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I've flown on AA twice from Europe in the last month and cannot check in online as I have a US visa. AA's site has nowhere for me to enter visa information so it rejects me because I don't have an ESTA (which it can check).

Would it be possible/acceptable to apply for an ESTA purely so that I could do OLCI and then present my visa on arrival in the US?

My concerns are twofold:

  • My ESTA application may be refused because I have a visa, and the potential consequences of having a refused ESTA application in the future.
  • I might have problems at the POE if they think I'm entering under the VWP when I actually have a visa.

Typically I either fly on BA or connect to AA from a BA first segment. BA let me check-in online and validate my visa at some point before boarding the flight to the US.

If it makes a difference, I have an E-2 visa.

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    @pnuts I'm not an expat. I visit for a week or two at a time – Berwyn Jul 31 '16 at 19:48
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    It seems likely that AA wants to see your visa, so online check-in is simply not available. – Michael Hampton Jul 31 '16 at 22:03
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    The way it usually works on BA for me is that I can OLCI but can't board until my visa has been checked. A bit back I connected BA to AA and was paged to AA gate to have my visa checked. Usually I can do this in the lounge – Berwyn Jul 31 '16 at 22:15
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    @blackbird57 Someone replying to this question saying that I can :) – Berwyn Jul 31 '16 at 22:24
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    I have the same problem, with United and AA. they just don't allow online check-ins, even if you have a green card. Their web pages are too poorly designed to handle that, so you must show up in person (and get the remaining middle seat...) My solution? Fly another airline. Lufthansa and Delta do allow online check-ins with Visa or Green-Card. – Aganju Aug 1 '16 at 1:33
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It should be okay for you to apply for ESTA, because the visa you hold is not a B-1 or B-2 visa. If you were to travel to the United States for purposes of tourism, or business purposes unrelated to the visa you now hold, you would in fact be required to apply for ESTA or for a B visa.

(I'm not sure, however, what will happen if you can check in using your ESTA, and subsequently enter using the visa.)

For example, at https://travel.state.gov/content/visas/en/employment/treaty.html, you can see that for an E-2 visa "you must be coming to the United States to develop and direct the enterprise."

See also at https://www.cbp.gov/travel/international-visitors/frequently-asked-questions-about-visa-waiver-program-vwp-and-electronic-system-travel:

Q: What if a traveler has a current, valid visa?

A: Individuals who possess a valid visa will still be able to travel to the United States on that visa for the purpose for which it was issued. Individuals traveling on valid visas are not required to apply for an ESTA authorization.

This implies that you can apply for ESTA to travel to the United States for a purpose other than one for which your valid visa was issued.

You also express concern about whether you might have trouble when entering the United States, since you will have been indicated on the carrier's passenger list as a VWP traveler, but you will be presenting a visa at entry. I doubt that you will have trouble because of it. I can think of two reasons you might:

  1. Applying for ESTA with no intention of using the VWP

Title 8 of the Code of Federal Regulations, section 217.5 (a) says

Each nonimmigrant alien intending to travel by air or sea to the United States under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) must, within the time specified in paragraph (b) of this section, receive a travel authorization...

You might therefore run into trouble because you don't actually intend to travel to the US under the VWP. But it doesn't actually say that those who don't intend to travel cannot receive the authorization. Furthermore, CBP notes that people can apply for ESTA even if they don't have definite travel plans.

  1. Checking in with ESTA and entering with a visa

Here, I can only speculate, but I guess that the carrier is more likely to get in trouble for this than you are. You could approach the ground staff at the airport to correct your record with information about your visa, but this would defeat your apparent purpose of getting on the plane quickly and easily.

  • +1 Nice answer. Regarding your final point, I won't have any problem updating my visa entry status with the airline in the lounge or at the gate, I just don't want to have to queue up behind 20 people checking bags when I don't have any – Berwyn Aug 1 '16 at 10:03
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    Also, I wouldn't actually be checking in using the ESTA. That would just be the airline's assumption. Nowhere am I asked to state that I'm entering under the VWP – Berwyn Aug 1 '16 at 10:09
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    @pnuts Luckily I've solved that. I have a holiday coming up and have just applied and received an ESTA for that purpose. – Berwyn Aug 1 '16 at 11:16
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Now that I've travelled several times to the US after getting my ESTA, here's what actually does happen. I don't enter my visa number anywhere and the airline (BA or AA) presumably sends my info to the CBP to be approved and since they can see I have an ESTA they get an acknowledgement. It is possible that that might also have occurred with my visa, but they end up with some "check docs" flag on my PNR.

I can check in online and receive boarding passes for any connecting legs and the TATL segment to the US. I've asked when transitting LHR and showing my passport if they need to scan my visa page and they said they don't.

I enter the US and acknowledge I'm entering on a visa, or now, since I have GE, I just choose which method of entry to use on the GE screen (VW business, VW tourism, E2).

Turns out getting an ESTA was pretty useful at least in my case.

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