If you're flying to the US, the first airport that you land in is where you must go through immigration and customs, even if you're flying to another destination. Upon arrival, all international visitors must register with the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Biometric Identity Management program, which entails having your fingerprints scanned and a digital photo taken.

Once you go through immigration, you collect your baggage and pass through customs. If you have nothing to declare, you'll probably clear customs without a baggage search, but don't assume this. If you're continuing on the same plane or connecting to another flight, your checked baggage must be rechecked. There are usually airline representatives just outside the customs area who can help you.

If you're a single parent, grandparent or guardian traveling with anyone under 18 years of age, carry proof of legal custody or a notarized letter from the non-accompanying parent(s) authorizing the trip. This isn't required, but the USA is concerned with thwarting child abduction, and not having authorizing papers could cause delays or even result in being denied admittance to the country.

Customs Regulations

For a complete list of US customs regulations, visit the official portal for US Customs and Border Protection (www.cbp.gov).

Duty-free allowance per person is as follows:

  • 1L of liquor (provided you are at least 21 years old)
  • 100 cigars and 200 cigarettes (if you are at least 18 years old)
  • $200 worth of gifts and purchases ($800 if you're a returning US citizen)
  • If you arrive with $10,000 or more in US or foreign currency, it must be declared.

There are heavy penalties for attempting to import illegal drugs. Forbidden items include drug paraphernalia, lottery tickets, items with fake brand names, and most goods made in North Korea, Cuba, Iran, Syria and Sudan. Fruit, vegetables and other food or plant material must be declared or left in the arrival-area bins.

Passports

Every visitor entering the USA from abroad needs a passport. Visitors from most countries only require a passport valid for their intended period of stay in the USA. However, nationals of certain countries require a passport valid for at least six months longer than their intended stay. For a country-by-country list, see the latest 'Six-Month Club Update' from US Customs and Border Protection (www.cbp.gov). If your passport does not meet current US standards, you'll be turned back at the border. All visitors wishing to enter the USA under the Visa Waiver Program must have an e-Passport with a digital photo and an integrated RFID chip containing biometric data.

Visas

Visitors from the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and many EU countries don't need visas for stays of less than 90 days, though they must get approval from the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA). Visitors from Canada need neither a visa nor ESTA approval for stays of less than 90 days. Citizens of other nations should check http://travel.state.gov.

Entering the USA

  • Everyone arriving in the US needs to fill out the US customs declaration. US and Canadian citizens, along with eligible foreign nationals participating in the Visa Waiver Program, can complete this procedure electronically at an APC (Automated Passport Control) kiosk upon disembarking. All others must fill out a paper customs declaration, which is usually handed out on the plane. Have it completed before you approach the immigration desk. For the question, 'US Street Address,' give the address where you will spend the first night (a hotel address is fine).
  • No matter what your visa says, US immigration officers have absolute authority to refuse admission to the country, or to impose conditions on admission. 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.
  • The Department of Homeland Security's registration program, called Office of Biometric Identity Management, includes every port of entry and nearly every foreign visitor to the USA. For most visitors (excluding, for now, most Canadian and some Mexican citizens), registration consists of having a digital photo and electronic (inkless) fingerprints taken; the process takes less than a minute.

Grounds for Exclusion & Deportation

If on your visa application form you admit to being a subversive, smuggler, prostitute, drug addict, terrorist or an ex-Nazi, you may be excluded. You can also be refused a visa or entry to the USA if you have a 'communicable disease of public health significance' or a criminal record, or if you've ever made a false statement in connection with a US visa application. However, if any of these last three apply, you're still able to request an exemption; many people are granted them and then given visas.

Communicable diseases include tuberculosis, the Ebola virus, gonorrhea, syphilis, infectious leprosy and any disease deemed subject to quarantine by Presidential Executive Order. US immigration doesn't test people for disease, but officials at the point of entry may question anyone about his or her health. They can exclude anyone whom they believe has a communicable disease, perhaps because they are carrying medical documents, prescriptions or medicine. Being an IV drug user is also grounds for exclusion. Visitors may be deported if US immigration finds out they have HIV but did not declare it. Being HIV-positive is no longer grounds for deportation, but failing to provide accurate information on the visa application is.

The US immigration department has a very broad definition of a criminal record. If you've ever been arrested or charged with an offense, that's a criminal record, even if you were acquitted or discharged without conviction. Don't attempt to enter through the VWP if you have a criminal record of any kind; assume US authorities will find out about it.

Often United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) will grant an exemption (a 'waiver of ineligibility') to a person who would normally be subject to exclusion, but this requires referral to a regional immigration office and can take some time (allow at least two months). If you're tempted to conceal something, remember that US immigration is strictest of all about false statements. It will often view favorably an applicant who admits to an old criminal charge or a communicable disease, but it is extremely harsh on anyone who has ever attempted to mislead it, even on minor points. After you're admitted to the USA, any evidence of a false statement to US immigration is grounds for deportation.

Prospective visitors to whom grounds of exclusion may apply should consider their options before applying for a visa.

More Information

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 (www.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.

Short-term Departures & Re-entry

  • It's temptingly easy to make trips across the border to Canada or Mexico, but on 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 re-enter 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.
  • Traditionally, a quick trip across the border has been a way to extend your stay in the USA without applying for an extension at a USCIS office. Don't assume this still works. First, make sure you hand in your old immigration card to the immigration authorities when you leave the USA, and when you return make sure you have all the necessary application documentation from when you first entered the country. US immigration will be very suspicious of anyone who leaves for a few days and returns immediately hoping for a new six-month stay; expect to be questioned closely.
  • Citizens of most Western countries will not need a visa to visit Canada, so it's really not a problem at all to cross to the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, detour up to Québec, or pass 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.
  • Mexico has a visa-free zone along most of its border with the USA, including the Baja Peninsula and border towns such as Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez. As of 2019, residents of the US, Canada, the UK, Japan, and Schengen countries (Europe) no longer need a tourist visa anywhere in Mexico. Others may need a Mexican visa or tourist card to travel beyond the border zone.

Visa Applications

Apart from most Canadian citizens and those entering under the Visa Waiver Program, all foreign visitors will need to obtain a visa from a US consulate or embassy abroad. Most 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 afterwards, barring problems, visa issuance takes from a few days to a few weeks.

  • Your passport must be valid for the entirety of your intended stay in the USA, and sometimes six months longer, depending on your country of citizenship. You'll need a recent 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.
  • Visa applicants are required to show documents of financial stability (or evidence that a US resident will provide financial support), a round-trip or onward ticket and 'binding obligations' that will ensure their return home, such as family ties, a home or a job. Because of these requirements, those planning to travel through other countries before arriving in the USA are generally better off applying for a US visa while they're still in their home country, rather than while on the road.
  • The most common visa is a nonimmigrant visitor's visa: type B-1 for business purposes, B-2 for tourism or visiting friends and relatives. A visitor's visa is good for multiple entries over one or five years, and specifically prohibits the visitor from taking paid employment in the USA. The validity period depends on what country you are from. The actual length of time you'll be allowed to stay in the USA is determined by US immigration at the port of entry.
  • If you're coming to the USA to work or study, you will need a different type of visa, and the company or institution to which you are going should make the arrangements.

Visa Waiver Program

Currently under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), citizens of 38 countries (including most EU countries, Japan, the UK, Australia and New Zealand) may enter the USA without a visa for stays of 90 days or less.

If you are a citizen of a VWP country, you do not need a visa only if you have a passport that meets current US standards and you have received approval from the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) in advance. Register online with the Department of Homeland Security at https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov/esta at least 72 hours before arrival; once travel authorization is approved, your registration is valid for two years. The fee, payable online, is $14.

In essence, ESTA requires that you register specific information online (name, address, passport info etc). You will receive one of three responses: ‘Authorization Approved’ (this usually comes within minutes; most applicants can expect to receive this response); ‘Authorization Pending’ (you'll need to check the status within the next 72 hours); or ‘Travel not Authorized.' The latter option means you will need to apply for a visa.

Visitors from VWP countries must still produce at the port of entry all the same evidence as for a nonimmigrant visa application. They must demonstrate that their trip is for 90 days or less, and that they have a round-trip or onward ticket, adequate funds to cover the trip and binding obligations abroad.

In addition, the same 'grounds for exclusion and deportation' apply, except that you will have no opportunity to appeal or apply for an exemption. If you are denied entry under the VWP at a US point of entry, you will have to use your onward or return ticket on the next available flight.

Visa Extensions

To stay in the USA longer than the date stamped on your passport, go to a local USCIS (www.uscis.gov) office to apply for an extension well before the stamped date. If the date has passed, your best chance will be to bring a US citizen with you to vouch for your character, and to produce lots of other verification that you are not trying to work illegally and have enough money to support yourself. However, if you've overstayed, the most likely scenario is that you will be deported. Travelers who enter the USA under the VWP are ineligible for visa extensions.