Since the September 11 terrorist attacks, air travel in the USA has permanently changed and you can now expect vigilant baggage-screening procedures and personal searches. In short, you’re going to have to take your shoes off. Non-US citizens should be prepared for an exhaustive questioning process at Immigration.
Crossing the border into Alaska from Canada used to be a relaxed process – US citizens often passed across with just a driver’s license. Now this process has also become more complicated, and all travelers should have a passport and expect more substantial questioning and possible vehicle searches.
For a complete list of US customs regulations, visit the official portal for US Customs & Border Protection (www.cbp.gov). Click on ‘Travel’ to find out the basics.
Travelers are allowed to bring personal goods (including camping and hiking equipment) into the USA and Canada free of duty, along with food for two days and up to 100 cigars, 200 cigarettes and 1L of liquor or wine.
There are no forms to fill out if you are a foreign visitor bringing a vehicle into Alaska, whether it is a bicycle, motorcycle or car, nor are there forms for hunting rifles or fishing gear. Hunting rifles – handguns and automatic weapons are prohibited – must be registered in your own country, and you should bring proof of registration. There is no limit to the amount of money you can bring into Alaska, but anything over $10,000 must be registered with customs officials.
Keep in mind that endangered-species laws prohibit transporting products made of bone, skin, fur, ivory, etc, through Canada without a permit. Importing and exporting such items into the USA is also prohibited. If you have any doubt about a gift or item you want to purchase, call the US Fish & Wildlife Service in Anchorage or check the website.
Hunters and anglers who want to ship home their salmon, halibut or rack of caribou can do so easily. Most outfitters and guides will make the arrangements for you, including properly packaging the game. In the case of fish, most towns have a storage company that will hold your salmon or halibut in a freezer until you are ready to leave Alaska. When frozen, seafood can usually make the trip to any city in the lower 48 without thawing.
If you are traveling to Alaska from overseas, you need a passport. If you are a US resident passing through Canada, you will need a passport to re-enter the USA. Make sure your passport does not expire during the trip, and if you are entering the USA through the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) you must have a machine-readable passport. If you are traveling with children, it’s best to bring a photocopy of their birth certificates. If one parent is traveling with children alone, they will likely be asked for a letter of agreement from the other parent.
Most international visitors need a visa and should have a multiple-entry one if coming from the lower 48 through Canada.
Apart from Canadians and those entering under the Visa Waiver Program, foreign visitors need to obtain a visa from a US consulate or embassy. Most applicants must now schedule a personal interview, to which you need to 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. If concerned about a delay, check the websites of the US State Department (www.travel.state.gov), which provides a list of wait times calculated by country.
Your passport must be valid for at least six months longer than your intended stay in the USA. You’ll need a recent photo (2in by 2in) and you must pay a $160 processing fee, plus in a few cases an additional visa-issuance fee (check the State Department website for details). In addition to the main nonimmigration visa application form (DS-156), all men aged 16 to 45 must complete an additional form (DS-157) that details their travel plans.
Visa applicants are required to show documentation of financial stability, a round-trip or onward ticket and ‘binding obligations’ that will ensure their return home, such as family ties, a home or a job.
Visa Waiver Program
The Visa Waiver Program (VWP) lets citizens of some countries enter the USA for tourism purposes for up to 90 days without having a US visa. Currently there are 36 participating countries in the VWP, including Austria, Australia, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the UK.
Under the program you must have a round-trip or onward ticket that is nonrefundable in the USA, a machine-readable passport (with two lines of letters, numbers and '<<<' along the bottom of the passport information page) and be able to show evidence of financial solvency.
Citizens of VWP countries must register online prior to their trip with the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA; https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov/esta), an automated system used to determine the eligibility of visitors traveling to the US. There is a $14 fee. Beware, there are several bogus ESTA websites.
Since September 11, the US has continually fine-tuned its national security guidelines and entry requirements. Double-check current visa and passport regulations before arriving in the USA, and apply for visas early to avoid delays. Overseas travelers may need one visa, possibly two. For citizens of many countries a US visa is required, while if you’re taking the Alcan or the Alaska Marine Highway ferry from Prince Rupert in British Columbia, you may also need a Canadian visa. The Alcan begins in Canada, requiring travelers to pass from the USA into Canada and back into the USA again.
Canadians entering the USA must have proof of Canadian citizenship, such as a passport; visitors from countries in the Visa Waiver Program may not need a visa. Visitors from all other countries need to have a US visa and a valid passport. Check the website of the US State Department (www.travel.state.gov) for full details.
Note that overseas travelers should be aware of the process to re-enter the USA. Sometimes visitors get stuck in Canada due to their single-entry visa into the USA, used up when passing through the lower 48. Canadian immigration officers often caution people whom they feel might have difficulty returning to the USA. More information about visa and other requirements for entering Canada is available on the website of the Canada Border Services Agency (www.cbsa-asfc.gc.ca).