Since the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security following the events of September 11, 2001, immigration now falls under the purview of the Immigration & Customs Enforcement (www.ice.gov).
Getting into the United States can be a bureaucratic nightmare, depending on your country of origin. To make matters worse, the rules are rapidly changing. For up-to-date information about visas and immigration, check with the US State Department (www.unitedstatesvisas.gov).
Most foreign visitors to the US need a visa. However, there is a Visa Waiver Program in which citizens of certain countries may enter the US for stays of 90 days or less without first obtaining a US visa. This list is subject to continual re-examination and bureaucratic rejigging. Currently these countries include Andorra, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brunei, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Monaco, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, San Marino, Singapore, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the UK. Under this program you must have a round-trip ticket (or onward ticket to any foreign destination) that is nonrefundable in the US and you will not be allowed to extend your stay beyond 90 days.
To participate in the Visa Waiver Program, travelers are required to have a passport that is machine-readable. Depending on when your passport was issued, you may also be required to provide a digital scan of your fingerprints.
In any case, your passport should be valid for at least six months longer than your intended stay and you’ll need to submit a recent photo (50.8mm x 50.8mm) with the visa application. Documents of financial stability and/or guarantees from a US resident are sometimes required, particularly for those from developing countries. Visa applicants may be required to ‘demonstrate binding obligations’ that will ensure their return home. Because of this requirement, those planning to travel through other countries before arriving in the US are generally better off applying for their US visa while they are still in their home country rather than while on the road.
The validity period for a US visitor visa depends on your home country. The actual length of time you’ll be allowed to stay in the US is determined by the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services at the port of entry.