Entry requirements for the USA

Updated 2023-10-04 09:38

If you're an expat planning to travel to the United States for the first time, you should know several important things about entry requirements and the travel process. Although requirements may differ depending on where you are traveling from and what kind of passport you hold, we've collected some information to ensure your arrival to the US is as smooth as possible.

Valid passport for the US

It goes without saying, but please ensure you have a valid passport from your home country. The passport should be valid for at least six months beyond your intended stay in the US. It must also display your current name and be in an undamaged condition. It's easy to overlook when your passport expires, so double-check your documents and ensure they are all in order. Getting a new passport can be a long process in many countries, so if you must order one, apply for it well in advance.

Visa Waiver Program for the US

Anyone visiting the United States should research the requirements for entry into the country well before the travel date. Passport holders from EU countries and others, such as Australia, South Korea, New Zealand, Japan, and others, are eligible for a visa waiver for a stay of up to 90 days. Travelers from all other countries must apply for and own a tourist visa to enter the US.

Though the visa waiver makes life easy, you must apply for an Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) online before your trip. The ESTA must be approved before you board your flight to the US. The US Visa Waiver Program applies to nationals of 38 countries. Once approved for an ESTA, travelers will be granted entry into the US for a business or tourist stay of up to 90 days. Visitors may apply for their ESTA approval as soon as they begin planning a trip and up to 72 hours before their flight.

All ESTA applicants must have a machine-readable e-passport with a digital photograph. Once the application form is submitted online, the system will generate a response almost instantly. A visa application should be filed at the nearest American consulate or embassy if authorization is refused. The final response should be sent within 72 hours if an answer is pending. Any applicant can monitor the progress of their file on the ESTA website.

Good to know:

Visa exemption applies for citizens from the following countries: Andorra, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brunei, Chile, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Korea, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Monaco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, San Marino, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, and the United Kingdom.

Visa requirements for the USA

If your country is not eligible for the Visa Waiver Program or if you plan to stay in the US for longer than 90 days, you will need to apply for a visa. The type of visa you need depends on the purpose of your visit, such as tourism, work, or study, or perhaps you are planning to move to the USA with an American partner. Checking the specific visa requirements and applying well before your trip is essential.

Non-immigrant visa     

For those considering a short-term visit to the USA (six months or less), the most suitable visa would be a non-immigrant visa. This process usually begins online and generally involves an in-person visit to a United States embassy or consulate in your home country. Temporary visitors for business reasons should apply for a B-1 visa (a business visa) and all others for a B-2 type visa (a tourist visa). All applicants are required to have a passport valid for at least six months beyond the period of stay, a non-immigrant visa application (Form DS-160), a passport-sized photo according to US requirements, and pay a $185 application fee. Applicants must also schedule and attend a visa interview at the US embassy or consulate in the country of application. At this appointment, a consular officer will tell you if additional documents are required, if your visa has been approved, and how your passport will be returned.

Long-term visa options

If you are planning to emigrate to America on a more permanent basis, there are a range of visa options available to you, all with their own requirements and time frames. Visa options include family-based visas for spouses, immediate relatives, or certain family members; employment-based visas for individuals with job offers or exceptional skills; the Diversity Visa Lottery for individuals from countries with low immigration rates; investor visas for those making substantial investments, refugee and asylum status for those fleeing persecution, and special immigrant visas for unique circumstances. Each visa category has specific eligibility criteria, and it's advisable to consult with an immigration attorney or the USCIS for detailed information on requirements and procedures.

Obtaining an I-94 in the US

The I-94 is a document that shows your authorized stay and arrival/departure record when entering and leaving the United States. To obtain an I-94, you do not need to take any specific action, as it is generated electronically when you get to the United States. The US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officer creates an electronic I-94 record with information such as your name, passport details, visa status, and authorized period of stay. You can access and print your I-94 record online from the CBP website, which can help verify your immigration status or provide proof of your authorized visit.

Customs, border protection, and duty-free in the US

When you arrive in the US, you will go through customs and immigration at the port of entry. Prepare to present your passport, visa (if applicable), and any supporting documents requested by the CBP officer, such as return tickets, accommodation details, or proof of financial means. Answer the officer's questions truthfully and confidently. The interview can feel nerve-wracking and like you are being interrogated for no reason, but it's usually just part of protocol.

We recommend you have these details readily available for the officer, and it's wise to carry printed-out documents with you if you are anticipating any issues or just for your peace of mind. The papers could be details of hotel reservations, onward travel, letters of invitation, or confirmation for any activities you will be doing. Above all, you want to make your visit to the USA seem as legitimate as possible.

Customs officers may conduct inspections, review declarations and documents, and ask questions about the purpose of the visit. Biosecurity measures focus on preventing the introduction of pests, diseases, or prohibited items. Depending on where you have come from or what you declare, officers may inspect your luggage and ask about any food, plants, or animal products being brought into the country. It's vital to comply with these procedures and declare any items as required to ensure a smooth entry process. A complete list of what cannot be brought into the USA is available.

When entering the United States, visitors are allowed a duty-free exemption of $800 per person, which applies to gifts, souvenirs, and other personal items. Specific allowances exist for alcohol and tobacco, with one liter of alcohol and up to 200 cigarettes duty-free per eligible individual.

Security checks in the USA

Expect thorough security checks at US airports. US security may differ from what is required in your own country, so always make sure you have checked out the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) guidelines regarding carry-on luggage, liquids, and prohibited items. Be prepared to remove your shoes, belt, and jacket during the screening process. Also, laptops and large electronic devices may need to be removed from your bag and screened separately.

If you want to make this process easy, some tips include keeping your toiletries all in one clear bag, making sure electronics are in locations where they can easily be slipped in and out, and having a dedicated place to keep travel documents. There's nothing worse than getting flustered at the front of the line, with impatient travelers behind you and frustrated TSA officers yelling at you. It's worth wearing slip-on shoes when you travel in the US to make this experience more manageable.

Health and safety in the US

Before you travel, familiarize yourself with health and safety regulations, such as COVID-19 requirements regarding masks or vaccine certificates. Although many countries have eased up on restrictions, these situations are always subject to change. Make sure to check if you need to provide proof of vaccination or a negative test result, and carry a mask with you just in case.

Travel insurance in the US

You must have travel insurance covering all medical expenses, trip cancellations, and any unforeseen emergencies during your stay in the US. There are numerous different providers to choose from, but review your policy to ensure it meets your needs thoroughly. If you intend to do any adventure tourism or other risky activities, ensure these are also covered under the terms of your stay.

Practical matters in the US

  • SIM cards and mobile service: If you need mobile assistance in the USA, you can purchase a prepaid SIM card or a temporary plan from local service providers. Sometimes, these can be found in airports, or you can order a US SIM in advance and send it to your country. Ensure your cell phone is unlocked and compatible with whatever SIM you order.
  • Currency: The United States Dollar (USD) is used in the USA. Carrying some cash in USD for immediate expenses upon arrival is advisable. ATMs are widely available if you need to withdraw more money, and credit cards are accepted in most places. Inform your bank or credit card company about your travel plans to avoid issues with using your cards abroad.
  • Transportation: Familiarize yourself with the transportation options in the area you'll be visiting. Public transportation systems in the US, like buses, trains, and subways, vary between cities. Ride-hailing services like Uber and taxis are also commonly used. It's always good to have researched airport transport in advance so that you are not stumped on arrival.
  • Power adapters: The United States uses the standard type A and type B electrical outlets with a voltage of 120V. If your devices use a different plug type or require a voltage converter, you should bring the appropriate adapters to power them up as soon as needed. If you can't find them in your country, they are commonly for sale in airports.
  • Emergency contacts: Save essential phone numbers, including emergency contacts, local authorities, your embassy or consulate, and any necessary medical or insurance helplines.
  • Time zones: The United States spans multiple time zones. Be aware of the time difference between your location and destination to ensure scheduling and appointment clarity.
  • Date format: In the USA, dates are written with the month before the day, which can be confusing when your country formats it differently. Travel involves filling out many forms, so double-check that you are using the American date format.

Useful links:

US Embassies and consulates abroad

US Visa Waiver Program requirements

Visa waiver program FAQ

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