The United States has exceptionally burdensome and complicated visa requirements. Read carefully before visiting, especially if you need to apply for a visa, and contact the Bureau of Consular Affairs. Travellers have been denied entry for many, often trivial, reasons.
Planning and documentation before arrival
Entry without visa
Citizens of the 38 countries in the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), as well as Canadians, Mexicans living on the border (border crossing card holders) and Bermudians (British national passport holders (overseas)) do not need a visa to enter the United States. Canadians and Bermudians are normally allowed to visit the country for up to six months. Permanent residents of Canada are not eligible for the visa waiver unless they are also citizens of a country participating in the Visa Waiver Program or one of the separate provisions for some other countries.
The Visa Waiver Program allows for visa-free stays of up to 90 days; it applies to citizens of the following countries: Andorra, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brunei, Chile, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Monaco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, San Marino, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and Taiwan (with indication of identity card number).
Citizens of the Federated States of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands and Palau may enter, reside, study and work in the United States indefinitely with a valid passport.
Citizens of U.S. overseas territories such as Puerto Rico, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands and American Samoa are considered U.S. citizens and therefore do not need a passport to travel or live in the U.S. (unless they are entering from non-U.S. territories).
Bahamian citizens can only apply for visa-free entry at US Customs pre-clearance offices in the Bahamas. However, for persons over 14 years of age, a valid police clearance certificate issued within the last six months is required. Any attempt to enter via another port of entry requires a valid visa.
Citizens of the Cayman Islands, if they intend to travel directly to the US from there, may obtain a one-time entry visa waiver for approximately $25 prior to departure. A valid police clearance certificate issued within the last three months is required for persons over 13 years of age. If you are trying to enter from another country, you will need a valid visa.
Although there are exceptions, such as traffic violations, civil offences (such as littering, noise disturbance, disturbing the peace), purely political offences (such as non-violent demonstrations in countries where they are not allowed) and offences committed before the age of 16, a criminal record can remove any right to visa-free travel to the US. All persons with criminal records, including Canadians and Bermudians, should seek advice from a US embassy on whether they should be granted a visa.
Requirements for the Visa Waiver Program (VWP)
Visa restrictions: Due to terrorism concerns, travelers who have previously visited Iran, Sudan, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Libya or Yemen cannot enter the VWP under the new rules adopted in 2015 and must apply for a visa to visit the United States.
The programme is only open to travellers who are in the United States for tourism or business purposes. You may not come to the United States to pursue education, work or be a journalist; if you do, you must apply for the appropriate visa in advance, regardless of the duration of your trip to the United States.
The 90-day period is not extendable. A short trip to Canada, Mexico or the Caribbean does not qualify you for an additional 90 days upon your return to the US. An extended absence in a neighbouring country may reset the limit, especially if your first trip to the United States was short. Be careful if you are transiting the US on a trip longer than 90 days.
If a person has a criminal record, has previously been denied entry or has previously been denied a visa to the U.S., they cannot participate in the VWP. People who fall into these categories must apply for a U.S. visa instead.
To participate in the Visa Waiver Programme by air or sea, an online form must be completed and $14 paid, preferably 72 hours before arrival. This form is called the Electronic System for Travel Authorisation (ESTA). The ESTA authorisation is valid for multiple trips and is valid for two years (unless your passport expires before then). This requirement is not necessary if you are entering by land.
All passports must be biometric. If your passport is old and was issued before biometric passports were available, you must apply for a new passport to travel to the United States under the VWP.
Entry under the VWP by air or sea requires travel on a signatory airline. All scheduled commercial flights to the US are accepted, but if you are taking a chartered flight or vessel, you should check the status of the airline as you may need a visa. If you are travelling to the United States on your own plane or yacht, you will need to apply for a tourist visa in advance.
Travellers entering by air or sea must also have a return or onward ticket from the United States. This requirement is not necessary for residents of Canada, Mexico, Bermuda or the Caribbean. If you are travelling by land, there is a $7.00 border crossing fee.
Entry under the VWP does not allow you to change your immigration status and if you are refused entry, the decision cannot be appealed and you are immediately placed on the first flight.
Applying for a visa
U.S. visa/residency status overview
- B-1: Business visitor
- B-2: Tourist (“visitor for pleasure”)
- C-1: Passage
- F-1: University student
- H-1B / L-1: Use
- J-1: Exchange Programme / Postdoctoral Researcher
- M-1: Student in vocational training
- O-1 / P-1 : Sportsman / Performer
- WB: Visa Waiver Program, Business; cannot be extended beyond 90 days.
WT: Visa Waiver Program, Tourist; cannot be extended beyond 90 days.
For the rest of the world, the visa application fee is $160 (as of April 2012) for non-petition visas and $190 for petition visas; this fee is waived in very limited circumstances, namely for those applying for certain visitor exchange visas.
Depending on your nationality and the category of visa you are applying for, you will have to pay an additional fee (between $7 and $200) which is only charged when the visa is issued. This fee is called a reciprocity fee and is charged by the United States to match the fees charged by other countries to US citizens.
The Immigration and Nationality Act states that all persons applying to enter the United States as nonimmigrants are presumed to be immigrants until they rebut this presumption by demonstrating a “compelling attachment” to their home country and sufficient evidence that the visit will be temporary. When the US denies a visa application, it is usually because the applicant does not have enough compelling ties to their home country to convince the consular officer that the person will not seek to stay longer than expected. Applicants must prove that they are indeed entitled to the visa they are applying for. In-person interviews (where the officer must be satisfied that you are not a “potential immigrant”) at the nearest US embassy or consulate are required for almost all nationalities, and wait times for interview slots and visa processing can be several months.
Remember that the Embassy is closed on both US holidays and holidays in your home country. Therefore, you should consider both holidays when setting dates to apply for a visa. In addition, travellers should start planning their trip well in advance, as the application process can take up to six months.
Do not assume anything. Check with the U.S. Department of State or the U.S. Consulate nearest you for the required documentation. If your country participates in the Visa Waiver Program, note that if you have been denied a visa for any reason, including lack of proper documentation, you are no longer eligible for the program and must apply for a visa for each subsequent visit to the United States.
For technical and scientific fields of work or study, the processing of the non-immigrant visa application can take up to 70 days, depending on nationality, as it can take up to 8 weeks for the authorities in Washington to grant approval. This is especially true for military and dual-use fields, which are listed in a so-called technical alert list.
A visa is not a guarantee of entry; it only allows you to go to a port of entry and apply for entry. Your visa is usually not tied to the length of stay allowed; for example, a 10-year visa does not allow you to stay for 10 years. Instead, you can enter on the last day of your visa’s validity and may stay as a tourist for up to 180 days, for example.
Applying for an incorrect or improper visa can lead to serious problems, including the possibility of never obtaining a U.S. visa again (especially in cases of fraud). Consider consulting a U.S. immigration lawyer, especially if you plan to stay longer or do something other than business or tourism. This includes concerts or relocation, but also journalism.
Travelling to US possessions overseas
Slightly different rules apply to US possessions overseas. For more details, see the article for the respective destination.
In short, Guam, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Northern Mariana Islands have the same entry requirements as the 50 states. However, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands apply the visa waiver programme to a few more countries.
American Samoa does not fall under federal immigration jurisdiction and has its own entry requirements.
Arrival in the United States
Since May 2013, non-US or Canadian citizens arriving by air no longer have to fill out a paper I-94 form. Instead, all travellers’ records are stored electronically by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and can be accessed here. There are two separate channels: one for US citizens, Canadian citizens and returning US permanent residents and one for all other travellers.
Visitors arriving by land must always complete the I-94 form on paper and return the attached portion of their passport when they leave the country.
If you are not a citizen or resident of the United States, you will be briefly interviewed at immigration. You must be prepared to show the officials that your purpose is not immigration (unless you have an appropriate visa for that purpose). Also be prepared to show your reasons for entering the United States. For business, this could be a letter of invitation from a company you are visiting or the registration details of a conference you are attending. For tourists, you may need to prove that you have funds or that you have already paid for most of your travel arrangements (e.g. accommodation, transport within the US, tours, meals). Proof of further travel may be required.
If you do not fully comply with what is asked of you, e.g. if you do not want to continue the transport, you may be sent for further questioning. At this stage, your belongings may be searched and your documents, letters or diaries read. If you look like a likely immigrant (for example, if you are carrying work documents, photographs you normally keep at home, excessive luggage or pets) or if you cannot convince the officers that you intend to comply with the terms of your declared entry permit, you will be refused entry and deported. If your country participates in the Visa Waiver Program, please note that if you are refused entry, you will no longer be eligible for the program and will need to apply for a visa for any further visit to the United States.
Once they have decided to admit you, your fingerprints will be taken and a digital photo will be taken. Entry will be refused if any of these procedures are rejected.
At some airports, Canadian and VWP nationals can use the Automated Passport Control (APC) kiosks to register their passport and biometric data. Family members travelling together can do this all at once. VWP citizens must have ESTA authorisation and have entered the United States at least once since 2008. If successful, the traveller will receive a receipt and proceed to the designated CBP office to continue the inspection process. No pre-registration or application fee is required for this process. Nationals of the United States and other select countries may participate in GlobalEntry. Global Entry also allows select passengers to use a designated kiosk for the inspection process. Unlike the APC programme, Global Entry requires a pre-application, background check, interview and $100 fee, but allows the passenger to avoid intensive interviews after visiting a kiosk for up to five years. Canadian citizens and permanent residents can participate in a similar programme called NEXUS, which has a lower application fee ($50) and also offers expedited clearance and all the privileges of Global Entry, but requires you to be interviewed by both US and Canadian immigration officials before it is approved.
As in most countries, customs officials take any form of security threat with humour; even the most casual joke suggesting that you pose a threat can lead to a lengthy interrogation at best.
The officer interviewing you about immigration matters may also ask you what you are bringing into the United States.
Each household (i.e. family members living and travelling together) must complete a Customs Declaration Form. US, Canadian or VWP nationals can do this electronically at the kiosks located just outside the CBP passport checkpoints. All other nationals must complete it manually – flight staff will provide this form or it can be downloaded here, printed and brought with you. Whether you have anything to declare or not, customs officials may still search or x-ray your baggage. Most of the time they won’t. Most of the time they won’t. A more thorough search of bags rarely takes place, so you don’t have to deal with ominous latex gloves.
Do not attempt to bring in items from countries on which the US has imposed economic sanctions (currently Cuba, Iran, Syria and Sudan) as these will be confiscated by customs if discovered – unmarked cigars in particular are suspected to be from Cuba and will also be taken. It is also forbidden to bring in meat or raw fruit or vegetables (with some exceptions for Canadian produce, which is only grown in season and overland), but you are allowed to bring in cooked non-meat products such as bread and most pre-packaged foods (biscuits, cheese, tea, coffee, etc.). All food and plant products brought into the country must be declared, even if they are not restricted! As in Australia and New Zealand, all food and plant products entering the country must be physically inspected by the US Department of Agriculture – if necessary, you will be directed to their inspection area after clearing customs. For simple, unrestricted items, such as pre-packaged non-meat products, the inspection process rarely takes more than a minute. Failure to declare agricultural products can result in a fine or even criminal prosecution if the USDA believes you are intentionally trying to import illegal food or plants. However, first-time offenders usually get off with a warning for unintentional omission if the products are ultimately permitted.
In addition to your personal effects returned to you, you are allowed to import individual gifts worth up to $100 each. If you are 21 years of age or older, you may also bring in limited quantities of tobacco products and alcohol duty-free:
- Up to 200 cigarettes (one carton) or 50 non-Cuban cigars or up to 2 kg of loose tobacco products such as snuff (or a proportionate combination thereof).
- Up to one litre of alcohol. Unlike other countries, the one-litre limit applies regardless of alcohol content: a fifth of scotch at 40 per cent alcohol by volume or a standard bottle (750 ml) of wine at 14 per cent alcohol by volume are both within the allowable limit, but a six-pack of 12-oz beer at 5 per cent alcohol by volume is over 2 litres and exceeds the duty-free limit.
If you are just over the permitted alcohol content (e.g. a six-pack of beer or a second bottle of wine), most customs officials will let the wine and beer through if you have made a full and correct declaration. If you exceed this amount, or if you exceed the limit for spirits, you will probably have to pay duties and taxes, the amount of which depends partly on the state you are entering and the country the goods come from (duties from Canada, for example, are minimal due to NAFTA). Customs officials are not so lenient with tobacco products, so expect to pay if you cross even one cigarette!
A reasonable amount of perfume or cologne may also be imported as long as the brand is not subject to a “U.S. trademark restriction”. There is no limit to the amount of money you can bring into or out of the United States. However, if you are bringing $10,000 or more (or the foreign currency equivalent) per household (total amount of all family members travelling with you), you must declare the money on your customs form and will be given a special form to complete; failure to declare will result in a fine and possible confiscation of the money. Cheques, bonds and other financial instruments must also be declared. ATM/debit cards linked to non-US bank accounts holding the amount mentioned do not have to be declared (although your bank may impose certain withdrawal restrictions and fees for accessing this money in the US).
The US possessions of American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands and the US Virgin Islands are not under federal customs jurisdiction and each have their own requirements. Customs inspection is required when travelling between these territories and the rest of the United States. There are some (usually major) differences in customs exemptions for US citizens returning from these destinations.
You must clear immigration and customs at your first point of entry, even if you have subsequent domestic flights. Since you had access to your checked baggage at customs, you will have to go through security again before your connecting flight. Almost all major hubs have special arrangements for travellers with connecting flights, such as a conveyor belt directly behind customs where you can drop off your baggage already marked for transfer to your final destination. Some hubs, such as JFK, use a more cumbersome system that requires you to present your ID and boarding pass at a “Connecting Flights” check-in counter. At airports with separate domestic and international terminals (e.g. Boston), you must go to another terminal and drop off your baggage before going through security.
These baggage check-in procedures only apply if your baggage has been checked through to your final destination (as opposed to your first port of entry into the United States). If not, you must go to the terminal of your next flight and check in as usual.
Departure from the United States
|Do you think you will overstay?|
|Overstaying passport control or violating entry requirements (e.g. working with a B1/B2 status) will automatically void your visa. In addition, it will be extremely difficult for you to re-enter the United States and you may also be banned from entering the country for at least three years, if not permanently. If you have overstayed your visa waiver period, you will need a visa for all future visits. If you overstay for compelling reasons such as a medical emergency or flight delay or cancellation, you must inform immigration of your situation to avoid the above penalties.|
Unlike most countries, the U.S. does not have formal passport control on departure, especially for air and sea travellers. Therefore, your airline or shipping company will document your departure and report it to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). CBP will then update your immigration file. Foreign nationals who entered the U.S. by air or sea and departed by air or sea after mid-2013 do not need to take any further action.
If you fall into one of the following categories, you may need to take additional steps to actively prove that you left the United States on time:
- You entered the U.S. before mid-2013, by any means (when the paper I-94 card was still issued to foreign nationals): Give the I-94 card to airline staff at check-in or to the Canadian or Mexican immigration officer if you are leaving by land.
- You entered the USA by land or private vehicle (paper I-94 cards are still issued here): Give the I-94 card to the airline staff at check-in or to the Canadian or Mexican immigration officer when leaving the country by land.
- left the USA by land or private vehicle: Keep all evidence that you were outside the US before your authorised stay expires.
Be sure to remember to bring the necessary documents with you on your next visits to prove that you left legally. U.S. Customs and Border Protection has information on what to do if your receipt is not collected.
If you intend to travel overland to Canada or Mexico for pleasure and return within 30 days or the authorised length of stay (whichever is shorter), you may re-enter the United States provided you have not yet surrendered an I-94 card issued before travelling to Canada or Mexico. You can also do this if you entered the US on a one-time visa or if the visa you entered the US on has expired. However, you will only be admitted for the remainder of the original period; the time limit for leaving the United States will not be extended if you simply depart for another location in North America. If you return the I-94 during your pleasure trip, you will have to reapply for entry into the United States (which means a new visa for one-time visa holders) and undergo the usual interviews that foreign nationals are subjected to in order to verify that they do not intend to immigrate, work or do anything else not authorised by the visa.
So try to avoid re-entering the US a few days, weeks or months after a visit. Even if you don’t technically stay too long, planning multiple visits to the US shortly after entering can be interpreted by immigration authorities as “intent to immigrate” and get you into trouble.