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I recently started to practice a lot my photography skills and I would like to further improve them. I'll be traveling to the US under ESTA and staying in a nice hotel. I'd love to hire a model from an agency, but I suspect that even if I'm not getting any income, and NOT working for anyone, that it qualifies for work and it is thus illegal.

Does it change if I do not get any rights for the pictures?

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    Your admission to the US is governed by the terms of the Visa Waiver Program. ESTA is a travel authorization; if you want information about your status after you've traveled using ESTA, you might fare better if you search for "VWP" instead of "ESTA". – phoog Jan 11 '16 at 20:47
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    You do get copyright for the pictures, it's automatic. – MSalters Jan 11 '16 at 21:13
  • Be aware that many models are willing to work for 'free' on the basis that the resulting shots are not for commercial use, but go into both their and your portfolio. This could be a great way to avoid your visa issues and save money - assuming the 'no-commercial-use' agreement is good for you. You need to have some experience though, or at least find a model on the same level of experience and 'fame' as you are. – Aganju Jan 11 '16 at 22:57
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This appears to be amateur/hobby/pleasure (no income) for which only a B2 visa would be needed. B2 is one of the categories covered under the VWP.

The more important question will be how to convince immigration that you are not intending to sell those photo's afterwards. Immigration does not work on a presumption of innocence. Signing up for a photography course (not as part of a format study program) might help show your amateur status, yet is compatible with B2/VWP.

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