Preparing to Enter the United States
This article is a travel topic
The United States is not the easiest country to try to enter, even for US citizens. The events of 9/11 have made entry more difficult than it was. For most purposes other then pleasure, most travelers will need to apply for a visa. However even a visa itself does not guarantee that the bearer will be allowed to enter the US. This article intends to take you through the ins and outs of what one needs to do to try to enter the US. It aims to give general guidance such as when one needs a visa or when one can travel without one. Given that there are plenty of purposes for travel, this article will mainly focus on those just visiting the US either for business or pleasure.
The United States has complicated visa requirements. Read up carefully before your visit, especially if you need to apply for a visa, and consult the US State Department. Travelers have been refused entry for many reasons, some which are because of simple issues.
Citizens of the 37 countries within the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), as well as Canadians, Bermudians (must be Bermudian/British Overseas Territories passports - UK passports are NOT the same thing), certain Caribbean islands (conditions apply) and the three Pacific freely associated countries do not require advance visas for entry into the United States for business visits, pleasure and transit.
For Canadians and Bermudians (only on a British Overseas Territories passport - a UK passport does not qualify), the entry period is normally for a maximum of six months. However, entry may still be refused on the basis of a criminal record as well as the potential to violate visitor status. Those who have criminal records should seek out a US embassy for advice on whether they need a visa. Any criminal record (including Drinking and Driving, but excluding other "traffic" tickets) can be grounds to be denied admission. Contact the US Embassy/Consulate nearest you to verify if you're record will disqualify you. They can also assist with filing paperwork to overcome the bar to entry. An ESTA is not required for these countries.
For travelers under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), they are required to file for an Electronic Travel Authority (ESTA) at least 72 hours before entering the US. The entry period is strictly limited to 90 days (see additional requirements below). As of October 2012, the countries under the Visa Waiver Program are Andorra, Austria, Australia, Belgium, Brunei, 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 and the United Kingdom.
Citizens of the Bahamas may apply for visa-free entry only at the U.S. Customs pre-clearance facilities in the Bahamas. Attempting to enter through any other port of entry requires a valid visa.
Persons holding a British Overseas Territories passport (not UK passport) from the Cayman Islands, 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.
Persons holding a British Overseas Territories passport (not UK passport) from the Turks and Caicos Islands, may travel visa-free if they intend to travel directly to the U.S. from there, and all travelers 14 years of age or older must present a police certificate issued by the Royal Turks and Caicos Islands Police Force within the past six months.
Visa Waiver Program requirements
Travel under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) is limited to tourism or business purposes only; neither employment nor journalism is permitted with a Visa Waiver. The 90-day limit cannot be extended nor will travel to Canada, Mexico, or the Caribbean reset the 90-day limit. Take care if transiting through the US on a trip exceeding 90 days to Canada and/or Mexico.
With the implementation of the Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015, citizens of VWP countries who are also citizens of Iraq, Syria, Iran or Sudan, or have traveled to those countries on or after March 1, 2011 are not eligible to travel under the VWP, and must apply for a visa. Exceptions include travels to those countries for military or government official purposes of a VWP country.
Travelers entering the US through the VWP must apply for Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) approval on-line before their flights, preferably 72 hours before travel. An ESTA approval is valid for two years (unless your passport expires earlier) and costs $14.
From 1 April 2016 onward, for VWP travel all passports must be biometric passports (e-passports) regardless of when they were issued. If you have a non e-passport, try having your government exchange it for an biometric passport, explaining that you wish to travel to the U.S.
Travelers entering by air or sea must also have a return/onward ticket out of the United States. If the return/onward ticket terminates in Canada, Mexico, Bermuda, or any Caribbean island, the traveler must be a legal resident of that country/territory. If traveling by land, there is a $7 fee when crossing the border. Before VWP travelers commence their journeys, they must apply electronically for authorization to travel (ESTA) through the ESTA website. If approved, it allows the traveler to commence his journey to the U.S. but (as with any visa or entry permit) it does not guarantee entry.
A criminal record will generally make a potential traveler ineligible for visa-free travel with the following exceptions:
The ESTA application contains a questionnaire, which if answered truthfully will direct you to apply to a visa if you are ineligible for the Visa Waiver Program for reasons of criminal history, etc. If you have any concerns, complete the ESTA application well in advance of your departure to allow time to apply for a visa if directed to do so. Answering by omission or outright lie is a crime in the US regardless of where you fill out the online forms. Even if not prosecuted, such act will generally make you ineligible for visa free travel, and will generally prohibit you from obtaining a visa for at least 5 years.
There are disadvantages and restrictions to entering under the Visa-Waiver program. Under normal circumstances, these include the following:
Obtaining a Visa
Depending on your nationality and the category of visa you are requesting, you may need to pay an additional fee 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.
Mexican citizens are eligible to apply for a Border Crossing Card, which doubles as a B1/B2 visa. The usual visa fee applies, except for children under 15 years fulfilling certain conditions.
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 only be temporary. When the U.S. refuses a visa application, it is usually because the applicant does not satisfactorily demonstrate 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 US Embassies are closed on both U.S. holidays and holidays of the local nation. You'll need to know both holidays when setting dates to apply for a visa. In addition, travelers should start planning their trips far in advance, as the application process is known to take up to 6 months.
Do not assume anything. Check on documentation requirements with the US State Department or with the United States consulate nearest you. Be ready to bring documents that will prove your ties to your home country such as employment certificate, pay slips, bank accounts, property titles. etc. The consul may or may not request to look at them but bring them nonetheless. 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 the car will be staying in the US and/or will be sold in the US it must comply with US Environmental Regulations, plus those of the State that the car arrives in. Most cars except those in Canada do NOT comply with and thus can not enter the US.
Please bear in mind that applying for the incorrect/inappropriate visa for your purpose of travel will lead to serious problems, not to mention a possible perpetual bar from getting any U.S. visa (especially if you attempt to fraudulently obtain the visa). As such, please consult a U.S. immigration attorney especially if you want to apply for visas that require you to stay longer or do something other than business or tourism. This includes performing in concerts or competitions as well as field reporting for your media organization back home. Performing work for free (charity), while not paid does not relieve one from the requirement to obtain an employment visa. Bottom line any job that would normally be paid, even if done for free (charity) requires an employment visa.
During the interview process, you will go through several queues and windows. These include the collection of your documents, the capturing of your biometric particulars and the interview itself. Answer as truthfully and clearly as possible and keep your answers direct-to-the-point; the consul has no time to listen to life stories. If you don't understand the question, want it to be rephrased in a different way or need an interpreter, then tell the consul; you don't want to be giving mixed answers to different questions. Usually immediately after the end of the interview, the consul will inform you of the decision. If it has been denied or more documents are requested, you will be issued a letter explaining the situation and, if applicable, what you need to do to rectify the situation. If it has been approved, the consul will refer you to the section where you will arrange for the delivery of your passport and visa.
A visa is not a guarantee of entry into the U.S.: 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 U.S. on the last day of validity of your visa and still be allowed to stay, for example, up to 180 days as a tourist.
Travel to US Possessions
The territories of Guam, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Northern Mariana Islands all have the same entry requirements as the 50 states. Except that US citizens do not require passports, but may want them in order to visit surrounding countries.
However, Guam and the Northern Marianas Islands allow entry, by air only, for an additional group of foreign nationals under the Guam-CNMI Visa Waiver Program: Brunei, Malaysia, Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Taiwan (only on non-stop flights from Taiwan), & Hong Kong. Citizens of Australia, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, Singapore, & the United Kingdom are also allowed entry under the Guam-CNMI VWP and may enter under the federal VWP. Entrance under the Guam-CNMI VWP requires a valid, machine-readable passport, a return airfare, and is limited to a 45 day stay in Guam & the Northern Marianas only. Residents of Hong Kong must present a valid HK permanent identity card and are allowed entry with either a Hong Kong S.A.R. passport or British National (Overseas) passport. Residents of Taiwan must present a valid R.O.C. National Identification Card in addition to an R.O.C. passport. Citizens of Russia are eligible for parole (essentially the same as visa-free travel) to enter the Northern Marianas Islands only. Because of differences in entry requirements, a full immigration check is done when traveling between Guam and the Northern Marianas as well as on flights to the rest of the U.S. (currently, only Guam-Hawaii flights).
American Samoa lies outside the federal immigration jurisdiction and has separate entry requirements, which even apply to U.S. citizens. Entry is allowed for 30 days (extendable to 60 days) for tourism with a valid passport and proof of onward travel or local employment. U.S. citizens and citizens of countries under the federal Visa Waiver Program plus Palau, the Marshall Islands, and F.S. Micronesia are allowed visa-free entry. All other foreign nationals must contact the American Samoa Attorney General's office to obtain a visa at (684) 633-4163.
Arrival in the United States
There is NO transit without US entry between international flights! This means ALL must disembark and proceed through immigration and customs inspection to enter the United States even if you're only staying for the two to four hours required to transit between flights. This is most relevant if you're transiting between the Asia/Pacific or Europe to/from Latin America. Therefore, all travelers must be able to enter the United States on the Visa Waiver Program (or other visa exemption) or get at least a visitor's (B1 or B2) or transit (C1) visa before entering. A rule of thumb is to have at least a 3-hour layover to allow time for immigration, customs, and rechecking luggage. Please see the article Avoiding a transit of the United States for alternative methods to make connections.
If you are not a Canadian or Bermudian, you will receive either a white I-94 (if entering with a visa) or green I-94W (if entering on a visa waiver) form to complete. Since the end of May 2013, only passengers who arrive in the US by land or a non-commercial transport will be required to do so.
If you are not a citizen or resident of the United States, you will go through a short interview at immigration, where a Customs and Border Protection officer will try to determine if the purpose of your visit is valid. Just like when obtaining the visa, the most important concern to immigration officials is to determine that you have the funds to support yourself and that you do not intend to work or perform any activity not authorized by the your visa. Be prepared to show proof. If you are on a business visit, have an invitation letter from the company you are visiting, or the registration details of the conference you are attending. If you are a tourist, you may need to demonstrate you have funds available to you. In both cases proof of onward travel may be required. Usually, the determination of admissibility is made in a minute or less, but you may be referred to further questioning in a more private area. At this stage they will likely search your possessions, and may read any documentation, letters or diaries in your possession. Do NOT bring anything that will imply you will immigrate (employment documents, photographs typically kept at home, excessive luggage, pets). If you are unable to prove or convince the officers that you will potentially abide by the terms of your visa (or visa waiver program if applicable), the visa can be cancelled on the spot, and you will be refused entry and sent on the next flight home.
Once the CBP officer decides to let you in, you are fingerprinted and a digital photograph is taken. These are additional security measures dubbed U.S.-VISIT  that is currently applicable to all non-resident aliens, at a majority of land, sea, and air entry ports.
Like immigration and customs officials everywhere, CBP 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, and summary expulsion at worst.
For non-residents, your entry forms will need to state the street address of the location where you will be staying for the first night; this should be arranged in advance. The name of your hotel, hostel, university, may or may not be accepted in it's place, it's best to have the address. If it is a hotel, have a reservation under your name. If it is a private address, make sure that the people there know that they are expecting you that day, as officials may phone them and ask them for the name of the guest they are expecting. Make sure you have their contact details (especially phone numbers where they can be reached immediately), and save any text messages, e-mails, tweets, social media messages, etc. in which your hosts mention inviting you to stay at their residence.
Once you are admitted, the departure portion of your I-94 or I-94W will be stapled to your passport, if you arrived by land or non-commercial transport. In such a case, keep it safe' as you will need to give it to airline staff upon departure from the U.S. and, if you fail to turn it in, you run the risk of being thought to have overstayed. Most passengers who arrived by air or sea as at late May 2013 or later do not need to surrender their I-94 card upon departure. The airline or cruise ship will notify CBP of all persons aboard the departing vessel.
A customs form is handed out to all travelers; however, only one form per family is required to be filled out. Normally, the head of the family is responsible for ensuring the declaration is accurate. (Everyone over 18 though must fill out their own declaration) After you are admitted into the U.S. and retrieve your bags from the baggage claim, you will proceed to the customs inspection checkpoint. Hand your customs declaration to the officer. Most of the time, the officer will point you to the exit and that will be it. If you are traveling by air to the U.S., many airports will provide two lanes: for those who have something to declare and those who have nothing to declare. Regardless of the lane you choose, customs officers still have the right to detain you and search your bags. Sometimes, the officer may ask you some routine questions and then let you go. The officer may refer you to an adjacent X-ray machine to have your bags inspected or may refer you for a manual search of your bags. Any search more intrusive than a bag search is rare and is usually indicated only if some sort of probable cause has been established through questioning or during the bag search to suggest suspicious activity. Random searches of luggage, either by X-ray or manually, can occur.
You can't bring meat or raw fruit or vegetables but you may bring cooked non-meats, such as bread. See APHIS  for details. The U.S. Customs process is straightforward. Most articles that are prohibited or restricted in any other country are prohibited or restricted in the U.S. The only rule that is unique to America is that it is generally prohibited to bring in goods made in countries on which the U.S. has imposed economic sanctions: Cuba, Iran, North Korea (DPRK), Sudan and Myanmar (Burma).
For non-US citizens, besides your personal effects, you are allowed to import $200 of merchandise duty free, including 1 liter of alcohol (for those 21 and older only) and 1 carton of cigarettes. However you must declare it. If you are bringing in more than $10,000 cash or its equivalent, 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. You must also declare when leaving with higher then the same amount of cash.
The U.S. possessions of American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Marianas Islands, & U.S. Virgin Islands are outside federal customs jurisdiction. Each imposes their own separate requirements. Travel between these regions and the rest of the U.S. requires a customs inspection. There are some differences (mostly larger) in duty exemptions for U.S. citizens returning from these destinations.
All inbound citizens, nationals, and visitors must pass through immigration and customs at their first point of entry, regardless of final destination. Nearly all major hubs have special arrangements for travelers with connecting flights, such as a conveyor belt just the other side of customs where you can place your baggage that has been already been tagged with your final destination. (Some hubs like JFK have now switched to a more inconvenient system, where you must show your ID and boarding pass at a "Connecting Flights" check-in counter.)
Since you have had access to your checked bags while going through customs, you will always need to re-clear security if proceeding on to a connecting flight. Some airports (such as Philadelphia) have a bag drop belt right outside customs, followed by a dedicated security checkpoint just for passengers connecting from international flights.
Note that the bag drop procedures above work only if you have requested the staff at your port of departure to check your baggage through to your final destination (as opposed to your first U.S. port of entry). If this is not possible or there are no check-through agreements between the airline that took you to your port of entry and the next airline, you will have to proceed to the terminal from which your next flight departs and check-in as usual.
Passengers whose journeys originate in any Canadian airports will have the advantage of clearing U.S. entry formalities (passport control and customs) at their Canadian port-of-exit. As far as most flights from Canada are concerned, they are treated similarly as U.S. domestic flights but only because clearance has been performed at the Canadian airport. Hence once passengers from Canada arrive at their U.S. port-of-entry, rather than walk through a secluded corridor, they can see the display of restaurants and shops at the domestic terminal on their way to baggage claim. It is worth noting that most Canadian carriers are located in U.S. domestic terminals.
Take note that passengers on U.S.-Canadian flights operated by foreign carriers like Cathay Pacific will still see traditional entry formalities upon arrival at their U.S. port-of-entry; a Canadian transit visa may be required even if passengers are confined to a holding area for the entire transit time.
All airports in Canada, including Vancouver International Airport, Terminal 1 of Toronto-Pearson Airport, and Montréal-Trudeau Airport do not require passengers in transit from abroad to pass through Canadian Customs and Immigration controls before going through U.S. preclearance formalities. However, even if you pass through these airports, make sure that your papers are in order to allow you to enter Canada: if you cannot travel to the U.S. on the same day you go through preclearance, if you are not cleared for entry to the United States, or if you simply wish to visit the city during your layover, you will need to report to Canada Customs. If you are not granted clearance to enter the US and don't meet entry rules for Canada you will be sent back to the country from which you departed. You will be detained and placed in detention if a flight is not available to your departure country on the same day.
Preclearance facilities are available at major Canadian airports (Toronto-Pearson, Montreal-Trudeau, Ottawa Macdonald-Cartier, Vancouver, Calgary, etc.), Queen Beatrix International Airport in Aruba, Grand Bahama and Lynden Pindling International Airports in the Bahamas, Bermuda International Airport in Bermuda, and Dublin and Shannon International Airports in Ireland. Shannon, Ireland and Queen Beatrix International, Aruba are also available to pre-clear private aircraft.
Passengers on British Airways flights from London to New York City transiting via either Dublin or Shannon, Ireland will take advantage of U.S. passport control and customs preclearance at Dublin or Shannon. Upon arrival at the U.S., they will also arrive as if they were domestic passengers.
Departing the United States and Preserving Future Ability to Re-enter
Unlike most countries, the US has no formal passport control checkpoint for those exiting the country, especially for those traveling by air or sea. If you were previously given an I-94/I-94W form and are leaving the US for the last time on a particular trip (eg not returning from Canada or Mexico), it is ultimately your responsibility to turnover the departure record of your I-94 or I-94(W) to the airline or ship staff at check-in, or the Canadian or Mexican border officer if leaving by land. If you leave the country with it, still in your possession, contact US officials about how to return it and update your departure records to avoid entry hassles in the future. If you leave by a commercial carrier, your departure will also be verified with the airline or shipping company. Hence it (at least theoretically) means no further action is needed from you; nonetheless bring whatever documents to prove you were outside the US before time was up the next time you visit. US Customs and Border Protection has information about what to do if your slip is not collected. Passengers who entered after May 2013 by air or sea but departed by land are also advised to keep documents which prove they left before the period given to them to stay in the US expired.
While no formal passport control exists on exit, the airline or cruise ship will notify Immigration of all departing the US. This serves as record. Some airports will require you to place your thumbs on a fingerprint reader and this process will mark you as leaving the country. Regardless, it's best to keep boarding passes, especially if you plan on returning shortly and/or entering multiple times.