A B-2 Visa for Visiting the U.S. as a Tourist: Do You Qualify?

Qualifying for a B-2 tourist visa is not automatic, and depends on what you plan to do during your visit and whether you can convince the U.S. consular authorities that you will really return home afterward.

By , J.D. · University of Washington School of Law

In any one year, tens of millions of people will come to the United States as tourists. The U.S. welcomes tourism, and has tried to make the entry process fairly simple. People who don't qualify for entry without a visa as described in the article Who Can Visit the U.S. Under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) will need to have or apply for a B-2 visitor visa before coming to the United States.

Qualifying for a B-2 tourist visa is not automatic, and for people from some countries, not easy. It depends on what you plan to do during your visit and whether you can convince the U.S. consular authorities that you will really return home afterward, as further discussed below.

Eligibility Criteria for a B-2 Visa

You will need to prove to U.S. immigration authorities that you:

  • are coming to the United States solely for pleasure or for medical treatment, and not for other reasons (such as to work for a U.S. employer or to stay permanently or to give birth to a child; that last example reflects a 2020 amendment to State Department regulations; see 9 FAM 402.2.)
  • plan to stay in the United States for a limited, specific period of time; and definitely not permanently
  • have a residence (a place to call home) outside the United States as well as other binding ties that will assure your return home after your visit
  • have permission to enter a foreign country (probably your own) at the end of your U.S. stay, and
  • have the financial means to pay for your visit to and departure from the United States.

Although you will have an in-person interview with a U.S. consular official, your word alone will not be enough to assure the official that you are eligible. For all of the items on the list above, you will need to show documentary proof, which we'll provide more guidance to below.

What Does It Mean to Be Visiting the U.S. for Pleasure?

Here is how the U.S. State Department's regulations (22 C.F.R. § 41.31) describe the types of pleasure activities that qualify a foreign national for a B-2 visa:

Legitimate activities of a recreational character, including tourism, amusement, visits with friends or relatives, rest, medical treatment and activities of a fraternal, social or service nature.

This definition allows for a range of activities, from sightseeing to taking short classes to attending conferences.

It does not, however, allow visits for the purpose of working for pay. This is true even if the pay is not guaranteed, such as prize money. For example, traveling to the U.S. on a tourist visa in order to participate in an athletic competition with a cash prize would not be allowed.

Nor does a B-2 visa allow conducting other business activities, such as attending trade conventions, giving consultations, selling international products, nor even serving as a minister or missionary. A separate visa (the B-1) exists for certain business activities. However, when you apply for a B-2 visa, you are often given a combination B-1/B-2 visa, which allows you to perform those business-related activities.

Pleasure also cannot include working as a member of the foreign press or information media, since there is a separate visa for this (the "I visa").

An intent to commit a crime doesn't qualify someone for a tourist visa either, no matter how pleasurable the rest of their planned visit.

Not-So-Pleasurable Uses of the B-2 Visa

There are some nontraditional uses of the B-2 visa that you should know about. For starters, someone accompanying a visitor for business (B-1) or certain other temporary visa holders may be given a B-2 visa.

Similarly, family or household members of someone coming on another temporary visa (such as students, diplomats, or temporary workers) who don't qualify for what's called "derivative status" and thus an automatic visa of their own as that person's spouse or child can be given a B-2. While many U.S. visas allow spouses and children to come as derivatives, not all do, so the B-2 visa can be used to avoid family separation.

Being able to come to the United States as a B-2 visa holder also prevents separation of unmarried domestic partners, elderly parents, and others.

Someone wanting to get married in the U.S. but not planning to stay and apply for a green card could also use a B-2 visa instead of a K-1 fiancé visa.

Students looking into potential schools or colleges could also use a B-2 visa whether or not they plan to return home before enrolling (but should make these intentions clear, so as not to be accused of visa fraud if they decide to enter school immediately, without leaving the United States). Also see Filling Out USCIS Form I-539 to Change Visa Status to Student (F-1 or M-1).

And people who have served in the U.S. military and become eligible for U.S. citizenship as a result can use a B-2 visa to come and submit their citizenship application.

When Is a B-2 Visa Allowed for Medical Treatment?

Medical treatment is not an activity which many people would consider pleasurable, but it is specifically covered by the B-2 visitor visa. In order to receive a B-2 on this basis, you will need to prove that:

  • You have received a particular medical diagnosis from a local physician, which requires treatment in the United States.
  • A physician or medical facility in the U.S. is willing to treat this ailment, and
  • The cost of transportation, treatment and all medical-related expenses have been estimated and someone will take responsibility for covering them.

A B-2 visa for medical treatment is often requested by women planning to give birth in the United States. Obtaining one will become more difficult after new regulations that passed in 2020, however. These require that women overcome a presumption that their primary purpose of travel is to obtain U.S. citizenship for the child. You'll need to show a different and permissible purpose for the travel, such as to access specialized medical care that's only available in the United States for a complicated pregnancy. Also see Can I Travel to the U.S. While Pregnant?

Your Plan to Stay for a Limited Time

When you apply for your B-2 visa, you'll have to show the U.S. consular officer that your plan to visit the United States is coupled with a plan to leave again, and to leave fairly soon. Using maps, schedules, and receipts you will want to show that your length of stay is based on something real, like a planned event or itinerary, and not just on a desire to stay for as long you can.

Before your trip, think about what you want to see or accomplish while you are in the United States and allot the right amount of time to cover this.

Your Residence and Other Ties to Your Home Country

The toughest requirement for many applicants is not the need to prove your well-planned trip to the United States—it's the requirement that they have a residence and other reasons compelling return to the home country at the end of the visit. The forces pulling you home might include a house, a family, or a stable job.

It's especially tough because the consular officer reviewing your application presumes that you really want to stay in the U.S. permanently even before having met you. Take seriously your need to document reasons you'll want to return, such as with copies of birth and marriage certificates for close family there, home leases and rental agreements, a copy of a letter from your employer, and so on.

Your Permission to Enter or Reenter a Foreign Country After You Leave

The U.S. doesn't want to be stuck with anyone who comes as a tourist and then has no place to go afterward. If you're coming from your home country, carrying its passport, and planning to return home afterwards, the U.S. will figure that your country will let you back in, except in highly unusual political circumstances.

If, however, you will be travelling to a third country after visiting the U.S., be prepared to show that you have a visa or other permission to enter that country.

Your Ability to Pay for Your U.S. Visit and Return Trip

Every day that you spend in the United States is going to cost money. Your hotel stay, rental car, food, tickets and other items will add up fast, and the U.S. government knows it.

You will have to show that you have the savings to cover your trip, or that someone else is willing to be responsible for supporting you. Bring copies of bank or investment fund statements, for example. If your trip is going to be difficult on your budget, do some research to find out exactly how much you are likely to spend and how you will afford it.

How to Apply for a B-2 Visa

See Application Process for a B-1 or B-2 Visitor Visa for what to do next, and how to prove that you meet these criteria. Also see Steps to Take Following Denial of a B-1 or B-2 Visa.

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