If you’re not a US citizen, you’ll have to jump through a few hoops before you can vacation in the USA.

And by hoops, we mean filling out forms, answering a lot of questions, and possibly attending a visa application interview. But don’t let your concerns about the visa process keep you away.

With some advance planning, you can be standing atop the Empire State Building or hiking into the Grand Canyon in no time.

Start prepping for your trip with our step-by-step guide to navigating visa requirements for US travel. And remember, regulations often change, so always check the latest updates on the US State Department and US Customs and Border Patrol websites.

View of departure hall of Terminal 1 at JFK Airport, New York City
Visitors from the 40 Visa Waiver Program countries should have an ESTA before traveling to the USA © Lev Radin / Getty Images

Who can travel to the USA visa-free?

If you are a citizen of one of the 40 countries covered by the USA’s Visa Waiver Program (VWP), you do not need a visa to travel for business or pleasure and plan to stay 90 days or less. Countries covered by the Visa Waiver Program include the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and most countries in the European Union.

Even if your visa is waived, you will need a passport as well as authorization pursuant to the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA), which is required whether you are arriving by land, sea or air. If you are traveling to the US by plane or boat, authorization must be secured prior to boarding.

If you’re visiting under the Visa Waiver Program, your passport must be valid for at least six months longer than your intended stay, unless exempt due to a country-specific agreement. It must also be an e-passport, which has an e-chip providing enhanced security and a machine-readable zone on your bio page.

After you are admitted to the US, you can make short side trips into Mexico and Canada and be readmitted, but these visits count against your 90-day stay.

If you are a Canadian with a Canadian passport, you do not need a visa or ESTA authorization to enter the US for stays of less than 90 days. Mexican citizens traveling to the US must have a visa or Border Crossing Card.

Be aware that if you have traveled to or been present in certain listed countries – including Cuba, Iran, Iraq Somalia and others – during the time periods set forth in the Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015, you may not be eligible to travel without a visa.

Two young women checking in at automated airport machines
Visitors using the Visa Waiver Program must travel with an e-Passport © RichLegg / Getty Images

ESTA authorization – what you need to know

To obtain ESTA authorization, you must register online with the Department of Homeland Security at least 72 hours before your arrival. Once your ESTA application is approved, it’s typically valid for two years and multiple visits.

The application fee is $21 and is payable online. To apply, you need a valid email address, home address and phone number plus the details of an emergency point of contact.

Once you have applied, you’ll receive one of three responses: Authorization Approved (this usually comes within minutes), Authorization Pending (you’ll need to check the status within the next 72 hours), or Travel Not Authorized. If travel is not authorized, you’ll need to apply for a visa.

If you’re from a country not covered by the Visa Waiver Program, you must apply for a tourist visa before visiting the US.

For additional information about ESTA, visit the US Customs and Border Protection’s ESTA Frequently Asked Questions page.

Crossing the Border from Canada or Mexico

The US has more than 100 official border crossings with Canada in the north and almost 50 with Mexico to the south. It’s relatively easy crossing from the USA into either country. But crossing into the US can pose problems if you haven’t got all your documents with you. Some borders are open 24 hours, but most are not.

Busy entry points with Canada include those between Detroit, Michigan and Windsor, Ontario; Buffalo, New York and Niagara Falls, Ontario; and Blaine, Washington and Douglas, British Columbia.

The main US-Mexico border crossings are between San Diego, California and Tijuana; Nogales, Arizona and Nogales, Sonora; El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juárez; and Brownsville, Texas and Matamoros.

US Customs and Border Protection provides current wait times for entry at border checkpoints and airports on its website. As always, have your papers in order, be polite and don't make jokes or casual conversation with US border officials.

Chicago O'Hare International Airport (ORD)
Immigration and customs checks require biometric information, such as digital fingerprints and a photo © EQRoy / Shutterstock

What you need to know about obtaining a visa

There are two types of visas for foreign nationals traveling to the USA: nonimmigrant visas for short stays and immigrant visas for permanent residence. Nonimmigrant visas include visas for business (B-1), tourism (B-2) or a combination of the two (B-1/B-2).

With the exception of Canadian citizens and those entering under the Visa Waiver Program, all foreign visitors need to obtain a tourist visa from a US consulate or embassy abroad. Most applicants will need to schedule a personal interview and bring all their relevant documentation with them.

Wait times for interviews vary and can take months. If your application is approved, visa issuance takes anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. You can check wait times for scheduling interviews at individual embassies and consulates.

You must complete a DS-160 nonimmigrant visa application form and bring its confirmation page to the interview. You'll also need a recent photo and you must pay a nonrefundable $185 processing fee. Bring your payment receipt to the interview. In some cases, you may need to pay an additional visa-issuance reciprocity fee.

Your passport must be valid for at least six months after your scheduled departure from the USA, although exemptions are sometimes allowed by a country-specific agreement with your country of citizenship. 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, and/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 tourist visa while they're still in their home country, rather than while on the road.

The popular B-2 nonimmigrant visitor's visa, for tourism or visiting friends and relatives, is good for multiple entries. The validity period depends on what country you are from and your application. The actual length of time you'll be allowed to stay in the USA is determined by US immigration at the port of entry when you receive an admission stamp or Form I-94, which sets forth your arrival and departure dates.

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.

To extend your stay, you must request permission on Form I-539 before the end of your visit. Do not stay longer than authorized without permission. You may be deported and/or barred from returning in the future. It is recommended that you make the request at least 45 days before your departure date.

Female border control officer puts a stamp in the US passport of an American citizen
Foreign visitors who require a tourist visa to the USA must apply at a US embassy abroad © FTiare / Getty Images

Immigration officers have the final say

No matter what your visa or ESTA authorization says, US immigration officers have absolute authority to refuse admission to the country, or to impose conditions on admission.

They may 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.

This article was first published Jun 3, 2021 and updated Sep 30, 2023.

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