Updated June 28, 2020:

What Are the B1 and B2 Visas?

The B1 and B2 visas are for visitors who travel to America and plan to go back to their home country afterward. They are good for short-term visits of up to one year. Specifically, the B1 visa is for business visits while the B2 visa is for pleasure, tourism, and medical visits. However, since many people wind up doing both, the two visas are often issued together as a joint B1/B2 visa. This means you can visit the country several times on both business trips and vacations if you want, and you won't have to worry about the details. There are no quotas or limits to the number of B1/B2 visas issued every year.

What Can You Do With a B1/B2 Visa?

While you can conduct business with a B1/B2 visa, it's important to remember there are certain things you can't do, since you need other visas to have permission to do them. Here is what you can do with a B1/B2 visa:

  • Hire and fire a staff
  • Perform research
  • Plan out and spend money on investments and purchases
  • Attend business meetings, negotiations, and investment and sales meetings
  • Attend up to 18 hours per week of recreational lessons
  • Bring along dependents like children (only for a B2 status)
  • Attend seminars and conferences without earning college credits
  • Work as a domestic servant for someone else on a B1/B2 visa
  • Visit family, friends, and have fun
  • Get medical care
  • Perform as an amateur entertainer or athlete

On the other hand, you can't:

  • Perform as an entertainer or in professional sports
  • Attend a school or university as a regular student
  • Earn college credits from seminars or conferences
  • Work for gainful employment

That last restriction can be pretty tricky. What it basically means is that you can't work at a job and get paid by a local person or organization. So while you can keep taking checks from the company that sent you to work in America, you can't quit and work at the local Wal-Mart without changing your visa.

On the other hand, you can get travel reimbursements and honoraria. An honorarium is what you call it when you get a payment for doing something you would have done for free. This can apply to guest speakers who don't have an upfront fee and to church services for funerals.

You can also visit Canada while you're in America, although you'll need a Canadian visa. You can get one from your nation's embassy in the United States, but it's still easier to get one in your home country if you know you plan to visit. You can then return to America from Canada, but only if you have a multiple-entry U.S. visa. These visas have an M on the stamp, and long-term visas usually have them while short-term visas sometimes don't. Make sure you check before leaving the country.

What Do I Need to Get a B1/B2 Visa?

Qualifying for a B1/B2 visa is easy, at least compared to most other U.S. visas. To get one, you should contact the U.S. embassy in your home country and ask for an application, either in person, through mail, or online. The paperwork isn't too bad, but they will want to know whether you have family members, a home, and a job. This is because they want to know whether you will have a reason to go back home eventually. If you pass, you get a B1/B2 visa for either six months or 10 years, although the second kind doesn't mean you can stay in the U.S. for a decade.

Getting a visa usually involves a face-to-face interview no matter what type you apply for. To prepare for this interview, you should bring along all the documents you can think of, but don't expect to need them all. After all, the immigration officials can reject your application for not having enough documentation, but not for having too much. During the interview, it's important not to lie no matter how it might make you look, because they will check your story later and a lie can get you permanently banned from getting a visa.

Something you don't need for a B1/B2 visa is a sponsor. Other visas need an American business or other U.S. sponsor to petition the government, but you can apply for a B1/B2 yourself. You can even use the same visa to make two business trips for two employers, as long as it isn't tied to your first job and it hasn't expired.

How Long Does a B1/B2 Visa Last?

When you enter the U.S. on a B1/B2 visa, you'll get a passport stamp and an I-94 form, although these days the form is electronic. This form will let you stay up to six months in America from the start of your visit. You can get a six-month extension after that, but the government will want to know why you need to stick around.

On the other hand, you can always go home, come back, and go through Immigration again. For people using the B1/B2 visa for business reasons, immigration officials will usually let you go back as often as you need. However, for non-medical B2 visits, U.S. officials will want you to stay in your home country for around six months if you spent six months in America. It's not a hard rule, but using too many B1/B2 visas is a reason to turn down an application. After all, if you want to immigrate or stay long-term, there are other visas for that.

Something else you can apply for is a B1/B2 visit visa waiver. You must first meet the following conditions:

  • You're a citizen of one of 37 participating countries:
    • Andorra
    • Australia
    • Austria
    • Belgium
    • Brunei
    • Czech Republic
    • Denmark
    • Estonia
    • Finland
    • France
    • Germany
    • Greece
    • Hungary
    • Iceland
    • Ireland
    • Italy
    • Japan
    • Latvia
    • Liechtenstein
    • Lithuania
    • Luxembourg
    • Malta
    • Monaco
    • The Netherlands
    • New Zealand
    • Norway
    • Portugal
    • San Marino
    • Singapore
    • Slovakia
    • Slovenia
    • South Korea
    • Spain
    • Sweden
    • Switzerland
    • Taiwan
    • United Kingdom
  • You're driving down from Canada or you travel with a participating airline
  • You have a plane ticket that will take you out of the country (aside from Canada again)

If all the above are true, you can apply for a visa waiver through the Electronic System for Travel Authorization operated by Custom and Border Protection. You have to apply from your home country, and the waiver only lasts 90 days. This cuts down on the red tape needed for tourists and visitors who won't be around for long.

However, you can't extend the waiver or convert it into a normal B1/B2 visa, so get a real visa if you plan on a longer stay. Also, this waiver program doesn't apply if you are also a citizen of or have recently visited Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, or Yemen.

How Does the B1/B2 Visa Overlap With Other Visas?

The H1B and other work visas allow for full employment within the United States, but there are always more applicants than there are visas. The B1 visa can help companies get around that problem, but only in very specific circumstances.

  • The work must be university-graduate level, so something that qualifies for an H1B visa and demands a bachelor's degree or above. The worker must also have this degree or enough work experience to make up the difference.
  • The worker must be permanently employed and paid by a non-U.S. country, with only an expense account at most from any U.S. company.

A visitor who qualifies can get the B1 in lieu of H1B visa, which comes with extra permissions but needs more paperwork to get. On the plus side, it's much easier to get than a normal H1B.

You can also apply for other visas while you're in the U.S. on a B1/B2 visa. There are as many reasons as there are visas: you found a new job, you married a U.S. citizen, or maybe you want to apply to a university. However, asking for a visa while in the U.S. can earn you some extra attention, so be careful what you do and say.

B1/B2 visas also overlap with the C1 transit visa. The C1 visa is only good if you spend your entire time in the U.S. traveling to a third country, but you'll want a B1/B2 visa if you plan to do anything else along the way. B1/B2 visa waivers also count as an alternative to a C1 visa.

If you still aren't sure how a visitor visa works or how to get one, you should post your legal needs on UpCounsel's marketplace. On our site, you can receive advice from some of the top lawyers in the country, including graduates of Yale and Harvard. After all, if you need legal advice, it should be the best advice available.