Under the US Department of Homeland Security's Orwellian-sounding Office of Biometric Identity Management, almost all visitors to the USA (excluding, for now, many Canadians, some Mexican citizens, children under the age of 14 and seniors over the age of 79) will be digitally photographed and have their electronic (inkless) fingerprints scanned upon arrival.

Regardless of your visa status, immigration officers have absolute authority to refuse entry to the USA. They may ask about your plans and whether you have sufficient funds; it’s a good idea to list an itinerary, produce an onward or round-trip ticket and have at least one major credit card. Don’t make too much of having friends, relatives or business contacts in the US, because officers may think this makes you more likely to overstay. For more information, visit the US Customs and Border Protection website (www.cbp.gov).

California is an important agricultural state. To prevent the spread of pests and diseases, certain food items (including meats, fresh fruit and vegetables) may not be brought into the state. Bakery items, chocolates and hard-cured cheeses are admissible. If you drive into California from Mexico, or from the neighboring states of Oregon, Nevada or Arizona, you may have to stop for a quick questioning and inspection by California Department of Food and Agriculture (www.cdfa.ca.gov) agents.

Customs Regulations

Currently, non-US citizens and permanent residents may import:

  • 1L of alcohol (if you’re over 21 years of age)
  • 200 cigarettes (one carton) or 100 cigars (if you’re over 18 years)
  • $100 worth of gifts

Amounts higher than $10,000 in cash, traveler’s checks, money orders and other cash equivalents must be declared. Don’t even think about bringing in illegal drugs.

For more complete, up-to-date information, check the US Customs and Border Protection website (www.cbp.gov).

Passports

  • 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.
  • The only exceptions are for some US, Canadian and Mexican citizens traveling by land who can present other WHTI-compliant documents (eg pre-approved ‘trusted traveler’ cards). A regular driver's license is not sufficient.
  • All foreign passports must meet current US standards and be valid for at least six months beyond your intended stay.
  • MRPs issued or renewed after October 26, 2006, must be e-passports (ie have a digital photo and integrated chip with biometric data).
  • For more information, consult www.cbp.gov/travel.

Visas

Generally not required for stays of 90 days or less for citizens of Visa Waiver Program (VWP) countries with Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) approval (https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov) – apply online at least 72 hours in advance.

Further Information

  • Visa information is highly subject to change. Depending on your country of origin, the rules for entering the USA keep changing. Double-check current visa requirements before coming to the USA.
  • Currently, under the US Visa Waiver Program (VWP), visas are not required for citizens of 38 countries for stays up to 90 days (no extensions) as long as you have a machine-readable passport that meets current US standards and is valid for six months beyond your intended stay.
  • Citizens of VWP countries must still register with the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA; https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov) at least 72 hours before travel. Once approved, ESTA registration ($14) is valid for up to two years or until your passport expires, whichever comes first.
  • For most Canadian citizens traveling with Canadian passports that meet current US standards, a visa for short-term visits (usually up to six months) and ESTA registration aren't required.
  • Citizens from all other countries, or whose passports don’t meet US standards, need to apply for a visa in their home country. The process has a nonrefundable fee (minimum $160), involves a personal interview and can take several weeks, so apply as early as possible.
  • For up-to-date information about entry requirements and eligibility, check the visa section of the US Department of State website (http://travel.state.gov), or contact the nearest USA embassy or consulate in your home country (for a complete list, visit www.usembassy.gov).