Entering the USA is pretty straightforward, though at the time of writing, the Trump administration was making changes to immigration policy. Be sure to check if you're affected, before you travel, at www.usa.gov/visas-and-visitors.

If you are flying, the first US airport that you land in is where you must go through immigration and customs, even if you are continuing on a flight to another destination.

You'll be asked to fill out the US customs declaration form, 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).

The immigration officer will look at your customs form and passport, and have you register with the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Biometric Identity Management. This entails having your fingerprints scanned and a digital photo taken.

The immigration officer 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.

Travelers from some countries, ie Canada and Visa Waiver Program nations, can bypass the immigration desks and use self-service kiosks for automated passport control. Not all airports have this technology. See www.cbp.gov/travel for details on participating locations and for further eligibility requirements.

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 are continuing to another destination, you must recheck any checked bags, and you may have to go through security again – book ample time for your connection.

The Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) is now required before arrival for citizens of Visa Waiver Program countries.

Remember: your passport should be valid for at least six months longer than your intended stay in the US.

Customs Regulations

For a complete list of US customs regulations, visit the official website 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)
  • $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

There are heavy penalties for attempting to import illegal drugs. Forbidden items include drug paraphernalia, items with fake brand names, and most goods made in Cuba, Iran, Myanmar (Burma) and Sudan. Fruit, vegetables and other food must be declared (whereby you’ll undergo a time-consuming search) or left in the bins in the arrival area.

Visas

Visitors from the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and many EU countries do not need visas for stays of fewer than 90 days, with ESTA approval. For other nations, see http://travel.state.gov or www.usa.gov/visas-and-visitors.

Canadians need neither a visa nor ESTA approval for stays shorter than 90 days, though they do need a passport or document approved by the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (www.getyouhome.gov).

Visa Waiver Program & ESTA

Admission requirements are subject to rapid change. The US State Department (www.travel.state.gov) has the latest information, or check with a US consulate in your home country.

The Visa Waiver Program (VWP) allows nationals from 38 countries (including most EU countries, Japan, Australia and New Zealand) to enter the US without a visa for up to 90 days.

VWP visitors require a machine-readable passport and approval under the ESTA, the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (www.cbp.gov/esta) at least three days before arrival. There is a $14 fee for processing and authorization (payable online). Once approved, the registration is valid for two years.

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 means you will need to apply for a visa.

Those who need a visa – ie anyone staying longer than 90 days, or from a non-VWP country – should apply at the US consulate in their home country.