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USA: When to get a visa and when you don’t need to

I love America. Ever since I was a high school exchange student in Maryland I have had a little piece of the USA in my heart. I have visited probably 50 times and have a few pointers like how to get your online ESTA visa or whether you need a working visa.

Wall-E US flag

Loved this unusual pic of the American flag. Pic meddygarnet/Flickr

What is the ESTA Visa Waiver?

If you haven’t been to the US since September 2010, it’s all changed. You no longer fill out the green visa waiver forms on the plane. Instead you must pre-apply online for your visa waiver. The good news is this lasts for 2 years. The bad news is there is now a charge. Albeit small – US$14 – but still, it used to be free. The money, we are told, is used to market the United States as a destination, so is invested back into tourism.

It takes only a couple of minutes. But don’t be fooled! There are some “clever” people out there who have set up almost identical sites to clip your $14 ticket and charge a whopping $74 to “process” your visa. In actual fact no middle man is needed to process the visa, you you are being ripped off $60. If the site you are on wants more than $14, back out!

If you don’t have internet (then you won’t be reading this!) but any travel agent can do this for you.

Do I need a working visa?

I do. I’m a travel writer (or foreign journalist, as they categorise me) and while technically I do my writing back home in New Zealand, the fact that I am in the USA to explore, take notes, meet people and interview them means I am working. There are some categories of temporary work in the US that you don’t need a working visa for (see this link to the NZ/USA Visa site) like non-professional athletes, those attending conferences or trade shows, people surveying business opportunities, lecturing, speaking or training, and a few more.

I know of heaps of people who just travel in as tourists even though they are travel writers, and for the most part that is fine. Personally I won’t risk it. Those immigration agents love their power and will can take you aside for questioning and hold you for hours just because they can.

To apply for your non-immigrant working Visa, you need to do that online in your own country and it’s expensive. Mine is $160 and lasts 5 years. I think it would depend on what category of visa you need. You also need to visit your local US consulate at an appointed time. Get there early is my advice. The Auckland office opens at 8am and it’s first come first served. You’ll hand in your forms with a photo and a bank cheque and wait for your turn to have a quick interview through the window like a bank teller. You should allow at least a couple of weeks before departure – and not need your passport meantime – because it will be sent to you once approved.

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Hi, I'm Megan Singleton and I'm the word slinger of this travel blog as well as on radio in NZ every Sunday. Former Travel Editor at Yahoo NZ and current freelance writer for a few newspapers and mags from time to time, I set off on this travel writing journey 20 years ago and I've pretty much always got a suitcase half packed (or half un-packed!) I'd love you to join me on Facebook or Twitter and sign up for my newsletters if you want loads of travel tips, advice and deals!