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In a month's time, I'm travelling to the United States to speak at a conference in Jacksonville (unpaid). I don't know if I need a special visa for this, as the border agency website doesn't have info on this.

I won't be paid for it and will mix in a bit of tourism, but don't know if my ESTA will allow me entry.

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This is actually very clearly covered by this document published by the Department of State, which is linked from the page on the Visa Waiver Program:

  • Conference, meeting, trade show, or business event attendee: Will receive no salary or income from a U.S based company/entity. For scientific, educational, professional or business purposes.

  • 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.

As you are going there unpaid, this is clearly within the activities allowed by a Visitor (B) Visa, and thus for the VWP.

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    Do you have more on "INA 212(q)" ? I've had (Canadian) friends turned away when border guards Googled them and saw they were speaking at technical conferences run by large companies (eg Microsoft) or small (entities that only run conferences.) In one case the speaker had a letter confirming there was no honorarium; the border guy said it was still "taking a job from Americans" and denied entry. General advice to cross border speakers has been to say you are here for a conference and, while not lying, don't volunteer the "speaking at it" part. Just in case. – Kate Gregory May 5 '16 at 12:53
  • @KateGregory I've added a link to the text of INA Section 212(q). This page is also informative. – reirab May 5 '16 at 14:41
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    So, "an institution of higher education (as defined in section 101(a) of the Higher Education Act of 1965), or a related or affiliated nonprofit entity; or B.a nonprofit research organization or a Government research organization" meaning not a technical conference (eg TechEd or CppCon), something academic. Got it. – Kate Gregory May 5 '16 at 14:51
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    @KateGregory but that restriction on the institution applies only if there's an honorarium; if your friends were as you describe being turned away when trying to enter for an expense-only gig then they were wrongly denied entry. It seems like the response ought to be for the host of the conference to put pressure on Congress to improve CBP training or find some other solution (Microsoft and its peers have the resources to do this). – phoog May 5 '16 at 18:29
  • If the CBP had to Google, perhaps the entrant omitted to explain the reason for the visit. Or maybe the CBP was clueless; it's not the first such story I have heard about crossing from Canada. – Andrew Lazarus May 6 '16 at 15:31

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