Do I have to go to the US embassy for an ESTA or visa?

Are you planning to travel to the USA for tourism or to visit a relative? If so, you may be wondering whether you need to go to a US embassy or consulate in the UK to obtain travel authorisation such as a visa or ESTA. In reality, as we shall see, it is not at all necessary to go to these institutions to obtain authorisation to travel to the USA. The ESTA procedure, in particular, allows you to travel to the USA without these often long and tedious procedures.

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US embassy in the UK

Do I need an ESTA or a visa to travel to the USA?

First of all, let's remember that if you want to go to the United States, you will need an ESTA or a visa. Indeed, only travellers of Canadian or American nationality can enter the country without official authorisation.

It should also be remembered that this residence permit is also required for a simple transit or stopover in the USA. But the good news is that you do not necessarily have to go to the American embassy in your country of residence to obtain a classic visa. Indeed, British nationals as well as those from other member countries can benefit from the ESTA visa exemption procedure. This procedure requires no travel and is done entirely online in a few minutes. It will allow you to obtain quickly, simply and for a lower fee, a residence permit directly attached to your passport.


When is it necessary to apply for a visa at an embassy for the USA?

Generally speaking, you do not need to go to a US embassy in the UK to apply for a visa if you are eligible for ESTA. This is the case in most cases, so it would be a shame to miss out on this administrative facility.

However, in some cases, the ESTA will not be accepted for your stay. For example, if you wish to invest in the USA or to carry out journalistic activities, to join an American company to work or to study, you will need a classic visa.

Here are the details of the cases in which you will have to apply for a visa at the US Embassy:

  • You wish to stay in the United States for more than 90 days (even for tourism)
  • Your trip is not for tourism, business or medical reasons.
  • You have visited countries such as Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Syria, Sudan, Yemen, Libya and Somalia since 2011.
  • You have dual nationality including a nationality of one of the above countries.
  • You are travelling to the United States using a private aircraft or a carrier that does not use the ESTA system.
  • One of the answers to the questions on the ESTA form is "yes".
  • You are not allowed to enter the country on the basis of the Immigration and Nationality Act.
  • You do not have a passport issued by a country that is part of the ESTA visa waiver programme.

In conclusion, a citizen of a non-Canadian foreign country who wishes to enter the United States on a temporary basis must first obtain a US non-immigrant visa which is issued by the US embassy and affixed to the traveller's passport. However, British nationals as well as those from other Visa Waiver countries who wish to travel to the United States temporarily for tourism or business purposes can take advantage of a new visa-free scheme, the procedure and characteristics of which we will detail below.


How do I apply for a visa at the US embassy?

If you are one of the travellers who do not qualify for the ESTA visa waiver programme, you will need to apply for a visa at the US embassy in the UK or in your country of residence.

Here is the procedure to follow to obtain this document:

  • First, select the type of non-immigrant visa you wish to obtain according to the purpose of your stay in the United States (work, investment..)
  • Then fill in a form that you can download online.
  • Take a photo of yourself. The specific criteria are that it should be 5cm x 5cm. The photo must be taken from the front, be less than 6 months old and have a white background.
  • Gather all the required documents according to the type of visa you want. This may include professional evidence of your activity in the country, an invitation to an event or other documentation.
  • File your application with the US Embassy in the UK. You can also apply by post or online from a special website. In this case, you will need to create your user account and upload the required documents.
  • Finally, pay the visa fee.
  • Once you have completed these steps, you will receive instructions on how to schedule an interview or submit your documents by mail. Please note that the procedures vary depending on the type of visa you are applying for and it is recommended that you follow the steps carefully.

If you apply for a regular visa at the US Embassy in the UK, you will then have to wait 3-5 days after your interview to receive your visa in the post. But beware! These times are subject to change and there is no guarantee that you will receive your US visa within this time. Therefore, if you are not eligible to apply for an ESTA, we recommend that you apply as soon as possible and that you do not carry out any other steps in the preparation of your stay before this process, such as buying plane tickets, making hotel reservations or other procedures.


How to get a visa without going to an embassy with ESTA?

As you can see from the above, applying for a classic visa at an embassy is a long and complex procedure. Fortunately, however, and apart from the special cases mentioned above, it is probably possible to avoid this procedure by using the ESTA system.

The ESTA for the USA is a much simpler electronic entry clearance system and an intelligence system that will be used by US Homeland Security to grant entry clearance to certain travellers. This simplified procedure is particularly aimed at nationals of countries that have signed an agreement with the United States under this scheme. The ESTA will allow you to travel to the United States without requiring a visa and is therefore a visa waiver that gives you the right to travel to the United States.

The ESTA programme has been signed by 37 countries, including the United Kingdom, and allows travellers to enter the United States if they have a passport issued by one of these countries and without a visa. The procedure here is extremely simplified and all you have to do is follow these few steps to obtain your ESTA:

  • Go to a site offering this service, such as the one we recommend on this page.
  • Access an online form which you will need to fill in carefully following the instructions on the screen. To do this, you will need your personal details and your passport number.
  • No supporting documents need to be uploaded here and you do not need to attach a photo or a copy of your passport. Only the passport number is required.
  • Once you have completed your application, you will be required to pay the ESTA and processing fees online, by credit card or PayPal, in a secure area.
  • Your request will then be processed within a maximum of 72 hours, before which you will receive a reply by email.
  • If your ESTA is accepted, you do not need to do anything else. Your ESTA will be automatically linked to your passport electronically. All you have to do is present your passport when you arrive in the country.

Of course, if you have a valid visa, you do not need to apply for an ESTA. The aim of this system is solely to simplify the procedures for travellers wishing to visit the United States by avoiding a long and costly procedure.

It can also be added that the ESTA is in some ways a more modern version of the VWP or Visa Waiver Program which was launched by the US in the late 1980s with the aim of encouraging tourism to the country from nationals of countries friendly to the US.


How do you know if you are eligible for ESTA or if you need to apply for a visa at an embassy?

As we quickly mentioned above, not all travellers are necessarily eligible for the ESTA visa waiver programme. Indeed, it is necessary to meet certain conditions to benefit from it and to be able to request this authorization to stay in a few minutes. Here is a reminder of the different conditions you need to meet in order to apply:

  • Firstly, you must have a valid electronic or biometric passport that is valid for at least 6 months after your date of arrival in the USA.
  • The total duration of your stay in the United States must not exceed 90 consecutive days.
  • The purpose of your trip to the USA is also important. It must be for business or pleasure only. In this case, you must not carry out any paid activity in the USA once you are there.

Once obtained, the ESTA will be valid for two years or until the expiry date of your passport. This means that you can use it to travel to the United States as many times as you wish during this period, provided you respect the duration and purpose of travel as indicated above.


Why should I use ESTA instead of applying for a visa at an embassy?

When a traveller has the possibility of obtaining an ESTA instead of a visa to go to the United States, it is in their best interest to use this solution. The ESTA has many advantages, the main ones being

  • A simple application that can only be made online using a simple form
  • Saving time with an authorisation obtained in a few days
  • Save money with lower fees than for the visa
  • No need to send receipts or travel
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