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All countries have visa waiver for certain nationals, but it is only for touristic purpose. People use this scheme for attending scientific meetings (isn't it some kind of business trip?).

Anyway, academic visits, in which the guest is paid, is definitely a business trip. For example, when an academic organize a paid two-week course in the host university, or when visiting for a join project in which he is paid.

For example, a German academic traveling to the United States for two weeks for working on a NSF-funded project in which he is paid.

  1. Is it theoretically illegal to travel without Business Visa for such academic visits?

  2. If yes, how often it happens in practice?

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I am a U.S. citizen. I have traveled several times for academic conferences in countries where I can get a visa upon arrival (without contacting the embassy beforehand). This includes the EU, Canada, and Japan. I usually mark the "business" on the visa form that I must submit when I arrive. The immigration official then asks me why I am traveling, and I say it is for an academic mathematics conference. They have always gone ahead and given me a temporary visa to enter the country. I think they find me nothing more than amusing. Of course the law may vary from one country to another. –  Oswald Veblen Jun 9 at 16:11
    
I am not a US citizen and am not covered under VWP. However, when I travelled to Canada for a conference, I needed a "tourist" visa. In several countries tourist/visitor visas may be used for conferences, meetings and even negotiating job offers depending on your country and the country you are traveling to. –  drN Jun 9 at 18:17
    
To add another data point, my experience as an EU citizen attending meetings/conferences in the USA mirrors that of @OswaldVeblen. –  avid Jun 9 at 18:38
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Note that the OP is not talking about attending meeting/conferences, but academic visits, where there is some kind of payment from the institution to the visitor. –  Charles Morisset Jun 9 at 19:17
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@OswaldVeblen In the EU, you haven't been issued a temporary visa, merely an entry stamp. If you could not enter without a visa, you wouldn't have been able to board the plane. –  Relaxed Jun 10 at 8:01
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4 Answers 4

Each country might have different rules, but in the example you're considering, you can benefit from the US Visa Waiver program for business purposes if you would qualify for a Business Visitor Visa (B-1):

Lecturer or speaker: No salary or income from a U.S. based company/entity, other than expenses incidental to the visit. If honorarium will be received, activities can last no longer than nine days at any single institution or organization; payment must be offered by an institution or organization described in INA 212(q); honorarium is for services conducted for the benefit of the institution or entity; and visa applicant will not have accepted such payment or expenses from more than five institutions or organizations over the last six months.

Researcher: Independent research, no salary/income from a U.S. based source, or benefit to U.S. institution.

Researchers who receive US payment should apply for a Temporary Worker (H-1B) Visa or Exchange Visitor (J) Visa. So, to answer your first question: if the guest is paid (other than an honorarium, and in addition to have his/her expenses covered), then travelling on the visa waiver program is theoretically illegal. Otherwise, if could be legal. Check with the legal team at the US institution.

About whether it happens in practice, I doubt you'll find plenty of people who are happy to claim they are doing something illegal.

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The visa waiver program of some countries allow for business trips.

For the USA

You are eligible to apply for admission under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) if you:

  • Intend to enter the United States for 90 days or less for business, pleasure or transit
  • Have a valid passport lawfully issued to you by a Visa Waiver Program country

For US passport holders to the UK

You don’t need a visa if you’re coming to the UK for activities allowed under the following visas:

  • a business visitor
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To clarify the comments on the original question, there is a huge difference between attending a conference, speaking (uncompensated) at the conference, and being a headline item at the conference.

If you are simply attending a conference / meeting you can typically use a visitor visa. These are short-term, no-money-to-you events that happen daily, immigration has a standard process.

If you are doing something and getting paid by your home country / primary employer for it, most places will consider it to be the same. A company in their country hired a company in your country to do something, you are the something. Technicians, trainers etc. are similar.

If you are doing something and getting paid in the other country then you do not fall into the (slightly expanded) Tourist/Short term visitor category. A featured speaker would be considered "working" no matter how the money is handled. Another way to think about the distinction is "Can another person do the job just as well?" In the case of a technician, the answer is usually "yes".

Also note that immigration in many places (UK, AU, CA, US etc) interpret "compensation" rather broadly. If you received anything of value in exchange for your services, you are working. If the local contact is charging money for you specifically, you are working. Plenty of people have been bounced because their plans were building a deck in exchange for accommodation & entertainment (items that normally have value).

Notable examples you can find on YouTube:

A puppeteer was refused by the UK because he was intending to do a weekend seminar that charged participants. No work visa.

A chef was refused by AU because she had "tools of the trade" (kitchen knives) in her baggage. Knives are not a problem, but when you are a chef and also have 30 resumes in your bags......

A very large (all muscle), tattooed German man was going to AU to supervise work his company in Germany had been contracted to do. Immigration had no problem with the work - it fell under the technician principle. They refused him because of several criminal convictions and a decent amount of jail time, all of which he noted on his documents. And he probably scared them (although he was actually very pleasant and polite, that could probably change very quickly). They also said that if he applies for a formal visa through the embassy he will likely be accepted.

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Academic exchanges are generally handled very differently than the cases you cite above. –  aeismail Jun 10 at 11:37
    
Then describe, in detail, how the money is handled. –  paul Jun 10 at 14:22
    
For instance, we've had speakers come from foreign countries and complete "work contracts" to give seminars in our department. This is not considered "work" because it's not a full-time employment. –  aeismail Jun 10 at 14:48
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One answer is that what people commonly call “tourist visas” really aren't. The distinctions are more complex than business vs. tourism.

For example, short-stay Schengen visas are valid for many different purposes (you do need to declare what you intend to do on the application form and if you are going to work you also need a separate authorization but they are by no means restricted to tourism). The US B1/B2 visa also cover various purposes.

Similarly, visa waiver programs or their equivalent also cover many purposes. So if your citizenship allows you to visit the Schengen area without a visa, you can certainly do it to participate in an academic conference or meet colleagues for a joint project.

At the same time, as others already wrote, working usually follows other rules and it seems your scenario would fall under this category in many countries. In the US, even a “business visa” is not enough in that case. In the Schengen area, you would use the same visa than for a conference (or no visa at all, if your citizenship allows it) but you would also need a separate authorization to get the visa. You wouldn't get the visa without either lying about the purpose of the trip or presenting that document.

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