US Entry Requirements: Visitor Information
Entering the US: Which documents do you need?
To gain entry to the USA as a non-US national, you will need to present to the border official a valid passport and either a valid visa or proof you are qualify for visa-free travel.
Are you eligible for visa-free travel to the US?
If you are a citizen of a visa-waiver country, such as the UK, and you are travelling to the US for a stay of under 90 days for tourism or business-related reasons (though not to perform gainful employment), the visa waiver program (VWP) may be open to you. The VWP permits you to travel to the US without having to secure a visa.
Each traveller will however have to hold a valid ESTA, the security pre-screening process which determines if admissibility prior to travel.
Make your ESTA application
You apply by completing the online ESTA application form Prepare for your ESTA application by ensuring:
- that you have a current e-passport from a Visa Waiver country
- that you are able to pay the application fee
- you have your contact details to hand
- and, if applicable, you have up-to-date employment information.
Once you have submitted your ESTA application, you will generally be told straightaway whether your application has been successful, unless further information is required.
Issues with ESTA eligibility, such as a criminal record, is likely to require legal advice on your options, including whether the relevant visa and an accompanying waiver of inadmissibility should be applied for.
Apply for a US visa
If you are not eligible for travel under the VWP, a visa will be required to travel to the US.
The type of visa you need will depend on your reason for travel. The main visa categories for temporary travel cover:
- Tourism or short-term medical treatment
- Temporary employment
- Treaty Trader or Treaty Investor
- Study and exchange
- Diplomats and other government officials
For example, to travel to the US for the purposes of tourism, consider the B-2 visitor visa. This type of visa is also appropriate for temporary medical treatment.
To visit the US for business purposes on a short-term basis, not employment, you should apply for a B-1 visa. A B1 visa could be used for meeting with a prospective client, attending a business convention or searching for future premises.
If your reason for visiting the US is temporary employment, the visa you apply for will depend on the kind of work you wish to be employed for and your level of education. For instance, for workers in a speciality occupation that requires a relevant degree, you would look at the H1B visa.
An employee transferring to a US branch of a multinational company should consider the L1.
Should you wish to study in the US, you would apply for an F1 or M1 visa, and when your intention is to take part in a student exchange programme, the relevant visa would be a J1 visa.
These are only a brief indication of the visas available. Take advice on your circumstances to ensure you select the visa route that best suits your needs and for which you are eligible.
Make your US visa application
Apply for your visa through the online DS-160 Non-immigrant Visa Application form. This process will require that you upload a recent and recognisable photograph of yourself.
The online form will ask for information on the following:
- Your personal information (name, sex, marital status, date and place of birth)
- Your contact information
- Passport information
- Travel information such as the purpose of your visit to the US, details of any business contact in the US, travel plans, accommodation, and who is paying for the visit
- Information on any travel companions
- Have you previously visited the US?
- Your US point of contact
- Family information
- Work, education and training
- Additional details (Do you belong to a clan or tribe? Have you travelled to other countries during the last 5 years? Membership of/connection with professional, social or charitable organisations. Specialised skills or training. Military service. Membership of/connection with a paramilitary unit, vigilante unit, rebel group, guerrilla group or insurgent organisation)
- Security and background information (medical and health information, criminal information, involvement in espionage, sabotage, export control violations or other illegal activity, terrorist activities or involvement, war crime involvement, immigration law violations)
- Where you have received assistance in completing your application, details of that person
Once you have completed the online application, print off the confirmation page. This will be needed at your interview.
The interview will take place at the US embassy or consulate where you filed your petition. At your interview, you will be expected to provide:
- DS-160 confirmation page
- Payment receipt if a fee was paid when you arranged your interview
- Supporting documents required by your particular visa
Your biometric details will also be taken.
The consular officer will ask questions on your application form, your supporting documents and your personal situation. For tourist visas, the interview would generally last around 20 minutes. Interviews for business and employment-related visas such as the L1 and E visas typically last longer as they cover more ground, in more detail, relating to your visa eligibility and documentary evidence.
The supporting documents to take to the interview will be determined by the visa you are applying for, and your personal circumstances. It is advisable to take guidance from immigration specialists to understand what the adjudicating officers usually ask looking for, and to compile comprehensive documentation.
US entry requirements & Inadmissibility
Any application for entry into the US, whether for a visa or to travel through the Visa Waiver Program, will involve screening of your background and personal information.
This will include:
- your identity, including your biometrics (fingerprints, photograph and signature), to ensure you are who you say you are
- your family, whether they are travelling with you or not
- any previous visits you may have made to the US
- whether you belong to a clan or tribe
- which other countries you have travelled to during the last 5 years
- professional, social or charitable organisations that you are a member of or otherwise connected with
- any military service
- any paramilitary unit, vigilante unit, rebel group, guerrilla group or insurgent organisation that you are a member of or otherwise connected with
- whether you have a criminal history
- involvement in terrorism, war crimes or genocide
- any previous immigration violations, such as overstaying the amount of time you were allowed to be in the US
- involvement in espionage, sabotage, or export control violations
False information in any part of your application can result in a refused application or denied entry at the border. Records will be retained which can affect any future US immigration applications.
You should also refer to the latest US travel guidance in relation to COVID or other travel restrictions.
Entry at the US border
Even with a valid visa or ESTA authorisation, you will not be guaranteed entry into the US.
Admission into the country is at the discretion of the US immigration officials at the port of entry. They have the authority to question you at the border, about your reason for travel, your itinerary while in the US, your background and immigration history. They also have the right to deny you entry. It is therefore important that you are fully prepared before you arrive at the US border to answer questions and to have documents to support your reasons for travel. This also includes being able to show you have sufficient funds to maintain yourself and anyone else dependent in your party for the duration of your stay, and that you have travel plans to leave the US before your permission expires.
Moving to the US permanently
Emigrating to the US on a permanent basis demands different entry requirements. Permission must be sought generally under:
- an immigrant visa through family, employment, the diversity visa programme or as a special immigrant
- changing status from a qualifying nonimmigrant visa to obtain a Green Card and the status of permanent resident
As with a non-immigrant visa or the Visa Waiver Program, US entry requirements for an immigrant visa will consider your personal history for any inadmissibility issues.
This article does not constitute direct legal advice and is for informational purposes only.