B Visa & ESTA

The B-1 visa is for a visitor coming temporarily to the United States generally for short term business. The B-2 visa is generally for pleasure or medical treatment. Visitors may use the B-1 visa for brief stays to participate in scientific, educational, professional or business conventions, conferences, or seminars. The B visa is not appropriate for students or long-term scholars coming to Harvard University for an academic appointment, nor to scholars who are coming to collaborate with Harvard faculty members or primary investigators.

Visa Waiver Program

Citizens of a limited number of countries are permitted to visit the United States for up to 90 days without a B-1/B-2 visa under the Visa Waiver Program. Visitors entering for business purposes are admitted in WB status and visitors entering for pleasure are admitted in WT status.

The B-1/B-2 and WB/WT categories are very similar but they do have some important differences. Visitors admitted in WB/WT status cannot extend their permission to remain in the United States beyond 90 days and they cannot apply for a change of status.

They must fulfill certain passport requirements and pre-screening requirements. Individuals visiting the United States under the Visa Waiver Program will need pre-clearance authorization called ESTA prior to traveling. They must present evidence of ESTA approval at the port of entry to the United States. Please be sure to print out the approval when applying for ESTA.

Please note that denial of a recent U.S. entry visa application could result in (an inability) failure to meet the prescreening requirements, additional questioning at the U.S. port of entry, or denial of admission to the U.S.Visitors in the U.S. with a WB/WT status who travel directly to Canada, Mexico, or the adjacent Caribbean islands for a short trip may be readmitted to the U.S. for the balance of their original admission period.

Except for extensions, the information on the HIO web pages regarding the B visa also pertains to the Visa Waiver Program. The key difference is that visitors are exempt of having to get a visa in their passports.

Recently, there are changes to the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) that establish new eligibility requirements for travel under the VWP. These new eligibility requirements do not bar travel to the U.S. Instead, a traveler who does not meet the requirements must obtain a visa for travel to the U.S., which generally includes an in-person interview at a U.S. Embassy or Consulate. At the beginning of the year 2018, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) launched two new traveler compliance initiatives to make it easier for Visa Waiver Program (VWP) travelers to check the status of their stay in the U.S. and remain in compliance with the terms of their admission. Click here for detailed informaion.

Travelers in the following categories are no longer eligible to travel or be admitted to the United States under the VWP:

  • Nationals of VWP countries who have been present in Iraq, Syria, or countries listed under specified designation lists (currently including Iran and Sudan) at any time on or after March 1, 2011 (with limited government/military exceptions). As of February 18, Libya, Somalia and Yemen have been added to this list.
  • Nationals of VWP countries who are also nationals of Iraq, Syria, Iran, or Sudan.

For more information, please review U.S. Customs and Border Protection website .


Employment is not permitted on the B visa. However, a B-1 visitor may be given reimbursement for travel and living expenses. A B-1 visitor may be paid an honorarium for "usual academic activities" as long as the academic activity does not last longer than nine days at any institution and the visitor may not have accepted similar payments from more than five institutions during the previous six months. Any teaching activities must be discussed with an HIO advisor in advance.

Obtaining a B Visa

Individuals should contact the U.S. Embassy or Consulate in their countries for instructions on the visa application process and processing times. There is no visa document specific to the B visa, but applicants must clearly explain the purpose of the visit to the United States to the Customs and Border Protection Officer. For instance, a letter of invitation from the department describing the duration and purpose of the visit may be helpful.  If a Harvard (or affiliate) department is inviting the B visitor on official business, the letter of invitation should cover the following points:

  • the nature of the visit is temporary
  • the individual will not be a salaried employee
  • the individual has their own funding (name source)
  • the individual's position/occupation in their home country
  • the individual will have a return passage
  • each period of stay at Harvard will not exceed 90 days (for Visa Waiver Program only)
  • the visit is of non-collaborative nature
  • whether an honorarium will be provided


Employers are required to withhold 30% of the honorarium payment for tax purposes. B visitors are not eligible to obtain a Social Security Number or an Individual Tax Identification Number (ITIN).


In some cases it is possible to extend the B visa beyond the date listed on the I-94. The reason for the extension must remain with in the original temporary objective (see Obtaining a B Visa.) The extension is requested by mail to the USCIS using Form I-539, supporting documents and fee. Harvard affiliates may schedule an appointment with their advisor to discuss eligibility for a B visa extension and how to prepare the application.

Inviting Friends and Family to Visit the US

For family, relatives, and friends to visit you in the U.S., including coming to Commencement, they will most likely need to apply for a tourist visa (B1/B2 visa). There are no specific visa documents, e.g. Form I-20 or DS-2019, with which to apply for a B1/B2 visa. However, there are some guidelines on what a consular official expects of applicants. Applicants should be prepared to explain the following points:

  1. The visit to the United States will be temporary.
  2. There are adequate funds to cover the cost of transportation and cost of living in the United States.
  3. The visitors have residences outside the United States to which they intend to return.

Suggested Documents

For the first item listed above, both an invitation letter from you and a certificate of attendance letter from your school may be necessary. A certificate of attendance letter is usually provided by the registrar's office at your school. Some schools provide letters of invitation to Commencement. Please inquire with your school.

For the second item, your family or friends may provide evidence of sufficient funds to support themselves while in the United States in the form of a bank statement. Alternatively, you may provide your current bank statement as evidence of adequate financial support to cover their temporary stay in the United States.

For the last item, proving the intent to return home can be documented by evidence of a job, family, property or other strong ties to their home country. The applicants should be prepared to answer questions about their intent. Please refer to the guidance from the U.S. Department of State on what constitutes as strong ties.

Two Step Process for Family and Friends

  1. Applying for a visa
    For many individuals a B1/B2 visa from a U.S. embassy or consulate outside the United States is needed to enter the United States. Guidance on visa application is available on the web site of the U.S. Department of State. Please note that Canadian citizens and citizens of Visa Waiver countries do not need to obtain visas for this purpose. Please note that visitors traveling under the Visa Waiver Program will need pre-clearance authorization called ESTA prior to traveling. They must present evidence of ESTA approval at the port of entry to the United States. Please be sure to print out the approval when applying for ESTA.
  2. Entering the United States
    The length of stay that the U.S. government official grants to the visitor is discretionary, normally no longer than 6 months. B visa holders are advised to print out their I-94 . The I-94 indicates how long a B visa holder may remain in the United States. Extensions may be requested with USCIS at a later date.

What can Harvard do for me to get a B1/B2 visa for my family member?

Since the purpose of a tourist visa does not directly involve Harvard's visa sponsorship, the statements you need should not come from the HIO. Please inquire with your school for a certificate of attendance letter. If your school is willing to write a letter of invitation to on your behalf to invite your family or friends for Commencement here is a sample letter that can be used.