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I have a friend who holds a passport that would normally enable them to get an ESTA to enter the US. I frequently travel there on reasonably short notice and they would like to accompany me some time. Last time we tried this the ESTA process timed out (neither accepted nor denied), which we believe to be due to their travel to Iraq (properly declared, and for entirely non-problematic reasons). I thus believe they will need a visa.

For an ESTA, you have to supply dates of travel, and this works for short notice trips as the ESTA process takes a couple of days. But for a visa you appear to need to supply dates of travel ahead of time, and (perhaps?) show evidence. How can one get a visa for "trips unknown in the future"? Does one have to eg book a refundable plane ticket, apply, and get a refund? What's the best way to proceed here.

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Here's a link to an official PDF showing the DS-160 interactive application: https://travel.state.gov/content/dam/visas/PDF-other/DS-160-Example_11-19-2020.pdf

On its ninth page, you can see that there is a question "Have you made specific travel plans?" Answer "no" to that question. The parts of the form asking for details of the travel plans should disappear.

It will nonetheless ask for a date of arrival. The instructions in the right margin say "if you are unsure of your travel plans, please provide an estimate" (see page 11 of the pdf).

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  • Of course, depending on the circumstances of the person applying, vague or indefinite travel plans may not play in their favour.
    – jcaron
    Jun 9, 2023 at 2:10
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    @jcaron True in principle but if OP holds a passport of a nationality that usually qualifies for an ESTA this is generally not a problem.
    – quarague
    Jun 9, 2023 at 8:23

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