Updated on 01.08.2021

ESTA or Visa - Do you need a visa for the USA?

It is not always easy to say whether entry into the USA can take place under the Visa Waiver Program with ESTA or whether a B-1 visa or even a work visa must already be applied for. An assessment must be made individually in each case. We explain on the basis of which factors it is more advisable to apply for ESTA or to apply for a visa.

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Entry frequency, entry duration & problems at the border

How long do you plan to travel in the U.S.?

In addition to the frequency of entry, the duration of entry plays an important role. Ask yourself in advance of your trip how long you intend to stay in the United States. Are your business stays rather of short duration or do you intend to stay for several months at a stretch?

Since you are not allowed to stay too long with ESTA, a visitor visa or even a work visa might be more suitable for you. The most important differences become clear in the following:

Maximum stay

ESTA: 90 days per entry (multiple entries possible)

B visa: 180 days per entry (multiple or at a stretch)

Maximum entry frequency


  • is at the discretion of the U.S. Border Patrol.
  • Avoid too frequent entries
  • Recommendation: do not exceed 90 days per year if possible

B visas:

  • is at the discretion of the U.S. Border Patrol.
  • More frequent entries possible
  • Recommendation: Do not exceed 180 days per year if possible

Work Visa:

  • depending on the category very frequent entries possible

Special features


  • no change of status to another category and no extension of the residence status possible

B visa:

  • Extensions of the residence status possible for a further max. 180 days

Work Visa:

  • Depending on the category, extension for several years possible

How often do you travel to the USA?

When it comes to deciding whether ESTA is preferable to a U.S. visa, you should first consider the duration and frequency of your U.S. entries.

The more often you travel to the USA and plan to do so in the future, the more the application for a visa makes sense. Basically, it is more time-consuming and extensive to apply for a visa for the USA than to obtain ESTA approval. However, for regular stays in the U.S. it is advisable to accept the extra effort to ensure a safe entry.
If travelers are in the U.S. more frequently for business reasons, for example, they should consider applying for a B visa. Individuals who have to go to the USA for longer terms for business reasons or are inhigh frequency should even consider applying for a regular work visa.

Problems or inquiries at entry?

Problems at the border are not an isolated case. Anyone who regularly travels to the US with ESTA for "longer periods of time" sooner or later risks more detailed inquiries from US border officials. Often, unfortunately, even one wrong word can lead to misunderstandings. In the worst case, you will be denied entry to the USA as a result.

If you have previously used visa-free entry with ESTA for your business in the U.S. and had problems at the border, you should alternatively at least consider applying for a B visa.

Tip:Anyone with a visa in their passport shows CBP officers that they have already gone through extensive vetting by US consulates. This creates trust.


Purpose of entry

When considering which entry permit is right for you, it is imperative to consider the purpose of your trip or stay. There are numerous reasons for travel that do not fall under visa-free entry with ESTA.

While limited business activities are covered by ESTA or visitor visa, a work assignment always requires a corresponding work visa.

With ESTA, within the framework of the so-called Business Visa Waiverbusiness meetings or contract negotiations at the US location or at customer sites are possible.

Citizenship & travel to certain countries

In the ESTA application as well as in the different visa categories, the US authorities ask about citizenship and which countries have been traveled to. There is a reason for this: According to the current visa regulations for the US, special entry requirements apply to certain nationals or travelers to certain countries.

This means that you or your employees may be exempted from participating in the Visa Waiver Program. In this case, you would have to switch to a B-1 visa solely because of your nationality or because of stays in certain countries.

Nationality also has an impact on the choice of the appropriate work visa. For the e-work visa, employees must have the same nationality as the company. For example, if the foreign company is majority German-owned, only personnel with German nationality may be designated for the e-visa.

It is therefore always necessary to check

  • nationality: citizenship and dual citizenship
  • Travel to certain countries since 2011

Tip: The entry requirements for the USA are subject to regular changes. You should therefore check what the current regulations are before each trip to the USA.


Would you have believed that your age could affect whether ESTA or visa is the right entry permit? Depending on your age, US authorities assess how high your qualifications for a visa or ties to your home country may be.

This means that your age must also "fit" the respective visa category.

Do applicants meet the requirements for the B-1 business visa? Do you have sufficient qualifications for a work visa? How unbound are you or, in other words, how high are your return intentions?

The issue of illegal immigration continues to make waves in the USA. The US authorities therefore closely examine whether ESTA travelers or holders of a non-immigrant visa (visitor visa or work visa) intend to remain permanently in the US. It is therefore important for you that your ESTA or visa application is coherent and, in the best case, that you carry supporting documents with you.

There is usually no statutory age limit for certain visa categories, except for the J-1 visa. Visas for education and training are per se aimed at younger people. J-1 visas for interns and trainees, for example, are usually applied for by younger applicants.

Age can also play a role in work visa applications: Officials may have doubts about the qualifications of employees who have just graduated and have little work experience.

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Company affiliation

How long you have been employed by your current employer is also a determining factor in whether you should rather use ESTA or whether it makes sense to apply for a visa.

Depending on the (work) visa category, the chances of a visa being issued are to be assessed as rather lower for a short period of employment, or the application is even ruled out. Too little employment in the company can be considered by the U.S. authorities as a lack of the necessary qualification for an e-work visa. At L-1 visa a minimum period of employment is even prescribed: Employees who are to receive the L-1 visa must, among other requirements, have worked for the group of companies outside the USA for at least one year within the last three years. For this reason, the selection of employees should be carefully considered depending on the project and work assignment.

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Updated on 01.08.2021