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I was wondering if an author of ebooks, who is registered as self employed as a freelance writer in the UK, can visit the USA on the Visa Waiver Program and continue to write, if he or she does not publish? The principal purpose of the visit is for a holiday, it would just be something to do on the side now and then.

As I understand the definition of work, as long as the author in question doesn't try to make money by publishing while visiting under the VWP would be within the rules, but the definitions of work seem a little confusing.

An example for clarity, a writer who in his/her free time decides to write some pages of a new novel while on vacation, but doesn't intend to publish it until he/she returns to their own country.

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    10 million illegal immigrants get away with full-time jobs in the US and you're worried about writing a novel? – JonathanReez May 11 '16 at 13:02
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    @JonathanReez Those illegal immigrants are probably not hoping to be able to travel to the US in future under the VWP however (or to other countries that the US shares information with) – CMaster May 11 '16 at 13:16
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    You are totally OK. Don't even worry about it. purely theoretically it's an interesting question. For example, in the case of an incredibly successful author (say, JK Rowling), you do wonder if the US authorities would have something to say about it or if it would affect Her (probably hugely complicated) tax issues in some way. – Fattie May 11 '16 at 14:33
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    This starts to get in to the same issue with any "creative" task - when counts as "working"? Are you not allowed to think up new ideas even, that you may one day sell? Or is the "work" the act of turning those ideas, characters, outlines (which may take a long time to develop) into the "product" of a manuscript (which may be a quick process). Not that I'd necessarily advise a philosphical debate with a border agent. – CMaster May 11 '16 at 15:03
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    As a practical matter, how would you get caught? A tourist sitting a hotel room typing on a laptop or writing in a notebook could be making notes on their travel diary or writing the next great novel and nobody would know the difference, nor do immigration authorities keep such close tabs on your everyday activities. – Zach Lipton May 11 '16 at 16:31
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To travel under VWP, travel purpose must be permitted on a visitor (B) visa, as mentioned as the first point in the Visa Waiver Program page. This means, your ESTA is basically a simplified B1/B2 visa, same rules apply, the difference is the process only.

Now, checking the rules for both B1 and B2 visas lists nothing about your specific "writing" purpose, but indeed it does allow you to travel for "holidays" purposes, which is the main purpose of your travel as you mentioned.

The only thing that was mentioned a few times with emphasis is "getting paid from a US based entity", which is totally prohibited for holders of B visas, that means also prohibited for people on ESTA, and you explicitly mentioned that you are not going to make money, so we can safely assume that you will be fine doing your writing in your free time while you are on a "vacation" in the US.

The closest thing I could find in the rules that might be similar to your situation was "researching", and the rules allow that:

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

Conclusion: There is nothing in the rules explicitly prohibits you from writing while you are on a vacation in the US as long as you are not making money out of it from a US based entity. So, feel free to write.

  • Thanks for your informative answer. It seems to match up with what I was reading, but it's good to have some corroboration. Posing a further question related to the above, would receiving payment from existing books be allowable if the ebooks are sold through Amazon and Smashwords? These websites put aside some portion of profits for US taxes, and then pay directly into either paypal or abank account. What I've read indicates this "passive income" is allowable. In your, and others opinion, this wouldn't cause a problem in the above case of visiting for tourism either, would it? – t1021 May 11 '16 at 20:41
  • Note also this document apparently from the U.S. Department of Justice, which explicitly lists "professional artistic activity (e.g. music recording, artistic work such as painting, sculpture, or photography) that do not involved income from an US source" -- writing seems to be fairly analogous to that. – Henning Makholm May 12 '16 at 11:31
  • (On the other hand the fact that "professional artistic activity" is not in the current 9 FAM 402.2-5(B) may reflect an explicit amendment to the rules since the above document was written). – Henning Makholm May 12 '16 at 11:38

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