Doing work in the US? You could be a business

In visa veritas

Last year's reports of the arrest, detention and deportation of some UK journalists attempting to enter the USA without appropriate visas led to the widespread misconception that freelances might be barred from travel to the States unless they could prove they had a commission. London Freelance member Mike Harrison has an answer. (And another one as more policies emerged.)

I was asked by my other professional body, the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW), to take up the freelance case with the US authorities. The solution turns out to be simple: forget about the cachet-bearing journo's "I-visa" and remember that, as a freelance, you're a one-person firm and likely to be entitled to a business visa.

Post-9/11 the US immigration authority was told to tighten the visa-waiver programme, which was originally intended only for tourists. Before the clampdown, it was common for working journalists of all kinds to be nodded through so long as they were not earning in the US. That concession flouted rules which always required journalists planning interviews or research to carry an "I-visa". To get one of those you must have an endorsement from a bona fide UK media organisation and it's hard to see how a freelance travelling on spec could do this honestly.

However, in a letter to the ABSW, the US Consul in London advised that there is a legally valid alternative: "Freelance journalists [and authors] who travel to the US to conduct interviews or to do research on speculation for future publication may qualify for 'B1 business' visas"

Journalists planning US trips should be aware of increasing delays in processing new US visa applications, which now involve a face-to-face interview. In October all routine waivers for UK passport holders will end and the Embassy's visa workload is growing as a result. It may be that the $100 visa charge is a sensible investment right now, however tentative your travel plans.

After October only passports with digitally-encoded facial identification will be acceptable for travellers travelling to the US without visas but the UK won't be ready to issue them until October 2005 at the earliest. The US authorities have said it's possible they'll operate a dispensation for UK passport holders involving fingerprinting and photography on arrival but they will not relax the requirement for an appropriate visa if there is any intention to work.

Note that the Embassy discourages telephone enquiries by charging premium rates even while queuing. It's better to review the notes for visa applicants on the Embassy web site and apply on line.


US Visa Department:
090 5544 4546 (£1.30/min)
Last modified: 28 April 2004 - © 2004 contributors
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