What is the B2 Visa?
If you’re an aspiring international thru-hiker, wanting to hike one of the US long distance trails such as The Appalachian Trail(AT) or The Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), you’ll need a B2 Visa.
A normal tourist visa lasts for 90 days. If your planned hike won’t take longer than 90 days then you don’t need a B2 Visa.
However, most of the big US thru-hikes last longer than 90 days. On average the AT takes 5 to 7 months and the PCT 4 to 6 months.
A B2 Visa is a temporary visa that lasts up to 180 days. The B1 Visa is for business whilst the B2 for pleasure. A thru-hike might be painful at times but for visa-purposes it’s pleasure!
In 2019 I went through the process and I got my B2 visa without any hassle. So I thought I’d share my tips here because I couldn’t find much info on it when I was researching my own AT hike.
I applied from Ireland so obviously check your own countries requirements but they are all largely similar across Europe and other English speaking countries such as Australia and New Zealand.
Don’t Book Your Flights
You’ve made the decision to hike. I know the urge , you want to book your flights, you want to ‘make it real’, you want to have a start date. I get it but slow down.
Don’t book flights until you have your visa. Likewise with hotels, shuttles etc. If you’re buying expensive gear for your hike maybe wait as well (unless you know for sure you’ll use this gear anyway).
Until you have your visa you’re not thru-hiking, so don’t act like it. The excitement will be real, you’ll want to book your flights so bad but trust me, don’t do it until you have your passport in your hands with that sweet, sweet B2 Visa on it.
Side-note: When you do book your flights you don’t need to book a return flight. It’s okay to enter with a B2 visa and no return flight. Save the money and book when you’re in the US and know for sure when you’re leaving.
Tips For Your B2 Visa Interview
The most dreaded part, having to go to the embassy for your interview. You’d imagine you’ll be brought to a private room to discuss your application but when I went for my interview it was at a counter with a perspex window. All embassies are designed different but be prepared to be in an open room surrounded by eavesdropping tourists. For my interview I could hear all the stories of the people applying before me and two of them were refused. So when it was my turn I was nervous.
Thankfully it all went fine. They just asked what my purpose for going was. I said to hike the AT. I handed over some documents and forms I had brought with me. She looked through them all and said all good.
Have Money In Your Bank Account
Bring a copy of your bank balance. I simply took a screenshot of my mine and printed it out. To be safe, you might want something more official though.
The strange thing though is that they don’t really validate the money in your account. For example, I could have left the embassy after my interview and emptied my bank account and arrived in the US with nothing.
In theory you could ask your parents, family or friends to deposit money into your account to beef up your balance. Then after the interview just transfer the money back to them. Likewise you could get a loan, beef up your balance, then pay it all back afterwards just having paid a tiny bit of interest on it.
Obviously you’ll need money to cover your thru-hike. I would never advise people (especially international thru-hikers) to attempt a hike without the financial security to support themselves. However, you’ll likely be having your interview a few months before you actually leave. I had my interview 6 months before my start date. You could save a lot of money in 6 months so if you just need to arbitrarily show a nice bank balance on the day of your interview, the above options might be worth considering.
It’s also another reason not to book flights or buy gear until you have your visa, having that money in your bank account increases your chances of getting the visa.
Know Your Trail and Gear Basics
Some of the embassy staff have been know to quiz prospective thru-hikers about the trail and the gear they’re planning on bringing.
My theory is that these are closet hikers just bored at work and want to secretly talk about hiking.
So you should know things like the names of the start and end points of the trail, how long it is, which states it goes through. You’ll likely already know all this but it’s something to keep in mind, just in case they ask about it.
Likewise with your gear. Even if you haven’t bought it yet, have your main gear list in your head. What tent are you bringing? What pack are you using? What kind of food will you be eating? What’s your base weight?*
*Need Help Calculating Your Base Weight? Pack Shakedown 101
Embassy staff have been known to ask specific questions. They might just be asking to see how you react. If they ask you something you don’t know the answer to, just say so. It’s fine to say, I don’t know yet or I’m still researching that. If you’re actually planning on thru-hiking you’ll have no problem.
Over Prepare Your Documents
Once you submit your application online the embassy will email you telling what documents you need to bring. Follow these to the letter of the law.
Over prepare and bring more than what is required. For my interview, none of it was needed but it’s better to have it handy just in case.
Bring proof of current employment (I just had a letter from HR saying I was employed etc.), proof of residency in your current country etc. Anything official that confirms the simple basic stuff, bring it.
It’s Okay To Not Have a ‘Job to Return To’
Many international hikers freak out thinking they’ll be rejected because they can’t prove they will have a job to return to in their own country after the hike.
Obviously if you can prove this, that’s great! If your employer is willing to write you a letter saying this then you should definitely bring it.
However, it’s a not a requirement. For my application, I just brought a letter that said I was currently employed. They asked about my work and I simply told them I plan on leaving the job to go hike.
Even if I had planned to continue with my same employers, you’re put in a catch-22 situation. I didn’t want my employer to know that I was considering leaving my job in 6 months time, especially because if my B2 Visa application was rejected, then I wouldn’t leave that job.
Ultimately this is a personal decision, if you have the relationship with your employer where you could ask for 6 months off then go for it, if not just relax in the knowledge that it’s not necessary for your visa application to be accepted.
Just Be Honest
It’s very easy to overthink these things. Committing to a thru-hike takes a lot of emotional investment so it’s easy to get anxious about some seemingly arbitrary bureaucracy getting in the way of your dreams.
Think about it this way though, the visa process is in place to ensure no one is trying to circumvent the rules of entry. You’re planning a 5 or 6 month thru-hike, the B2 visa is designed specifically for people just like you.
So don’t overthink it, you’re intentions are pure. Just answer whatever they ask honestly, even if you think there is a ‘better’ answer. It’s not an exam, just be honest. 99.99% of the time the embassy staff will sense you’re just a genuine person who wants to go spend 6 months eating, sleeping and squatting in the outdoors.
Apply as Early as Possible
Have a general sense of when you want to start your hike. For example, say you want to start the AT around mid-March. Then work 6 months back from that date (check your countries requirement to confirm but most will allow applications 6 months in advance). So 6 months back is Mid-October therefore you should apply for your B2 Visa around mid to late October.
Applying as early as possible will ensure a few things:
- If you are rejected you’ll have more time to appeal/re-apply
- If accepted you can book your flights earlier, which should be cheaper
- If accepted you can start buying all your gear earlier allowing for more test hikes and pack shakedowns
- Gives you more time to sort all the life admin e.g. lease/mortgage, work notice
- Most importantly, it becomes REAL sooner!
Check Your Passports Expiration Date
Before you send your application double check your passport expiration date. To be safe it should be valid for at least one year after your expected start date.
So, say you plan to hike in March, 2021 then your passport should be a least valid until April, 2022. If it’s expiring sooner I’d recommend renewing it before applying for your B2 Visa.
Tips on Using Your B2 Visa
How Long Is 180 Days Really?
When you have your visa and arrive in the US, it’s up to the border agent to stamp your ‘leaving’ date.
The B2 visa is meant to be valid for 180 days, but most border agents just add on 6 months. So what does that actually mean in practice?
Say you land in the US on March 18th, 2021. If the border agent adds on exactly 180 days then your leaving date would be September 14th, 2021.
However, if the border agent just added on 6 months, you’re leaving date would be September 18th, 2021.
The first is 180 days, the latter 185 days. An extra 5 days could be a big deal when it comes to completing a thru-hike. A few extra zero days is always nice!
There are no precise guidelines on this, it’s entirely up to the border agent on duty when you go through customs. However, it would be wise to make your own calculations on which way offers you the most days and the longest stay for your hike.
You can explain to the border agent that you’d like your stamp done in a particular way to maximize the number of days of your stay. Obviously they could refuse but never hurts to ask.
Re-entering the US on a B2 Visa
My B2 Visa is valid for 10 years, meaning within this 10 year period I can enter the US multiple times and stay for up to 180 days at a time. Your visa might be different but will work the same for whatever length your visa is valid for.
The safest way to use your B2 visa is to enter the US, stay for the 6 months (or less), finish your hike and then leave and don’t return to the US for another year.
Again, there are no precise rules on this. It’s up to the border agent, if they think you are abusing the visa they could refuse you re-entering.
In theory, you could leave after 6 months, reenter straight away, get your visa renewed for another 6 months. To me though, this is a risky option unless you can show proof of onward travel you could be refused entry.
For example, if you finish the PCT, enter Canada, spend a few days in Vancouver and then fly down to LA with the intention of heading back to your home country then you’d likely be fine.
However, if you’re flying to Vancouver from the US and flying back to the US on the same day that would likely be a red flag for the border agent. Like most things, just use your common sense.
Thru-Hikers Adapt and Overcome
International thru-hikers have to jump through even more hoops than US based hikers. Getting your B2 Visa is your first hurdle, it can be daunting at times but a key skill of any thru-hiker is to adapt, persevere and overcome!
Happy trails to all you international hikers out there. FYI The Hiker Times offers free pack shakedowns. Just fill out the form here with your info and gear list and we’ll give your our honest feedback.