If you are flying into the US, the first airport where you land is where you must go through immigration and customs, even if you are continuing on the flight to another destination. Fingerprints are taken and biometric information is checked upon entry.
For a complete and current list of US customs regulations, visit the official portal for US Customs and Border Protection (www.cbp.gov).
Duty-free allowances per person are typically as follows:
- 1L of liquor (provided you are at least 21 years old)
- 100 cigars and 200 cigarettes (if you are at least 18)
- $200 worth of gifts and purchases ($800 if a returning US citizen)
If you arrive with $10,000 or more in US or foreign currency, it must be declared.
Heavy penalties apply for attempting to import illegal drugs. Other forbidden items include drug paraphernalia, firearms, lottery tickets, items with fake brand names, and most goods made in Cuba, Iran, Myanmar (Burma) and parts of Sudan. Any fruit, vegetables or other food or plant material must be declared (whereby you'll undergo a time-consuming search) or left in the bins in the arrival area.
- Under the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI), all travelers must have a valid machine-readable passport (MRP) when entering the USA by air, land or sea.
- Exceptions to the above are only for most US citizens and some Canadian and Mexican citizens traveling by land or sea who can present other WHTI-compliant documents (eg pre-approved 'trusted traveler' cards).
- All foreign passports must meet current US standards and be valid for the length of your stay. Certain nationalities need passports that are valid for a minimum of six months longer than the intended stay.
Visitors from Canada, the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and many EU countries do not require a visa for stays of less than 90 days. Other nations should see https://travel.state.gov.
Be warned that all visa information is highly subject to change. US entry requirements keep evolving as national security regulations change. All travelers should double-check current visa and passport regulations before coming to the USA.
The US State Department (https://travel.state.gov) maintains the most comprehensive visa information, providing downloadable forms, lists of US consulates abroad and even visa wait times calculated by country.
Visa Waiver Program
- Pursuant to the Visa Waiver Program, many travelers visiting the US for sightseeing or for short visits will not need a visa to enter the country.
- According to VWP requirements, citizens of certain countries may enter the US for stays of 90 days or fewer without a US visa. This list is subject to continual rejigging. Check https://travel.state.gov to see which countries are included under the waiver and for a summary of current VWP requirements.
- Citizens of a VWP country must have a passport that meets current US standards and receive approval from the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) in advance. Register online with the Department of Homeland Security (https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov/esta) at least 72 hours before arrival. The fee is $14. Canadians are currently exempt from ESTA.
- Visitors from VWP countries arriving by air or sea must arrive on an approved air or sea carrier. They must also demonstrate that their trip is for 90 days or fewer and that they have a round-trip or onward ticket.
- All foreign visitors entering the US from abroad require a passport. In most cases, passports must be valid for at least six months after the end of your intended stay in the USA. If your passport doesn't meet current US standards, you'll be turned back at the border. If your passport was issued on or after October 26, 2006 it must be an e-passport with a digital photo and an integrated chip containing biometric data.
- For assistance, check out the Visa Wizard on the State Department (https://travel.state.gov) website.
- With the exception of most Canadian citizens and those travelers entering under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), all foreign visitors to the US need a visa. For more details about visa requirements, visit https://travel.state.gov.
- Most visa applicants must schedule a personal interview, to which you must bring all your documentation and proof of fee payment. Wait times for interviews vary, but afterward, barring problems, visa issuance takes from a few days to a few weeks.
- You'll need a recent color photo (2in by 2in), and you must pay a nonrefundable $160 processing fee, plus in a few cases an additional visa issuance reciprocity fee. You'll also need to fill out the online DS-160 nonimmigrant visa electronic application.
- Depending on the type of visa requested, applicants may have to provide documentation confirming the purpose of their trip, their intent to depart the US after their trip and an ability to cover all costs related to the trip. Visit the website for more details.
Short-Term Departures & Reentry
It's temptingly easy to make trips across the border to Canada or Mexico, but upon return to the USA, non-Americans will be subject to the full immigration procedure.
- Always take your passport when you cross the border.
- If your immigration card still has plenty of time on it, you will probably be able to reenter using the same one, but if it has nearly expired, you will have to apply for a new card, and border control may want to see your onward air ticket, sufficient funds and so on.
- Citizens of most Western countries will not need a visa to visit Canada, so shouldn't have a problem passing through on the way to Alaska.
- Travelers entering the USA by bus from Canada may be closely scrutinized. A round-trip ticket that takes you back to Canada will most likely make US immigration feel less suspicious.
- At the time of writing, most visitors did not need a visa for short-term travel in Mexico (under 90 to 180 days, depending on your nationality).