Customs Regulations

Each visitor is allowed to bring 1L of liquor and 200 cigarettes duty-free into the US, but you must be at least 21 years old to possess the former and 18 years old to possess the latter. In addition, nonresidents are permitted to bring gift merchandise up to the value of $100 into the US without incurring any duty.

Passports

No particular passport (or stamps in your passport) will automatically disqualify you from entry into the US, but many countries – including Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Yemen, North Korea, Venezuela, Chad, Iraq and Sudan – are 'red flags' which may invite greater scrutiny and interrogation by immigration officials. Note that immigration officials reserve the right to grant or deny admission into the USA, so there is no guarantee until you have actually crossed the border.

Visas

Citizens of many countries are eligible for the Visa Waiver Program, which requires prior approval via Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA).

Electronic System for Travel Authorization

Since January 2009 the US has had the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA), a system that was implemented to mitigate security risks concerning those who travel to the US by air or sea (travelers entering by land, such as via Canada, do not need to file an ESTA application). This pre-authorization system applies to citizens of approximately three dozen countries that fall under the Visa Waiver Program. This process requires that you register specific information online, prior to entering the US. Information required includes details such as your name, current address and passport information, and details about any communicable diseases you may carry (including HIV). It is recommended that you fill out the online form as early as possible, and at least 72 hours prior to departure. You will receive one of three responses:

  • 'Authorization Approved' usually comes within minutes; most applicants can expect to receive this response.
  • 'Authorization Pending' means you should go back online to check the status within roughly 72 hours.
  • 'Travel not Authorized' indicates that your application is not approved and you will need to apply for a visa.

Once approved, registration is valid for two years, but note that if you renew your passport or change your name, you will need to re-register. The cost is $14. The entire process is stored electronically and linked to your passport, but it is recommended that you bring a printout of the ESTA approval just to be safe. If you don't have access to the internet, a travel agent can apply on your behalf.

Visa Applications

Citizens of non-Visa Waiver Program countries must generally apply for a nonimmigrant visa using Form DS-160 (ceac.state.gov/genniv), pay a nonrefundable application fee ($160) and schedule an interview at a US embassy or consulate.

Documentation required for visa applications:

  • Information about your family, your US point of contact, your education, employment and travel history, and your proposed itinerary, along with answers to Security and Background questions.
  • A recent photo (240KB or less if uploading digitally, or 50.8mm by 50.8mm in print form).
  • 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.

As with the Visa Waiver Program, your passport should be valid for at least six months longer than your intended stay.

Visa Waiver Program

The US has 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. For an up-to-date list of countries included in the program, see the US Department of State website (www.travel.state.gov). Under the 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. Also, your passport should be valid for at least six months longer than your intended stay.