or ESTA : summary

Attention, for both travel authorizations in the USA (visa or ESTA), the most important element is the passport. Your passport must be valid for the duration of your trip (for the ESTA) and be valid for at least 6 months during your interview at the US embassy (for the visa). If not, you will need to apply for a new electronic or biometric passport.

For ESTA, the authorization is directly linked to your passport number through the electronic systems of the American customs. Therefore, if your identity documents have expired, you will have to renew them and apply for a new ESTA afterwards.

Obtaining an ESTA

Under no circumstances should the applicant travel to the United States for commercial purposes. The ESTA is only dedicated to short tourist and professional stays (conferences, contract signing, meetings…) as well as transits (by air or sea).

If you don’t meet all the ESTA requirements, here are the types of visas that are closest to ESTA travel authorization:

  • for business travel: the B1 visa;
  • for tourism, vacation or leisure: the B2 visa;
  • and for transits: the C visa.

Obtaining a visa

Apart from the ESTA requirements, all other reasons require a USA visa application.

Please note: if you wish to settle permanently in the United States, you will need to obtain a permanent residence card, called a Green Card, by participating in the American diversity program lottery, for example.