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Doing Business in the USA: ESTA or Visa?


The USA opened its borders again on 8 November, meaning business trips and holidays to The States are possible again. Here, we’ll briefly go over what travel permit you need for a business trip to the US: an ESTA or a work visa.

First figure out exactly what you’ll be doing
This may sound like an obvious thing, but it can make quite a bit of difference and save you a fair bit of money. The reason for this is that you don’t always need a specific work visa to do business in the USA. An ESTA often suffices. Applying for any kind of visa is a very lengthy procedure, often taking weeks if not months. In comparison, an ESTA is often approved the same day.

The ESTA, however, has very specific requirements on what kind of business you can do in the USA.

Doing business with an ESTA
The following business-related work is allowed when travelling on an ESTA:

  • Attending a fair or conference
  • Meeting with (potential) business partners
  • Providing goods or services
  • Negotiating with customers or suppliers

In fact, you can do quite a bit more with an ESTA. The one important thing you have to keep in mind is: You can’t enter into employment with a US employer. As long as you are not directly employed by them (meaning they also pay your salary), you have a lot of freedom when it comes to engaging in work-related activities in the USA.

However, even when not being employed by a US employer, there are still a few things you can’t do in the USA on an ESTA:

  • You cannot travel to the USA for the purpose of investing in US companies
  • You cannot start a company in the US yourself
  • You cannot perform a company takeover
  • You cannot engage in journalism or media activities

Other ESTA requirements
Of course, you also need to keep in mind the remaining ESTA requirements. While the ESTA is a lot cheaper and is approved much faster than a visa, this is in part due to stricter rules. For example, you may not have a criminal record. This instantly disqualifies you from getting an ESTA. Similarly, you cannot have been in a number of specific countries since 2011, such as Iran, Iraq or Syria. The ESTA allows you to stay in the USA for up to 90 days, with an overall validity length of two years.


I can’t get an ESTA, what now?
So you want to do business in the USA, but you can’t get an ESTA. Maybe you committed a crime in the distant past, or you need to perform work which is outside of the ESTA parameters. This does not mean you can’t travel to the US. You can always apply for a business visa. For example, you can get a B-1 business visa, or an H visa for specialized work. The US has over 185 different types of visa, so you’re bound to find the one suited for your business-related ends. You can apply for a US visa by filling out the DS-160 form. Afterwards, you will be invited for a short interview at the embassy.



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