In any one year, tens of millions of people will come to the U.S. 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 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.
You will need to prove to the U.S. immigration authorities that you:
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.
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 person 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.
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 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.
A student looking into potential schools or colleges could also use a B-2 visa whether or not he or she plans to return home before enrolling (but should make these intentions clear, so as not to be accused of visa fraud if the visa holder decides 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.
Medical treatment is not an activity which many people would consider pleasurable, but it is specifically covered by the B-2 visitor visa. You will need to prove that:
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?
When you apply for your B-2 visa, you’ll have to show the 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 and schedules, 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.
The toughest requirement for many applicants is not the need to prove your well-planned trip to the U.S.—it’s the requirement that one 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.
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.
Every day that you spend in the U.S. 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. 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.
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.