Entering the USA

If you are planning a trip to the USA, make sure you know the procedures before, during, and after crossing the US border. Here's some useful advice on documents and processes at the airport as well as current immigration regulations.

Corona travel ban lifted: flying to the USA is possible again

The US government has lifted the Corona-related travel ban. As a result, fully vaccinated international travelers are allowed to fly to the USA again.

Note
Submit your ESTA application now to travel to the USA visa-free!

Who is allowed to travel to the USA?

The following individuals may travel to the United States again without detour:

  • International travelers with a complete COVID-19 vaccination upon presentation of proof of vaccination and a negative test result (no more than one day old)
  • Unvaccinated US citizens
  • Unvaccinated Green Card holders
  • Unvaccinated non-Americans who meet certain eligibility requirements (for example, children under 18, participants in COVID-19 vaccine trials, and other exceptional cases).

For full details on rules and exemptions, visit USA Travel and Corona.

Corona test for US entry

To enter the USA, you need a negative COVID-19 test or proof of recovery that is not older than 90 days.

Details about deadlines and formalities around the necessary tests can be found on the website of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Attention
The situation can change at any time due to a new decision of the US government. Therefore, we recommend that you obtain the latest information before traveling to the USA.

Travel safety and precautions

During your trip to the USA, observe the hygiene rules, follow the recommendations of airlines and hosts, and take care of travel health insurance coverage in good time before your flight in order to be on the safe side during your stay in the USA.

Documents for a USA trip

To enter the USA, you will need a number of documents that you should carry with you at all times. These include:

  • Your valid, biometric passport (e-passport with a chip, also for children)
  • Your ESTA approval or US visa
  • The NIE confirmation from your US embassy (if applicable)
  • Your hotel reservation or proof of first accommodation in the USA
  • Proof of your return or onward travel (ticket)
  • Backup copies of all the above documents on paper or/and on your smartphone

We also recommend that you bring proof of your ties to your home country to prove your intention to return home to US border officials. This can be, for example, a copy of your lease or employment contract.

Tip
The easiest way to enter the USA is with a Green Card. The US immigrant visa gives you almost all the rights of a US citizen, so you don't have to provide any further proof when crossing the border and save a lot of time.

Passport for USA trip

For a trip to the USA, your biometric passport usually has to be valid until the day of your departure. However, this only applies if the country in which your passport was issued is a member of the so-called "Six Month Club."

Six Month Club
Countries that are members of the "Six Month Club" enjoy an exception to the otherwise applicable six-month rule. This means that a passport must be valid for six months beyond the planned date of departure in order to enter the USA.

A list of Six Month Club countries is updated regularly on the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) website. The more than 100 "club members" include, for example, all countries in Europe, as well as Canada, Egypt, New Zealand, Brazil, and many South American and African countries.

Not currently on the list, for example, are Afghanistan, China, Bangladesh, Iran, and North Korea. Travelers to the US from these and many other countries must have a passport that is valid for at least six months after the date of intended departure.

Can I travel to the USA without a passport?

If you do not have a biometric e-passport but only a temporary passport, you may still be able to enter the United States with a US visa. This also applies to children who only have a children's passport. The following rules apply:

Document for USA trip Possible entry
Biometric passport (e-passport) with ESTA or US visa
Temporary passport only with US visa
Identity card none
Temporary identity card none
Children's passport only with US visa

ESTA or visa: which is better?

ESTA makes traveling to the USA much easier because the uncomplicated travel authorization is fast and cheap to get. However, you may only apply for an ESTA if you come from one of the participating countries (Visa Waiver countries).

Currently, 40 countries are members of the Visa Waiver Program. If you qualify for ESTA, you are allowed to stay in the USA for up to 90 days at a time visa-free.

ESTA advantages
Application online
Waiting time 72 hours max
Interview appointment at US Embassy not applicable
Length of stay 90 days at a time, multiple entries possible within the validity period
Validity 2 years
Costs $14 (or €39 with additional security)
Possible help with the application? Additional security through ESTA agencies such as The American Dream

 

Advantages of a US visa
Validity 10 years
Who is allowed to travel with a visa? also possible without an e-passport (a temporary passport is sufficient in most cases)
Rights in the USA working and studying, also possible (depending on visa)
Length of stay 180 days and longer (depending on visa)

Apply for ESTA

The ESTA application process only takes a few minutes. You can apply directly on the US government's website or - if you want to be on the safe side - at an ESTA service agency.

An agency will take care of the application process, point out errors and deadlines, and protect you from an ESTA block due to possible formal errors. A money-back guarantee can also be booked.

ESTA – visa-free to the USA

With an ESTA, you can stay 90 days visa-free in the USA. Apply online now!

Apply for a US visa

You can apply for a US visa on the website of the visa service provider CGI Federal or - if you want to be on the safe side - at a US visa agency. The agency will take care of the application process, point out errors, and deadlines and protect you from a rejection of your visa.

You pay the US visa fee of at least €150 (depending on the visa) during the application process. This is followed by an interview at your local US embassy or consulate, where you will have to defend and prove the reason for your application.

After your interview appointment, you may be required to pay additional fees, which vary depending on the visa category. These are, for example, for the examination of the certificates and documents you have submitted.

After a waiting period, which can vary greatly depending on the visa (but at least 15 days), you will receive your passport with the issued visa or may pick it up at the embassy.

US visa categories

Depending on the purpose of your trip to the USA, your visa category will also differ. If you do not want to work or study in the USA, we recommend an ESTA instead of a visa. For all other purposes, there are the following visa categories:

USA visitor visas

For USA visitors who do not intend to work or study in the United States, the following visa categories are available:

  • B-1 — for business travelers
  • B-2 — for tourists
  • B-1 / B-2 — combination visa for business travelers and/or tourists
Visas for working in the USA

For individuals who wish to work in the United States, the following visa categories are available:

  • C-1/D — for crew members of international airlines or ships
  • E-1 — for managers, executives, and specialists of companies trading with the USA
  • E-2 — for managers, executives, and specialists of companies that have invested in the USA
  • H-1B — for professionals and individuals with an academic degree
  • I — for journalists and media representatives
  • L-1 — for intra-company transfer of employees
  • L-1 Blanket — for intra-company transfer of employees (simplified application procedure)
  • O-1 — for individuals with exceptional skills
  • TN — for skilled workers from Canada and Mexico
US student visa

For students, interns, and seasonal workers (e.g., summer job) in the USA, there are the following visa categories:

  • F-1 — for studies at a US university, attendance at a language school, college, or other educational institution
  • J-1 — for exchange programs in the USA, internships, training
  • M-1 — for attendance at a non-academic or vocational educational institution

US immigrant visa (Green Card) Immigration to the USA is allowed with the following US immigrant visas:

  • EB-1 to EB-5 — Green Card through the workplace
  • IR-1 to IR-5 — family-based Green Card for spouses and children of US citizens
  • F-1 to F-4 — Green Card for other relatives of US citizens
  • DV Green Card — through the official Green Card Lottery (Diversity Visa Program) of the US government

Entry requirements for the USA

The entry requirements for the USA are subject to frequent changes. Therefore, you should check the current rules daily, e.g., on your flight provider's website, before you fly to the States.

In addition to organizational obligations such as entry permits and visas, COVID-19 tests, hygiene regulations, and the necessary collection of personal data, the entry regulations also govern the import regulations for the USA.

Import regulations USA

The import regulations for the United States govern the transport of food, stimulants, cash, medicines, pets, and weapons into the United States.

With the customs declaration (which is filled out either electronically or by hand), you provide information about which goods, items, animals, or food you want to bring across the border.

Bringing pets to the USA

If you want to take your pet with you to the USA, you will need a health certificate and a vaccination certificate from a veterinarian. The specific transport regulations for airplanes vary depending on the airline, so we recommend a personal consultation.

Clarify the following questions with your travel provider:

  • What species and breed of animal are involved?
  • How big and heavy is the animal?
  • Is a transport box available and how big is it?
  • Can my animal (size + transport box) fly in the passenger compartment?
  • What are the flight conditions if the animal must fly in the cargo hold?
  • How much does it cost to take my pet with me?

You should also check with a board-certified veterinarian about the following:

  • Are all vaccinations up to date?
  • Is the date of the vaccinations clear?
  • How long ago can the last vaccination be? (Usually a maximum of 12 months)
  • What is the health condition of my animal? (Issue a certificate and have it translated)
  • What is the best way to prepare my pet for the journey?
  • What aids are available to me to make my pet's journey as comfortable as possible?

Be sure to bring translations of health certificates and vaccination cards with you to the airport. When crossing the border, US Customs may do another health check on your pet.

Attention
Lack of vaccination (e.g., rabies vaccination) is often a reason for temporary "confiscation" of pets at the US border. They must then be quarantined for 30 (or in the worst case even 120) days.

To ensure that everything goes well, you should contact your US embassy a few weeks before your trip and discuss bringing your pet to the USA under the current conditions.

Bringing medications into the USA

When entering the USA with certain medications such as sleeping pills, heart medications, cough medications, or flu medications, you should be able to provide U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials with a medical certificate, including an English translation.

Bringing food into the USA

You are allowed to bring the following food items into the USA in unopened packages:

  • Chocolate and other candy
  • Baked goods
  • Flour
  • Pasta (without egg)
  • Rice
  • Spices
  • Nuts
  • Dried fruits
  • Vegetable oils
  • Coffee and tea

You are not allowed to bring the following foods into the USA:

  • Meat
  • Fresh dairy products
  • Plants
  • Candy with non-edible items
  • Seeds and tubers

Flights to the USA

If you fly to the USA from Europe, you will be traveling for at least eight hours, but mostly between 12 and 20 hours. There are numerous non-stop flights to the USA and many cheaper offers with 1 - 2 stops.

Prices for USA flights vary from a sensational €230 to over €1,000 to particularly remote areas, such as Alaska. Among the airlines that bring you to the USA are American Airlines, United Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Austrian Airlines, and Lufthansa.

How far in advance do I need to book a USA flight?

If you are looking for a particularly cheap flight to the USA, you can follow the 90-day rule common among travel experts. It is said that airfares remain stable up to 90 days before the flight and then increase rapidly.

Don't forget: You'll also need an ESTA or US visa for your USA trip. Since the waiting time for a visa can vary greatly depending on the category, we recommend a lead time of several weeks. Traveling with ESTA is much faster (max. 72 hours waiting time).

What happens at the airport?

Before you can board the plane to the USA, you have to go through a few processes at the airport. You will not even notice some of them because your data, which will now be thoroughly checked again, may have already been submitted when you booked your flight.

Online Check-In

You can check-in for your flight online before you even get to the airport. This saves time during check-in. It's best to check your airline's website to see how digital check-in works in your case because it varies from company to company.

APIS data and the „Secure Flight” system

Shortly before your departure to the United States, your airline will transmit some of your personal information. This includes

  • your name
  • your home address
  • your date of birth
  • your nationality
  • your gender
  • your passport number and
  • your first accommodation address in the USA

If the data transfer has not already taken place at the time of booking, you will be asked for it at the latest at check-in (online or at the counter).

Your personal data will be forwarded to the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) as part of the "Secure Flight" program in order to be checked against the documentation systems of law enforcement agencies, intelligence agencies, and other organizations.

Baggage check-in at the counter

You've already saved a lot of time thanks to online check-in, but you'll still have to make a quick appearance at the counter to drop off your luggage. Present your passport and booking confirmation, and then lift your luggage onto the conveyor belt next to the counter.

Your suitcase and boarding pass will be given a matching sticker. The boarding pass will tell you which gate to go to and which seat you have on the plane.

Tip
Some airports have an automatic baggage check-in system. Look for the appropriate machine, which weighs your suitcase, scans the flight ticket, and prints out the adhesive label. Then place your bag on the conveyor belt next to the check-in counter.

What does "SSSS" on the boarding pass mean?

If you find the handwritten note "SSSS" on your boarding pass, this is an indication that you need to allow a little more time. US airlines occasionally select travelers for "Secondary Security Screening Selection" (SSSS).

This is where your carry-on luggage is searched, you're patted down, and an officer asks you a few questions about your trip. Don't panic: As long as you stick to the truth, you'll be out of there in a few minutes and can fly to the USA without worrying.

Security check

During the security check, you place your carry-on luggage and certain clothing items, such as jackets, scarves, or belts, in plastic trays designed for this purpose so that they can be pushed over a conveyor belt into an X-ray scanner.

While your luggage is being scanned, you will go through the screening process by passing through a metal detector or full-body scanner. You may be asked to remove your shoes. T

he security check is often a lengthy affair. Therefore, you should join the queues between 30 and 60 minutes before departure. After the security check, go to your gate, the number of which is on your boarding pass.

Boarding

When your plane is ready to board, the hustle and bustle begins in the gate waiting room. Have your passport and boarding pass ready and stay calm - no one will take your seat. Have a good flight!

What happens after landing in the USA?

Your plane has landed softly, and you are entering the airport. But before you can actually cross the US border, you have to pass a US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officer.

The right queue at the US airport

After getting off the plane, you end up in the waiting hall with all the other passengers, from where you spread out into the different queues for passport control.

As a tourist or business traveler, you take the "Visitors" queue and usually need a lot of patience there. If you are lucky, one of the immigration officers will redirect you to the APC (Automated Passport Control), where everything is much faster.

Attention
Cell phone use is strictly prohibited in the waiting hall and at customs and in conversation with border guards!

How to shorten waiting times for US entry

There are different ways to shorten your waiting time at the US airport. These include automated passport control (APC), which you are allowed to use after being asked to do so by a US border official.

The so-called Global Entry procedure can also shorten your waiting times at the airport. However, it requires membership and is only worthwhile for passengers who travel to the US frequently.

The easiest way to minimize airport wait times is to have a Green Card. With the US immigrant visa, you no longer have to stand in the long queue but can use the convenient entrance for US citizens and Permanent Residents.

Passport control

Your passport will be checked upon entry into the United States either in person by a US border agent at the counter or the electronic APC terminal.

Automated Passport Control (APC)

As an ESTA traveler, US citizen, Canadian citizen, or Green Card holder, you are eligible to use the APC machine. ESTA travelers must first wait for a US border official to prompt them before proceeding to the APC.

You will go through the following steps at APC:

  • Customs declaration and category
    After your language selection, you will be asked a series of questions. These include the contents of your luggage with an indication of the current import regulations as well as your entry category (ESTA, VISA, Green Card holder, US citizen, or Canadian citizen).
  • Scan your passport
    Next, you will be asked to scan your passport and verify the scan. Questions about US residency You will be asked your reason for entry (business, vacation, business, AND vacation, or other reasons such as study, work, or education).
  • Fingerprint and photo
    You will then be required to submit your fingerprints on the designated sensor (usually a green illuminated area) and take a passport photo. You will find instructions for this on the outside of the APC machine.
  • Receipt for the border official
    In the end, you will get a printed receipt, which you hand over to the border official together with your passport. To do so, you will first have to queue up again.

Before crossing the border during the final interview, you may have to correct your fingerprints, and the border guards may ask you a few questions.

If you have your passport control done by a border official at the counter instead of at the APC, you will still have to fill out the customs declaration for the USA by hand. You will be given the form during the flight or use the copies available in the waiting lounge.

Questioning by a US border official

CBP is America's largest law enforcement agency responsible for securing the nation's borders. Therefore, a US Customs and Border Protection officer makes the final decision about your entry into the United States.

Answer any questions briefly, accurately, and truthfully. Possible questions could be:

"Why are you visiting the USA?"

Here, as an ESTA traveler, you can respond with "Pleasure," "Holiday," (for a vacation), or with "Short business meeting." If entering as an exchange student or on a work visa, you would, of course, also state this truthfully.

Be brief and do not mention that you would like to live or work in the USA. Suppose you are entering on ESTA or a visitor visa. Otherwise, you might be suspected of trying to immigrate illegally.

"How long are you staying in the US?"

Again, answer briefly and precisely. A brief "2 weeks" or "2 months" will suffice. Answer quickly and don't hesitate, lest US border agents could become suspicious.

"Where will you be staying?"

After this question, you should be able to be reasonably precise about your travel plans. Possible answers might include "Las Vegas.", "I will travel from Chicago to Oklahoma.", or even "I'm doing a camping road trip from the East Coast to the West Coast." Have a copy of your hotel reservation(s) handy in case of need.

"What's your first address in the States?"

You can answer with the name and city of your hotel. Also, answers such as "I am staying with friends in Los Angeles, Pasadena Road." or "I will pitch my tent at the Pacific Wave campground in Santa Monica." are okay.

"Who are you visiting?"

With this question, officials want to find out about your ties to the United States. Possible answers would be, "I don't know anyone. I am just traveling.", "I'll visit my cousin." or "I am meeting friends in Tacoma."

Check your date of entry and exit

After the interview, the border official will make the final decision about your entry into the USA and will stamp your passport with the entry stamp that matches your visa (or ESTA).

Check the date briefly and match it with the validity period of your visa or ESTA to avoid later problems when leaving the country. We also recommend that you check the dates on the now electronically submitted I-94 form on the U.S. Customs and Border Protection website.

If you find any errors in the date, point them out to the border guards while you are still there. Once you leave the airport, it will be difficult to correct your latest departure date.

Baggage claim

Welcome to the USA! You can now wait for your suitcase at the baggage carousel. Depending on the airport, this can take quite a long time. While you are waiting, you can start thinking about the airport transfer to your first accommodation in the USA.

Customs control

Shortly before leaving the airport, you will pass through the customs area. Here, you may be called to another inspection. You don't have to worry if you have conscientiously filled out your customs declaration and have no prohibited items in your suitcase.

Airport transfer

American airports have a wide range of transfer options to get you to your first accommodation in the US. These include a variety of taxi services, shuttle buses, public transit services, taxi alternatives Lyft and Uber, Greyhound long-distance buses, and the legendary AMTRAK trains.

Entry to the USA: Dos & Don’ts

Many a traveler to the USA has put his foot in his mouth when dealing with American border officials. Since this can, in the worst case, lead to an entry ban, be sure to follow these tips for entering the USA:

Point out any language barrier

If you do not speak English well, inform the US border officials about it. They will then be a little more patient with you.

Turn off your cell phone

The border area at the airport is a cell phone-free zone! You are only allowed to turn on your cell phone if you are asked to do so by a border agent.

Changing planes with luggage

If you have a layover within the USA, you must collect and check your baggage. If you have a layover in your home country, then this rule usually does not apply.

Social media and electronic devices

Officially, customs officials are not allowed to ask you for passwords. However, you need to be aware that officials have the leverage and can deny you entry without giving any reason.

A good way to protect your data from unwanted access would be to buy a second smartphone for your trip. Also, clean up any publicly available data about yourself, including social media posts that could lead to problems with US officials.

Stay sober

There is an absolute ban on marijuana at the airport (no matter which US state)! Alcohol is theoretically allowed, but when dealing with the strict US border guards, an alcohol buzz doesn't make a very good impression.

No work certificates in your hand luggage

Unless you are actually entering the USA on a work visa or Green Card, you should not carry any work references in your hand luggage. This is because you may be suspected of trying to immigrate to the US illegally.

No jokes, please

When dealing with US border officials, be serious, sincere, and brief. Many a traveler has had to fly straight back home after trying to lighten the unpleasant mood with a joke.

USA entry denied - what now?

If the US border officials deny you entry into the USA, you, unfortunately, do not have many options to defend yourself on the spot.

However, you can use the online form (Traveler Redress Inquiry Program) to contact the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to have the case investigated. Unfortunately, this only makes sense after your return to your home country.

A final denial of entry is always made by two border officials who evaluate your case one after the other. Normally, you will not find out the reason for their decision.

Once you have been denied entry to the USA, you will only be able to travel with an approved US visa in the future, but not with the simplified ESTA travel authorization.

US entry denied: possible reasons

Aside from court and police records and documents provided, US border agents often rely on gut instinct when deciding whether to grant entry. As a result, it is difficult to predict why.

However, with the hundreds of people denied entry to the United States each day, certain patterns can be discerned. Common reasons for denial of entry include:

  • Certain criminal records
  • Concealing important information or lying during the ESTA or visa process
  • Past violations of US immigration law
  • Specific suspicion of illegal immigration intent (e.g., B visa traveler with employment credentials in luggage)
  • Medical reasons (e.g., danger to self or others due to illness)
  • Missing vaccinations or medical certificates (depending on current immigration regulations)
  • Drug or alcohol abuse
  • Concrete suspicion of an imminent crime
  • Refusal to surrender bags or equipment for search

Avoid mistakes when entering the USA

If you have all the necessary documents with you, fill out your ESTA or visa application truthfully and follow the entry requirements, then everything will be fine for your trip to the USA.

Not sure where to go yet? Get inspired by our US state portraits or take our test: "Which US region suits you?" Have a good trip!

ESTA – visa-free to the USA

With an ESTA, you can stay 90 days visa-free in the USA. Apply online now!

Sources:

hna.de, esta-online.org, lufthansa.com, usembassy.gov, cilawgroup.com, auswaertiges-amt.de, united.com, its.de, spiegel.de, usvisaservice.de