If you’re a non-US citizen and want to travel to the United States, you have to apply for some sort of travel authorization before arrival; but the final decision of entry is still made by the border official at the airport of arrival. What kind of travel authorizations are available and which do we chose?
Visa-free entry via Visa Waiver Program (ESTA)
The Visa Waiver Program grants citizens of 38 nationalities to travel to the United States without applying for a visa for the duration of 90 days. As a German citizen traveling to the US, you have to register at the travel authorization system of the US Department of Homeland Security, called ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization). ESTA is used as a synonym for the application and authorization as well as the form.
The ESTA form is available in German and the answers can also be in German, it takes only a couple of minutes to fill out, currently costs $14 and you get the confirmation usually within a couple of minutes. The authorization is valid for 2 years and within this period of time you can enter the US repeatedly. But the entry is never 100% guaranteed because the border official at the airport of arrival decides if you’re allowed to enter the county.
Little side note: If you enter the United States overland, from Canada or Mexico, you can enter via the Visa Waiver Program, too. But it is not necessary to apply for an electronic travel authorization beforehand.
More information about the Visa Waiver Program and ESTA is available on the website of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security
If you’re a citizen of a country not participation in the Visa Waiver Program, or you’re traveling with an interim passport, or you want to study or work in the US, or you want to stay longer than 90 days, you have to apply for a US non-immigrant Visa.
The procedure of applying for a US non-immigrant Visa is the following (in Germany):
- Choose your Visa category
- Fill out the application form DS-160
- Register on the website of GCI Federal Inc.
- Pay the application fee (the fee for a B-2 visa, also called tourist visa, is currently $160)
- Schedule an interview appointment at the US embassy in Berlin or a US consulate in Frankfurt or Munich
- Show up to the interview appointment and get your Visa
All answers must be in English and must use the English alphabet. If you’re unsure you can engage a third party, for example a Visa-agency, to fill out the application.
If the Visa application is successful the Visa is printed into your passport and sent by mail.
Why are we applying for a US Visa even though as German citizens, we have the chance to participate in the Visa Waiver Program?
The answer is as easy as it is obvious: We want to stay in the US longer, for more than 90 days!
Our route will lead us through Canada, up to Alaska (USA), down through Canada again and then even further down the US west coast all the way to Mexico. The first time entering the United States will be in Alaska, that’s when the 90 days granted by the Visa Waiver Program would begin. And the days are counting, even when we’re back in Canada. The neighboring countries of the United States, Canada and Mexico, do not count as outward voyage. If we were traveling to Germany though, the 2 year validity of ESTA would grant us another 90 days, but that’s just not our plan.
So we decided to apply for a US Visa to stay for up to 180 days and travel the country, visit every national park and sight because we do not want to miss out on anything!
Of course there will be a blog post about us applying for a US Visa, questions we had to answer, information we had to give, and of course the interview at the US embassy in Berlin and if we got the Visa!