What is the difference between a USA visa and an ESTA?

What is the difference between a USA visa and an ESTA?
iVisa | Updated on Feb 07, 2020

When you plan a trip to the United States, whether for business, pleasure, or other purposes, one of the first concerns is the travel document that allows you to cross the US border. By taking a look at the visa policy of the US, we can categorize travelers into three categories. The first one contains very few nationalities because we are talking about the citizens of visa-exempt countries and territories. There are only 5 of them. The next category is represented by people who can travel to the US under the Visa Waiver Program. They need just an ESTA. The third category consists of all the other nationalities, and they need a visa. Of course, some nationalities are not allowed in the US, but we will not get into that.

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The USA visa

The differences between a USA visa and an ESTA are many. We will talk about the USA visa first:

  • A visa is a document issued by an embassy, and people apply for it by filling in an application and scheduling an interview. All of that happens at an embassy. Of course, some types of US visas, such as the B1/B2 visa, involve an online application form, but you still need to schedule an interview.

  • At the same time, the requirements for a USA visa and an ESTA are different as well. The former requires a lot more than the latter. For one thing, you need to go to the diplomatic mission in person and bring with you all kinds of documents. If you want to find out what you need, it is best if you give the embassy a call.

  • Lastly, a USA visa can be issued for multiple purposes. Do you want to work in the US? You need a work visa such as an H or J visa. Do you want to study? You need another type of visa. And so on. Not to mention that a visa per se can be released for short as well as for extended stays in the United States.


  • The ESTA, on the other hand, is available to the citizens of only 38 countries. These are the countries that are in the Visa Waiver program. If you are eligible for one, you do not have to go to an embassy and apply. Instead, you can apply from the comfort of your home because the application process is online. Also, there is no interview involved.

  • The requirements for an ESTA are few and easy to meet. You only need an electronic passport with a digital chip that contains your bio-metric info that is valid for another 6 months from the date of arrival in the US, an e-mail address, and a method of payment that allows online payments. Of course, you need to fill in an application as well, but that is self-explanatory.

  • Furthermore, an ESTA cannot be issued for anything. It covers only business and pleasure purposes. You can go on vacation or attend business meetings. You cannot engage in a work activity or go to University. The only classes you are allowed to take while on an ESTA are a cooking class during your vacation or anything of this sort. Anything other than that will get you deported.

  • Lastly, if you travel to the USA under the Visa Waiver Program, you cannot stay there for more than 90 days Per Entry. Of course, the ESTA ensures multiple entries, but you can never stay for longer than that.

There are many other differences between a USA visa and an ESTA, but we do not want to get too technical. If you feel that we did not cover all of them, do not hesitate to contact us in case you have questions. Our customer support is available 24/7.

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