Your Guide to Entering the U.S.

The ins and outs of visas

Each year, millions of people enter the United States to travel, do business, get medical treatment, study or take up permanent residence. Usually, citizens of foreign countries need a visa to enter the U.S., but in some cases a visa waiver may apply.

What is a visa?
A visa is a travel document or stamp that accompanies your passport. It proves you are eligible to enter the U.S. , but does not guarantee you will be allowed to enter. Once you reach a U.S. airport or border crossing (also called a port of entry), an immigration officer makes the final decision as to whether or not you can enter the country and how long you can stay. The decision is mostly based on new security developments, but often it can seem an arbitrary and confusing process. Ensuring all your documentation is in place prior to your trip won't guarantee your entry into the United States , but it will make hopefully make the process less frustrating.

What type of visa will I need?
That depends. There are two main categories of U.S. visas:

Between these two categories, there are dozens of different kinds of visas, each issued for a specific purpose. The tourist visa that allowed you to visit family last month will not permit your return to conduct business this month. To reduce the risk of being turned away at the border, be sure to apply for the visa most suited to your trip's purpose - each time.

Who needs a visa?
Anyone who is not a citizen of the United States and wants to enter the country should check to see if they need a visa. Some countries have made special arrangements with the U.S. government and are a part of the Visa Waiver Program, which allows their citizens to make short trips to the U.S. for certain purposes. Even if your country is part of this program, you should check with your U.S. embassy or consulate before you leave to make sure that you personally are eligible.

What if I'm just passing through?
If you're only going through the U.S. on the way to another country, you might not need a visa. However, even if you don't need a U.S. visa, you will need a valid passport and a visa for the country you intend to visit. Again, check with your U.S. embassy or consulate to be sure you can pass through the U.S. without a visa.

Can I be denied a visa?
U.S. Officials will likely refuse to issue a visa if they believe you may be tempted to remain in the U.S. illegally. If you have insufficient ties to your home - connections such as a job, family or a permanent home - you might “forget” to return home after your visit.

Because of recent international security developments, new precautions have been added and getting a visa will take longer than in the past. If you've obtained a visa in the past, check to see if any new security measures apply.