Visas for the USA
Requirements for Entry to the United States of America
The United States has exceptionally onerous and complicated visa requirements. Read up carefully before your visit, especially if you need to apply for a visa, and consult the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs. Travelers have been refused entry for many reasons, often trivial.
Planning and Pre-Arrival Documentation
Citizens of the 37 countries within the Visa Waiver Program, as well as Canadians, Mexicans living on the border (holding a Border Crossing Card), and Bermudians (with British Overseas Territories passports) do not require advance visas for entry into the United States.
For Canadians and Bermudians , the entry period is normally for a maximum of six months. However, entry may still be refused on the basis of a criminal record. Those who have criminal records should seek out a U.S. embassy for advice on whether they need a visa.
For travelers under the visa waiver program, but the entry period is limited to 90 days (see additional requirements below).
As of October 2012, the countries under the Visa Waiver Program are Andorra, Austria, Australia, Belgium, Brunei, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Monaco, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, San Marino, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan and the United Kingdom.
Citizens of the Federated States of Micronesia , the Marshall Islands, and Palau may enter, reside, study, and work in the U.S. indefinitely with only a valid passport.
Citizens of the Bahamas may apply for visa-free entry only at the U.S. Customs pre-clearance facilities in the Bahamas, but a valid police certificate may be required for those over the age of 14. Attempting to enter through any other port of entry requires a valid visa.
Persons holding a passport from the Cayman Islands, if they intend to travel directly to the U.S. from there, may obtain a single-entry visa waiver for about $25 prior to departure.
Visa Waiver Program requirements
Travel under the Visa Waiver Program is limited to tourism or business purposes only; neither employment nor journalism is permitted with a Visa Waiver. The 90-day limit may not be extended nor will travel to Canada, Mexico, or the Caribbean reset the 90-day limit. Take care if transiting through the U.S. on a trip exceeding 90 days to Canada and/or Mexico.
Travelers entering the U.S. through the Visa Waiver program must apply for Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) approval online before their flights, preferably 72 hours before travel. An ESTA approval is valid for two years (unless your passport expires earlier) and costs $14. Approvals issued before 8 September 2010 (i.e. those which were free at the time) remain valid until their expiry date.
Passports issued after 26 October 2005 need digital photographs embedded on them, and passports issued after 26 October 2006 must be biometric passports, which have a chip embedded with the user's information. Some countries, e.g. France, did not have biometric passports available at that date, meaning that citizens from these countries with newer passports but not biometric passports have to obtain a tourist visa, which can be a cumbersome, costly and time-consuming process. If you have a non e-passport issued after 26 October 2006 and you are from a Visa Waiver country, try having your government exchange it for an biometric passport, explaining that you wish to travel to the U.S.
Entry under the Visa Waiver program by air or sea requires that you are using a signatory carrier. It is a fairly safe assumption that commercial scheduled services to the U.S. will be fine, however if you are on a chartered flight or vessel you should check the status of the carrier, as you may require a visa.
Travelers entering by air or sea must also have a return/onward ticket out of the United States. If the return/onward ticket terminates in Canada, Mexico, Bermuda, or any Caribbean island, the traveler must be a legal resident of that country/territory. If traveling by land, there is a $7 fee when crossing the border. Before VWP travelers commence their journeys, they must apply electronically for authorization to travel (ESTA) through the ESTA website. If approved, it allows the traveler to commence his journey to the U.S. but (as with any visa or entry permit) it does not guarantee entry.
A criminal record will generally make a potential traveler ineligible for visa-free travel with the following exceptions:
- Traffic violations
- Civil infractions (such as littering, noise violations, disorderly conduct)
- A single conviction for possession of marijuana
- Purely political offenses (e.g. non-violent protest in countries where it is not allowed)
- Offenses committed before the age of 16.
The ESTA application contains a questionnaire, which if answered truthfully will direct you to apply to a visa if you are ineligible for the Visa Waiver Program for reasons of criminal history, etc. If you have any concerns, complete the ESTA application well in advance of your departure to allow time to apply for a visa if directed to do so.
There are disadvantages and restrictions to entering under the visa-waiver program. Under normal circumstances, these include the following:
- you can't apply to extend your authorized stay
- you can't apply to change your status from visitor to another
- in case of denial of entry into the U.S., the decision can't be appealed and you will immediately be placed on the first flight out of the U.S.
Obtaining a visa
For the rest of the world, or for those who don't fit the profile of a Visa Waiver entry (e.g. need to stay more than 90 days) the visa application fee is a non-refundable $160 (as of April 2012) for visas that are not issued on the basis of a petition and $190 for those that are; this fee is waived under very limited circumstances, namely for people requesting certain exchange visitor visas.
Depending on your nationality and the category of visa you are requesting, you may need to pay an additional fee (ranging from $7-200) only if the visa is issued. This is called a reciprocity fee and is charged by the U.S. to match the fees charged by other countries on U.S. citizens.
The Immigration and Nationality Act states that all persons requesting entry into the United States as non-immigrants are presumed to be immigrants until they overcome that presumption by showing evidence of "binding ties" to their home country as well as sufficient proof that the visit will be temporary. When the U.S. rejects a visa application, it is usually because the applicant does not have enough binding ties to his own country to convince the consular officer that the person will not try to overstay. Applicants need to demonstrate that they are indeed genuinely entitled to the visa they are applying for. Face-to-face interviews (where the official needs to be convinced that you are not a "potential immigrant") at the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate are required for almost all nationalities, and waits for interview slots and visa processing can add up to several months.
Keep in mind that the embassy is closed on both U.S. holidays and holidays of your home country so you need to know both holidays when setting dates to apply for a visa. In addition, travelers should start planning their trips far in advance, as the application process is known to take up to 6 months.
Do not assume anything . Check on documentation requirements with the United States State Department or with the United States consulate nearest you. If coming to the country with a car, be sure to have documents showing car insurance, rental agreements, driver's license, etc., before trying to enter the U.S.
For technical and scientific fields of work or study, processing non-immigrant visa application can take up to 70 days, as it can require 8 weeks for receiving an approval from authorities in Washington. This especially applies to military and dual-purpose fields which are mentioned in a so-called technical alert list.
A visa is not a guarantee of entry into the U.S.: it only allows you to proceed to a port of entry and request admission. Your visa is generally not tied to your permitted length of stay; for example, a 10-year visa does not allow a stay of 10 years. On the other hand, you can enter the U.S. on the last day of validity of your visa and still be allowed to stay, for example, up to 180 days as a tourist.
Please bear in mind that applying for the incorrect/inappropriate visa for your purpose of travel will lead to serious problems, not to mention a possible perpetual bar from getting any U.S. visa (especially if you attempt to fraudulently obtain the visa). As such, please consult a U.S. immigration attorney especially if you want to apply for visas that require you to stay longer or do something other than business or tourism. This includes performing in concerts or competitions as well as field reporting for your media organization back home.
Common U.S. Visa/Residence Statuses
- B1 : Business visitor
- B2 : Tourist (also includes persons visiting family or friends)
- C1 : Transit
- F /M: Student
- H /L: Employment
- I : Journalism/Media
- J1 : Exchange program
- K : Prospective spouse
- TN : NAFTA employees from Canada or Mexico
- WB : Visa Waiver Program, Business; not extendable past 90 days
- WT : Visa Waiver Program, Tourist; not extendable past 90 days
Travel to U.S. possessions
The territories of Guam, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Northern Mariana Islands all have the same entry requirements as the 50 states.
However, Guam and the Northern Marianas Islands allow entry, by air only, for an additional group of foreign nationals under the Guam-CNMI Visa Waiver Program: Brunei, Malaysia, Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Taiwan (only on non-stop flights from Taiwan), & Hong Kong. Citizens of Australia, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, Singapore, & the United Kingdom are also allowed entry under the Guam-CNMI VWP and may enter under it of the federal VWP. Entrance under the Guam-CNMI VWP requires a valid, machine-readable passport, a return airfare, and is limited to a 45 day stay in Guam & the Northern Marianas only. Residents of Hong Kong must present a valid HK permanent identity card and are allowed entry with either a Hong Kong S.A.R. passport or British National (Overseas) passport. Residents of Taiwan must present a valid R.O.C. National Identification Card in addition to an R.O.C. passport. Citizens of Russia are eligible for parole (essentially the same as visa-free travel) to enter the Northern Marianas Islands only. Because of differences in entry requirements, a full immigration check is done when traveling between Guam and the Northern Marianas as well as on flights to the rest of the U.S. (currently, only Guam-Hawaii flights).
American Samoa lies outside the federal immigration jurisdiction and has separate entry requirements, which even apply to U.S. citizens. Entry is allowed for 30 days (extendable to 60 days) for tourism with a valid passport and proof of onward travel or local employment. U.S. citizens and citizens of countries under the federal Visa Waiver Program plus Palau, the Marshall Islands, and F.S. Micronesia are allowed visa-free entry. All other foreign nationals must contact the American Samoa Attorney General's office to obtain a visa at (684) 633-4163.
Arriving in the United States
Before arrival, if you are not a Canadian or Bermudian, you will receive either a white I-94 (if entering with a visa) or green I-94W (if entering on a visa waiver) form to complete. Most persons arriving in the United States under the Visa Waiver Program are no longer issued with I-94W cards, however, as the qualifying paperwork was filled out with the ESTA application.
If you are not a citizen or resident of the United States, you will go through a short interview at immigration, where a Customs and Border Protection officer will try to determine if the purpose of your visit is valid. Just like when obtaining the visa, the most important concern to immigration officials is to determine that you have the funds to support yourself and that you do not intend to work or perform any activity not authorized by the your visa. Be prepared to show proof. If you are on a business visit, have an invitation letter from the company you are visiting, or the registration details of the conference you are attending. If you are a tourist, you may need to demonstrate you have funds available to you. In both cases proof of onward travel may be required. Usually, the determination of admissibility is made in a minute or less, but you may be referred to further questioning in a more private area. At this stage they will likely search your possessions, and may read any documentation, letters or diaries in your possession. Do not bring anything that will imply you will immigrate (employment documents, photographs typically kept at home, excessive luggage, pets). If you are unable to prove or convince the officers that you will potentially abide by the terms of your visa (or visa waiver program if applicable), it can be cancelled on the spot, and you will be refused entry and sent on the next flight home.
Once the CBP officer decides to let you in, you are fingerprinted and a digital photograph is taken. These are additional security measures dubbed U.S.-VISIT that is currently applicable to all non-resident aliens, at a majority of land, sea, and air entry ports.
Like immigration and customs officials everywhere, CBP officials are humorless about any kind of security threat. Even the most flippant joke implying that you pose a threat can result in lengthy interrogation at best, and summary expulsion at worst.
For non-residents, your entry forms will need to state the street address of the location where you will be staying for the first night; this should be arranged in advance. The name of your hotel, hostel, university, etc. is not sufficient; you must provide the street name and number. If it is a hotel, have a reservation under your name. If it is a private address, make sure that the people there know that they are expecting you that day, as officials may phone them and ask them for the name of the guest they are expecting. Make sure you have their contact details (especially phone numbers where they can be reached immediately), and save any text messages or e-mails in which your hosts mention inviting you to stay at their residence.
Once you are admitted, the departure portion of your I-94 or I-94W will be stapled to your passport. Keep it safe as you will need to give it to airline staff upon departure from the U.S. and, if you fail to turn it in, you run the risk of being thought to have overstayed.
A customs form is handed out to all travelers; however, only one form per family is required to be filled out. Normally, the head of the family is responsible for ensuring the declaration is accurate. After you are admitted into the U.S. and retrieve your bags from the baggage claim, you will proceed to the secondary inspection area (the customs checkpoint). Hand your customs declaration to the officer. Most of the time, the officer will point you to the exit and that will be it. If you are traveling by air to the U.S., many airports will provide two lanes: for those who have something to declare and those who have nothing to declare. Regardless of the lane you choose, customs officers still have the right to detain you and search your bags. Sometimes, the officer may ask you some routine questions and then let you go. The officer may refer you to an adjacent X-ray machine to have your bags inspected or may refer you for a manual search of your bags. Any search more intrusive than a bag search is rare and is usually indicated only if some sort of probable cause has been established through questioning or during the bag search to suggest suspicious activity. Random searches of luggage, either by X-ray or manually, can occur.
You can't bring meat or raw fruit or vegetables but you may bring cooked non-meats, such as bread. The U.S. Customs process is straightforward. Most articles that are prohibited or restricted in any other country are prohibited or restricted in the U.S. The only rule that is unique to America is that it is generally prohibited to bring in goods made in countries on which the U.S. has imposed economic sanctions: Cuba, Iran, North Korea (DPRK), Syria, and Myanmar (Burma).
Besides your personal effects, which will go home with you, you are allowed to import $200 of merchandise duty free, including 1 liter of alcohol (for those 21 and older only) and 1 carton of cigarettes. If you are bringing in more than $10,000 cash or its equivalent, you must declare it on your customs form and you will be given a special form to fill out; not declaring exposes you to a fine and possible seizure of that cash.
The U.S. possessions of American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Marianas Islands, & U.S. Virgin Islands are outside federal customs jurisdiction. Each imposes their own separate requirements. Travel between these regions and the rest of the U.S. requires a customs inspection. There are some differences (mostly larger) in duty exemptions for U.S. citizens returning from these destinations.
All inbound citizens, nationals, and visitors must pass through immigration and customs at their first point of entry, regardless of whether they have connections to other destinations inside the U.S. Nearly all major hubs have special arrangements for travelers with connecting flights, such as a conveyor belt just the other side of customs where you can place your baggage that has been already been tagged with your final destination. (Some hubs like JFK have now switched to a more inconvenient system, where you must show your ID and boarding pass at a "Connecting Flights" check-in counter.)
Since you have had access to your checked bags while going through customs, you will always need to re-clear security if proceeding on to a connecting flight. Some airports (such as Philadelphia) have a bag drop belt right outside customs, followed by a dedicated security checkpoint just for passengers connecting from international flights. At others (such as Boston where domestic carriers all depart from terminals other than the one used for international arrivals), you will have to exit the terminal you are in and proceed to the terminal of your departing flight, drop your bags at your airline's counter and then proceed through the main security checkpoint.
Note that the bag drop procedures above work only if you have requested the staff at your port of departure to check your baggage through to your final destination (as opposed to your first U.S. port of entry). If this is not possible or there are no check-through agreements between the airline that took you to your port of entry and the next airline, you will have to proceed to the terminal from which your next flight departs and check-in as usual.
Leaving the United States (and Re-entering from Canada or Mexico)
Unlike most countries, the U.S. has no formal passport control checkpoint for those exiting the country, especially for those traveling by air or sea. As such, if you are leaving the U.S. for the last time on a particular trip (i.e. not returning from Canada or Mexico), it is ultimately your responsibility to turnover the departure record of your I-94 or I-94(W) to the airline or ship staff at check-in, or the Canadian or Mexican border officer if leaving by land. If you leave the country with it, still in your possession, contact U.S. officials about how to return it and update your departure records to avoid entry hassles in the future. If you leave by a commercial carrier, your departure will also be verified with the airline or shipping company. Hence it (at least theoretically) means no further action is needed from you; nonetheless bring whatever documents to prove you were outside the U.S. before time was up the next time you visit. U.S. Customs and Border Protection has information about what to do if your slip is not collected.
If you intend to leave for Canada or Mexico by land for a side trip and return to the U.S. within 30 days or the allowed time of your stay (whichever is shorter), you may re-enter the U.S. provided that you do not yet return the I-94 or I-94 card before you proceed to Canada or Mexico. This can also be done even if you originally entered the U.S. on a single-entry visa. However, you will only be admitted for the remainder of your original allowed time; the deadline to ultimately leave the U.S. won't be extended by just leaving the U.S. for somewhere else in North America. If you return the I-94 while on the side trip, you will have to apply all over again to enter the U.S. (which means a new visa for single-entry visa holders) and be subject to the usual questioning that alien go through to lack of any intentions of immigrating, working, or doing something else not authorized by the visa.
That said, avoid re-entering the U.S. a few days, weeks or months after one visit. Even if you don't technically overstay, planning several U.S. visits spaced shortly after each other may be interpreted by immigration officers as having "immigrant intent" and hence your visa could be subject to cancellation the next time you apply for entry.
There are additional pilot security measures dubbed U.S.-VISIT that will eventually require non-resident aliens to be fingerprinted and photographed upon their exit. This is applicable at a majority of land, sea, and air entry ports.
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