Visa & Passport
The United States has exceptionally onerous and complicated visa requirements. Read up carefully before your visit, especially if you need to apply for a visa, and consult the Bureau of Consular Affairs. Travelers have been refused entry for many reasons, often trivial.
Planning and pre-arrival documentation
Citizens of the 38 countries within the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), as well as Canadians, Mexicans living on the border (holding a Border Crossing Card), and Bermudians (with British national (overseas) passports) do not require visas for entry into the United States. Canadians and Bermudians are normally allowed to visit for up to six months. Permanent residents of Canada are not eligible for visa-free entry, unless they are also citizens of a country that participates in the Visa Waiver Program, or one of the separate provisions for a few other countries.
The Visa Waiver Program permits visa-free stays of up to 90 days; it applies to citizens of Andorra, Austria, Australia, Belgium, Brunei, Chile, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Monaco, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, San Marino, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan (must include ID card number), and the United Kingdom.
Citizens of the Federated States of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, and Palau may enter, reside, study, and work in the U.S. indefinitely with only a valid passport.
Citizens of U.S. overseas territories such as Puerto Rico, Guam, U.S. Virgin Islands and American Samoa are considered to be U.S. nationals, and therefore do not require a passport to travel to or live in the United States (unless they are travelling from non-U.S. territories).
Citizens of the Bahamas may apply for visa-free entry only at the U.S. Customs pre-clearance facilities in the Bahamas, but a valid police certificate that was issued within the last six months is required for those over the age of 14. Attempting to enter through any other port of entry requires a valid visa.
Cayman Islands citizens, if they intend to travel directly to the U.S. from there, may obtain a single-entry visa waiver for about $25 prior to departure. A valid police certificate that was issued within the last three months is required for those over the age of 13. Attempting to enter from any other country will require you to have a valid visa.
A criminal record will likely revoke any right to visa-free travel to the U.S. Although there are exceptions e.g. traffic violations, civil infractions (such as littering, noise violations, disorderly conduct), purely political offenses (e.g. non-violent protest in countries where it is not allowed), and offenses committed before the age of 16. Anyone with a criminal record, including Canadians and Bermudians, should seek advice from a U.S. embassy on whether they need to obtain a visa.
Visa Waiver Program (VWP) requirements
The program is open only to travelers who are in the United States for tourism or business purposes. You cannot be coming to the U.S. for formal education, to get a job, or to conduct journalism; if you are, you must get an appropriate visa in advance no matter how short your trip to the U.S. may be.
The 90-day limit is not extendable. A short trip to Canada, Mexico, or the Caribbean will not allow a fresh 90 days upon return to the U.S. An extended absence to the neighboring countries may reset the limit, particularly if your first trip to the U.S. was short. Take care if transiting through the U.S. on a trip around North America that exceeds 90 days.
Having a criminal record, having been previously refused entry, or having previously been denied a U.S. visa will make one ineligible to enter on the VWP. Those who fall in these categories should apply for a U.S. visa instead.
Entry under the visa waiver program by air or sea requires the completion of an online form and a payment of $14, preferably 72 hours before arrival. The form is called the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA). ESTA approval covers multiple trips and is valid for two years (unless your passport expires earlier). This requirement is waived if entering by land.
All passports must be biometric. If your passport is an older one that was issued before biometric passports were available, you will need to obtain a new passport to travel to the U.S. on the VWP.
Entry under the VWP by air or sea requires travel with a signatory carrier. Any commercial scheduled services to the U.S. will be fine, but if you are on a chartered flight or vessel you should check the status of the carrier, as you may require a visa. Flying your own personal aircraft, or sailing your own personal yacht to the U.S. will require you to obtain a tourist visa in advance.
Travelers entering by air or sea should also have a return or onward ticket out of the United States. This requirement is not necessary for residents of Canada, Mexico, Bermuda, or the Caribbean. If traveling by land, there is a $7 fee when crossing the border.
Entry under the VWP does not allow you to change your immigration status, and if you are denied entry, the decision can't be appealed and you will immediately be placed on the first flight out.
Obtaining a visa
|U.S. Visa/Residence Status Overview|
For the rest of the world, the visa application fee is a non-refundable $160 (as of April 2012) for visas that are not issued on the basis of a petition and $190 for those that are; this fee is waived under very limited circumstances, namely for people requesting certain exchange visitor visas.
Depending on your nationality and the category of visa you are requesting, you may need to pay an additional fee (ranging from $7–200) only if the visa is issued. This is called a reciprocity fee and is charged by the U.S. to match the fees charged by other countries on U.S. citizens.
The Immigration and Nationality Act states that all persons requesting entry into the United States as non-immigrants are presumed to be immigrants until they overcome that presumption by showing evidence of "binding ties" to their home country as well as sufficient proof that the visit will be temporary. When the U.S. rejects a visa application, it is usually because the applicant does not have enough binding ties to his own country to convince the consular officer that the person will not try to overstay. Applicants need to demonstrate that they are indeed genuinely entitled to the visa they are applying for. Face-to-face interviews (where the official needs to be convinced that you are not a "potential immigrant") at the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate are required for almost all nationalities, and waits for interview slots and visa processing can add up to several months.
Keep in mind that the embassy is closed on both U.S. holidays and holidays of your home country so you need to know both holidays when setting dates to apply for a visa. In addition, travelers should start planning their trips way in advance, as the application process is known to take up to six months.
Do not assume anything. Check on documentation requirements with the United States State Department or with the United States consulate nearest you. If coming to the country with a car, be sure to have documents showing car insurance, rental agreements, driver's license, etc., before trying to enter the U.S. If your country participates in the Visa Waiver Program, note that having been denied a visa for whatever reason, including a lack of relevant documentation will result in you being ineligible for the program and having to obtain a visa for every subsequent visit to the U.S.
For technical and scientific fields of work or study, depending on your nationality, processing non-immigrant visa application can take up to 70 days, as it can require 8 weeks for receiving an approval from authorities in Washington. This especially applies to military and dual-purpose fields which are mentioned in a so-called technical alert list.
A visa is not a guarantee of entry; it only allows you to proceed to a port of entry and request admission. Your visa is generally not tied to your permitted length of stay; for example, a 10-year visa does not allow a stay of 10 years. On the other hand, you can enter the country on the last day of validity of your visa and still be allowed to stay, for example, up to 180 days as a tourist.
Applying for an incorrect or inappropriate visa can cause serious problems, including possibly making you ineligible to ever receive any U.S. visa (especially in cases of fraud). Consider consulting a U.S. immigration attorney, especially if you want to stay longer or do something other than business or tourism. This includes performing in concerts or competitions as well as journalism.
Travel to U.S. possessions
America's overseas possessions have slightly different rules. See each destination's article for details.
In brief, Guam, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Northern Mariana Islands all have the same entry requirements as the 50 states. However, Guam and the Northern Marianas apply the visa waiver program to a few additional countries.
American Samoa lies outside the federal immigration jurisdiction and has separate entry requirements.
Arriving in the United States
Since May 2013, non-U.S. or Canadian citizens arriving by air no longer need to fill out a paper I-94 form. Instead, all travelers records will be stored electronically by the Customs and Borders Protection (CBP), and can be accessed here, where visitors can print their records for immigration benefits. Two separate lanes are available: one for U.S. citizens, Canadian citizens and returning U.S. permanent residents; and another for all other travelers.
Visitors arriving by land are still required to fill in the I-94 paper form, and still need to surrender the portion attached to their passport once leaving the country.
If you are not a citizen or resident of the United States, you will be questioned briefly at immigration. You must be ready to show the officers that your purpose is not to immigrate (unless you have an appropriate visa for that). Be ready as well to prove your stated motives for entering. For business, this can be an invitation letter from a company you are visiting, or the registration details of a conference you are attending. For tourists, you may need to demonstrate you have funds available to you or that you already paid for most of your travel arrangements (e.g. accommodations, intra-US transport, tours, meals). Proof of onward travel may be required.
If you don't fully comply with all that's required, e.g. no onward transport, you may be sent for further questioning. At this stage your possessions may be searched and your documents, letters or diaries may be read. If you are found to appear as a likely immigrant (e.g. if you're carrying employment documents, photographs typically kept at home, excessive luggage, or pets) or if you are unable to convince the officers that you intend to abide by the terms of your stated entrance permission, you will be refused entry and deported. If your country participates in the Visa-Waiver Program, note that being refused entry will result in you being ineligible for the program and having to obtain a visa for every subsequent visit to the U.S.
Once they decide to let you in, you are fingerprinted and a digital photograph is taken. Entry will be denied if either of these procedures is refused.
At selected airports, Canadian and VWP nationals may be able to use automated passport control (APC) kiosks to record their passport and biometric details. Household members traveling together can do this at once. VWP nationals need to have ESTA clearance, and previously entered the U.S. at least once since 2008. If successful, the traveler gets a receipt and goes to the designated CBP desk to continue the inspection process. This does not require prior registration or enrollment fees. U.S. and other selected nationals may be eligible to participate in the Global Entry Program. Global Entry also allows selected passengers to use a designated kiosk for the inspection process. Unlike APC, Global Entryrequires prior application, background check, interview, and a $100 fee, but allows the passenger to bypass intense questioning after going to a kiosk for up to 5 years. Canadian citizens and permanent residents may participate in a similar program known as NEXUS, which has a cheaper $50 application fee and also provides for expedited clearance and full Global Entry privileges, but requires you to be interviewed by both US and Canadian immigration officers before approval.
As in most countries, customs officials are humorless about any kind of security threat; even the most flippant joke implying that you pose a threat can result in lengthy interrogation, at best.
The officer who questions you on immigration matters can also question you on what you are bringing to the U.S.
Each household (i.e. family members living and travelling together) needs to complete one customs declaration form. U.S., Canadian or VWP nationals can do this electronically by using the kiosks located right before the CBP passport control desks. All other nationals need to fill this out manually - flight crews provide this form or it can be downloaded here, printed, and brought along. Regardless of whether you have anything to declare, customs officers may still search or X-ray your bags. Most of the time, they won't. Anything more than a bag search is rare, so you won't likely encounter any ominous latex gloves.
Do not attempt to import items originating from countries against which the U.S. has imposed economic sanctions (currently Cuba, Iran, Syria and Sudan), they will be confiscated by customs if discovered - unlabeled cigars in particular are assumed to be from Cuba, and will also be taken away. It is also against the law to bring meat or raw fruit or vegetables (with a few exceptions for Canadian produce grown in season via land borders only) but you may bring cooked non-meats, such as bread and most commercially prepackaged foods (biscuits, cheese, tea, coffee, etc...) . All food and plant items being brought into the country need to be declared, even if unrestricted! Much like in Australia and New Zealand, all incoming food and plant products must be physically examined by the United States Department of Agriculture - if necessary, you'll be directed to their inspection area after clearing customs. For straightforward, unrestricted items such as prepackaged non-meats, the inspection process rarely takes more than a minute. Failure to declare agricultural products can result in a fine or even prosecution if the USDA believes you're willfully attempting to import illegal food or plants. That said, first time offenders are usually let off with a warning for unintentional omissions if the items are ultimately permissible.
Besides your personal effects, which will go home with you, you are allowed to import individual gifts with a value of $100 or less per item. If you're 21 years of age or older, you may also import limited quantities of tobacco and alcohol products duty-free:
- Up to 200 cigarettes (one carton) or fifty non-Cuban cigars or up to 2kg of loose tobacco products such as snuff (or a proportional combination thereof.)
- Up to one liter of alcohol. Unlike some countries, the one liter restriction applies irrespective of strength: a fifth of Scotch at 40% ABV or a standard size (750ml) bottle of wine at 14% ABV are both within the allowance, but a six pack of 12 oz beer at 5% ABV is the equivalent of over 2 liters and over the duty-free allowance.
If you are over the alcohol exemption by a small amount (e.g. a six pack of beer or a second bottle of wine) most customs officers will let this slide for wine and beer if you've made a full and accurate declaration. Anything more than this, or any spirits over the limit will likely result in duty and tax being assessed, the amount of which depends in part on the state you're entering to and the country the goods are from (duty from Canada, for example is minimal owing in part to NAFTA). Customs officers do not show this leniency with tobacco products, expect to pay if you are even one cigarette over!
A reasonable quantity of perfume or cologne can also be imported provided the brand is not under a "Trademark Restriction in the United States". There is no restriction on the amount of money you can bring in or out of the U.S. However, if you are bringing in or out $10,000 or more (or its equivalent in foreign currency) per household (combined total among all family members travelling together), you must declare it on your customs form and you will be given a special form to fill out; not declaring exposes you to a fine and possible seizure of that cash. Cheques, bonds and other financial instruments must also be declared. ATM/Debit cards linked to non-U.S. bank accounts carrying the said amount do not need to be declared (although your bank may impose some withdrawal restrictions and fees to access this money in the U.S.).
The U.S. possessions of American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Marianas Islands, and U.S. Virgin Islands are outside the federal customs jurisdiction and each have their own separate requirements. Travel between these regions and the rest of the U.S. requires a customs check. There are some differences (mostly larger) in duty exemptions for U.S. citizens returning from these destinations.
You must pass through immigration and customs at your first point of entry, even if you have any onward domestic flights. Since you have had access to your checked bags while going through customs, you will need to re-clear security before taking a connecting flight. Nearly all major hubs have special arrangements for travelers with connecting flights, such as a conveyor belt just beyond customs where you can place your baggage that has been already been tagged for transfer your final destination. Some hubs, like JFK, employ a more inconvenient system, whereby you must show your ID and boarding pass at a "Connecting Flights" check-in counter. At airports with separate domestic and international terminals (such as Boston), you will have to head to another terminal and drop your bags there before heading to security.
These bag drop procedures apply only if your baggage has been checked through to your final destination (as opposed to your first U.S. port of entry). If this is not the case, you will have to proceed to the terminal of your next flight and check in as usual.
Leaving the United States
Unlike most countries, the U.S. has no formal passport control upon exit, especially for those traveling by air or sea. As such, your airline or shipping company will document your departure and report it to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). The CBP then updates your immigration record. Aliens who arrived in the U.S. by air or sea after mid-2013, and depart by air or sea do not need to do anything further.
If you fall into one of the following categories, you may need to take further action to actively prove that you left the U.S. on time:
- arrived in the U.S. before mid-2013 through any means (when the paper I-94 card was still physically issued to foreigners): turnover the I-94 card to the airline staff at check-in, or to the Canadian or Mexican immigration officer if departing by land
- arrived in the U.S. via land or private vehicles (paper I-94 cards are still issued here): turnover the I-94 card to the airline staff at check-in, or to the Canadian or Mexican immigration officer if departing by land
- left the U.S. via land or private vehicles: save any evidence that you were outside the U.S. before your authorised stay expired
In any case, on future visits, consider bringing the necessary documents to prove you left legally. U.S. Customs and Border Protection has information about what to do if your slip is not collected.
If you intend to leave for Canada or Mexico by land for a side trip and return within 30 days or the allowed time of your stay (whichever is shorter), you may re-enter the U.S. provided that you do not yet return any issued I-94 card before you proceed to Canada or Mexico. This can also be done even if you originally entered the U.S. on a single-entry visa, or the visa you initially entered the U.S. with has expired. However, you will only be admitted for the remainder of your original allowed time; the deadline to ultimately leave the U.S. won't be extended by just leaving for somewhere else in North America. If you return the I-94 while on the side trip, you will have to apply all over again to enter the U.S. (which means a new visa for single-entry visa holders) and be subject to the usual questioning that aliens go through to lack of any intentions of immigrating, working, or doing something else not authorized by the visa.
That said, try to avoid re-entering the U.S. a few days, weeks or months after one visit. Even if you don't technically overstay, planning several U.S. visits spaced shortly after each other may be interpreted by immigration officers as "immigrant intent" and may cause you grief.