This question does not have a one-size-fits-all answer. Ultimately, it depends on what activities you will be undertaking while in the U.S. and your personal decision after balancing the potential risks that may occur regardless of what path you choose.
If your only activity in the U.S. will be to participate in official SXSW showcases, the U.S. Government previously recommended that you apply for a B visa even if you qualify to enter the U.S. under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) / ESTA to avoid the unpredictability of ESTA. However, in light of the ongoing complexities impacting U.S. consulates around the world, it may actually be more challenging to obtain a B visa at this time. While there could be risk with either approach, it’s important that you obtain independent legal advice and visa-related statuses through the resources referenced here or elsewhere.
If you plan to perform at another event in the U.S. in addition to your official SXSW showcases, you will likely need an O or a P visa.
Please read the information below carefully for more context about B1/B2, O and P visas, as well as the VWP.
Non-immigrant Visas (B1/B2) and Work Visas (O or P)
Seeking a B1/B2 or Work Visa (O or P) means you may be required to meet with a U.S. consular officer before you leave home so they can make an informed decision concerning your qualification to enter the U.S. Although this reduces the unpredictability you might experience under ESTA, the current challenges could also mean delays in obtaining these visa types.
- A B1 visa is for business visitors including International Artists, and B2 is for tourists, but the visa itself combines both.
- If you plan to play any shows in addition to official SXSW Showcases — even if you will not be paid! — you must obtain a work visa (O or P).
The consular officer may (at your request) be able to note on your visa that you are showcasing at SXSW, which might reduce issues at the U.S. port of entry. Please check the International Travel Tips FAQ section for ways to minimize entry issues. Remember, consular officers have complete authority to grant or deny visas, and CBP officers have that same authority to grant or deny entry into the U.S.
ESTA Revocations and the Unpredictability of VWP
CBP previously recommended against using the VWP to enter the U.S. to perform, even if only at official SXSW Showcases. CBP has revoked ESTA registrations in the past, sometimes just before or even during an international flight. It has always been the case that CBP inspectors retain full discretion to refuse entry.
Prior to the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, CBP provided the following information to SXSW about ESTA revocations:
- If CBP revokes the ESTA registration of one group member, the odds increase that it will also revoke the ESTA registrations of the other members of the group.
- If an artist identifies his/her current employer as a band on the ESTA registration and states that the reason for traveling to the U.S. is to perform, that artist will likely receive an ESTA revocation. CBP will assume that the artist is traveling to the U.S. to work (i.e., perform, whether for pay or not) since the artist is employed by the band and, therefore, the artist needs a work visa.
- Usually, an individual’s initial ESTA registration is approved based simply on the registrant’s responses to the questions on the online form. The registration may be reviewed at several points later in the process, and that review may result in revocation. Again, the revocation can occur at the very last minute, even while the individual is on the plane en route to the U.S.
Even if your ESTA registration is not revoked, a CBP inspector at a U.S. port of entry can deny you entry for a number of reasons —for instance, if you say you are “performing” instead of “showcasing”; forget your SXSW Entry Letter; have a hard time explaining your purpose for travel to the U.S.; appear to be untruthful, etc. The CBP agent at the port of entry has final decision-making authority to allow or deny your entry into the U.S.
If you choose to use the VWP despite its inherent risks, be very careful because of the unpredictability of the program and because the VWP guidelines are very strict. Here are a few VWP guidelines for your reference:
- Foreign artists who qualify under ESTA may be allowed to enter under the VWP to showcase only at official SXSW Showcases. Any performance outside of the scheduled SXSW Showcases, or scheduled with any entity other than SXSW, regardless of compensation, may jeopardize entry to the U.S. because of the VWP guidelines.
- Foreign artists who enter via the VWP cannot accept any paid performances in the U.S.
In short, relying on the ESTA/VWP procedures to showcase at SXSW is not without risks. ESTA registrations may be canceled too close to the event to make alternative visa or travel arrangements, even if making them is not very expensive. Even if you make it to a port of entry after a long flight and a long line for inspection, CBP may refuse to admit you. In the event that you are denied entry, you will be unable to register under ESTA for an uncertain period of time, so you will be forced to apply for a U.S. visa in the future.
Official SXSW Music Festival Showcases and Artists will be listed on http://www.sxsw.com. If you are unsure whether an event is official or not, contact SXSW at firstname.lastname@example.org. Be sure to confirm that your name is on the official SXSW Showcase list well before you travel!
For more information about visas and the Visa Waiver Program, please visit the Visa Waiver Program page at the U.S. Department of State. If you need professional help applying for one of these visas, a list of attorneys and agencies is provided in the Additional Resources section of this FAQ.