US entry requirements continue to evolve as the USA fine-tunes its national security guidelines. All travelers should double-check current visa and passport regulations before coming to the USA.
The main portal for US visa information is www.unitedstatesvisas.gov, though you can also access visa information through www.usa.gov. Both of these link to the US State Department (www.travel.state.gov), which maintains the most comprehensive visa information, providing downloadable forms, lists of US consulates abroad and even visa wait times calculated by country. The website maintained by US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS; uscis.gov) focuses on immigrants, not temporary visitors.
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 must 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. The US consular office should also inform you if you must follow the National Security Entry/Exit Registration System (NSEERS) procedures upon arrival.
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 $100 processing fee, plus in a few cases an additional visa issuance reciprocity fee (check the State Department website for details). In addition to the main nonimmigrant 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 documents of financial stability (or evidence that a US resident will provide financial support), a round-trip or onward ticket and ‘binding obligations’ that will ensure their return home, such as family ties, a home or a job.
Because of these requirements, those planning to travel through other countries before arriving in the USA are generally better off applying for a US visa while they are still in their home country, rather than while on the road.
The most common visa is a nonimmigrant visitor’s visa, type B1 for business purposes, B2 for tourism or visiting friends and relatives. A visitor’s visa is good for multiple entries over one or five years, and specifically prohibits the visitor from taking paid employment in the USA. The validity period depends on what country you are from. The length of time you’ll be allowed to stay in the USA is determined by US immigration at the port of entry.
If you’re coming to the USA to work or study, you will need a different type of visa, and the company or institution to which you are going should make the arrangements. Other categories of nonimmigrant visas include an F1 visa for students undertaking a recognized course; an H1, H2 or H3 visa for temporary employment; a J1 visa for exchange visitors in approved programs; a K1 visa for the fiancé or fiancée of an American citizen; and an L1 visa for intracompany transfers.
Visa waiver program
Previously, under the Visa Waiver Program, citizens of certain countries were allowed to enter the USA without a US visa for stays of 90 days or less (with no extensions allowed). As of January 12, 2009, this has changed.All travelers eligible to visit the US under the program must now obtain approval before they travel through the US' Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA). ESTA is an online system run by the US government, determining the preliminary eligibility of visitors to travel under the Visa Waiver Program, prior to setting out.
Prospective travelers are required to visit the ESTA website and provide basic information about themselves (biographical, travel and eligibility details) in order to receive authorization before they depart. The process does not cost anything. Usually, authorization takes a matter of minutes, though it's advisable to complete your application as soon as you start planning your trip, or at least three days in advance, to avoid any delays. Travelers who do not hold a valid ESTA may encounter difficulties in entering the country. Electronic pre-clearance is valid for up to two years and for multiple-entry visits to the US.
Currently, 27 countries are eligible for the Visa Waiver Program, and are thus affected by this change: Andorra, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brunei, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Monaco, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, San Marino, Singapore, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the UK.
The established terms of the program still apply. Once their ESTA approval is confirmed, visitors must still produce at their port of entry all the same evidence as for a non-immigrant visa application: ie they must demonstrate that the trip is for a limited time, and that they have a round-trip or onward ticket, adequate funds to cover the trip and binding obligations abroad. (You don’t need a visa if: your passport was issued before October 26, 2005, but is ‘machine readable’ (with two lines of letters, numbers and <<< at the bottom); if it was issued between October 26, 2005, and October 25, 2006, and includes a digital photo as well as being machine readable; or if it was issued on or after October 26, 2006, and is an e-Passport containing a digital photo and an imbedded computer chip with ‘biometric data.’ Confirm with your passport issuing agency that your passport meets current US standards. You’ll be turned back if it doesn’t, even though you belong to a VWP country.)
For more information, see the ESTA website.
In addition, the same ‘grounds for exclusion’ apply, except that you will have no opportunity to appeal the grounds or apply for an exemption. If you are denied under the Visa Waiver Program at a US point of entry, you will have to use your onward or return ticket on the next available flight.
Grounds for exclusion & deportation
If on your visa application form you admit to being a subversive, smuggler, prostitute, junkie, terrorist or an ex-Nazi, you may be excluded. You can also be refused a visa or entry to the USA if you have a ‘communicable disease of public health significance, ’ a criminal record or if you’ve ever made a false statement in connection with a US visa application. However, if these last three apply, you can request an exemption; many people are granted them and then given visas.
US immigration has a very broad definition of a criminal record. If you’ve ever been arrested or charged with an offense, that’s a criminal record, even if you were acquitted or discharged without conviction. Don’t attempt to enter through the Visa Waiver Program if you have a criminal record of any kind; assume US authorities will find out about it.
Communicable diseases include tuberculosis, the Ebola virus, SARS and most particularly HIV. US immigration doesn’t test people for disease, but officials at the point of entry may question anyone about his or her health. They can exclude anyone whom they believe has a communicable disease, perhaps because they are carrying medical documents, prescriptions or AIDS/HIV medicine. Being gay is not a ground for exclusion; being an IV drug user is. Visitors may be deported if US immigration finds that they have HIV but did not declare it. Being HIV-positive is not a ground for deportation, but failing to provide accurate information on the visa application is.
Often USCIS will grant an exemption (a ‘waiver of ineligibility’) to a person who would normally be subject to exclusion, but this requires referral to a regional immigration office and can take some time (allow at least two months). If you’re tempted to conceal something, remember that US immigration is strictest of all about false statements. It will often view favorably an applicant who admits to an old criminal charge or a communicable disease, but it is extremely harsh on anyone who has ever attempted to mislead it, even on minor points. After you’re admitted to the USA, any evidence of a false statement to US immigration is grounds for deportation.
Prospective visitors to whom grounds of exclusion may apply should consider their options before applying for a visa.
Entering the USA
If you have a non-US passport, you must complete an arrival/departure record (form I-94) before you reach the immigration desk. It’s usually handed out on the plane along with the customs declaration. For the question, ‘Address While in the United States, ’ give the address where you will spend the first night (a hotel address is fine).
No matter what your visa says, US immigration officers have an absolute authority to refuse admission to the USA or to impose conditions on admission. They will 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. Showing that you have over $400 per week of your stay should be enough. Don’t make too much of having friends, relatives or business contacts in the USA; the immigration official may decide that this will make you more likely to overstay. It also helps to be neatly dressed and polite. If they think you’re OK, a six-month entry is usually approved.
The Department of Homeland Security’s registration program – called US-VISIT (www.dhs.gov/us-visit) – is essentially phased in. It includes every port of entry and nearly every foreign visitor to the USA.
For most visitors (excluding, for now, most Canadian and Mexican citizens), registration consists of having a digital photo taken and electronic (inkless) fingerprints made of each index finger; the process takes less than a minute. As of June 2007, no second registration was required to exit the USA.
A ‘special registration’ called NSEERS (the National Security Entry/Exit Registration System) applies to citizens of certain countries that have been deemed particular risks; however, US officials can require this registration of any traveler.
Currently, the countries included are Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan and Syria, but visit www.travel.state.gov for updates. Registration in these cases also includes a short interview in a separate room and computer verification of all personal information supplied on travel documents.
If you want, need or hope to stay in the USA longer than the date stamped on your passport, go to the local USCIS office (call 800-375-5283 or look in the local white pages telephone directory under ‘US Government’) to apply for an extension well before the stamped date. If the date has passed, your best chance will be to bring a US citizen with you to vouch for your character, and to produce lots of other verification that you are not trying to work illegally and have enough money to support yourself. However, if you’ve overstayed, the most likely scenario is that you will be deported.
Short-term departures & reentry
It’s quite easy to make trips across the border to Canada or Mexico, but upon return to the USA, non-Americans will be subject to the full immigration procedure. Always take your passport when you cross the border. If your immigration card still has plenty of time on it, you will probably be able to reenter using the same one, but if it has nearly expired, however, you will have to apply for a new card, and border control may want to see your onward air ticket, sufficient funds and so on.
Traditionally, a quick trip across the border has been a way to extend your stay in the USA without applying for an extension at a USCIS office. This can still be done, but don’t assume it will work. First, make sure you hand in your old immigration card to the immigration authorities when you leave the USA, and when you return make sure you have all the necessary application documentation from when you first entered the country. US immigration will be very suspicious of anyone who leaves for a few days and returns immediately hoping for a new six-month stay; expect to be questioned closely.
Citizens of most Western countries will not need a visa for Canada, so it’s really not a problem at all to cross to the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, detour up to Quebec or pass through on the way to Alaska. Travelers entering the USA by bus from Canada can be closely scrutinized. A round-trip ticket that takes you back to Canada will most likely make US immigration feel less suspicious. Mexico has a visa-free zone along most of its border with the USA, including the Baja Peninsula and most of the border towns, such as Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez. You’ll need a Mexican visa or tourist card only if you want to go beyond the border zone.