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How to Enter the U.S.

Learn about the most common types of visas for business, student or travel you may need when coming to or traveling through the United States, plus review what other documents you need to enter the U.S. Also, find information on how to apply for an immigrant visa.

Apply For a Visa

The U.S. Department of State issues visas tooltip U.S. Visa: a document issued by a U.S. embassy or consulate to a non-U.S. citizen. It’s placed in their passport to allow them to seek entry to the U.S. for a specific purpose. to foreign nationals tooltip Foreign National: a person who is not a citizen of the country they’re visiting, studying or working in. traveling to the United States through its embassies or consulates tooltip Consulate: a smaller version of an embassy, located outside a nation’s capital. An embassy is the place in a nation’s capital where the diplomatic staff of another country work. . However, you do not need a visa for your business meeting or for vacation if you are a citizen of any of the 39 countries participating in the Visa Waiver Program.

Your reason for travel will determine the type of visa you need to enter the U.S. Some of the most commonly requested visas are:

Procedures for Entering the United States

When you arrive in the United States, you must show valid travel documents as part of the entry process. The documents you need and whether your passport needs to be valid for six months after your travel dates depend on the country you are arriving from and your citizenship or status.

Arrival From Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Bermuda

The Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative covers travel by land, sea, or air from Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Bermuda:

  • American citizens entering the U.S. must show a valid passport, U.S. passport card, a Trusted Traveler Program card (NEXUS, SENTRI, Global Entry or FAST), or an enhanced driver’s license. If you have any questions, contact your carrier to find out if they require a specific document.

  • Lawful permanent residents of the U.S. need to show a Permanent Resident Card (Green card). A passport is not required.

  • Citizens of Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Bermuda can find the necessary travel documents from the Department of Homeland Security under “land and sea entry.”

Arrival From Other Countries

  • All travelers entering the United States from all other countries need a passport upon arrival (regardless of their country of citizenship).

  • Permanent residents and foreign nationals may also need a U.S. visa. You must apply for a visa before you start your trip.

Entry Denials

Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers conduct arrival inspections using the same criteria for all foreign nationals visiting the U.S. They decide your admission to the United States, even if all your travel documents, including your visa, are in order.

Note: While there are no rules prohibiting pregnant visitors from entering the United States, doing so to give birth is prohibited. A CBP officer will consider your pregnancy when deciding on your admission.

Learn about bringing pets, food, and medication to the U.S.

Apply for an Immigrant Visa

About a million people a year receive Green Cards, designating them as new permanent residents of the United States. Many of those people arrive in the U.S. through an immigrant visa.

Top Types of Immigrant Visas

Most people who come to the U.S. using an immigrant visa receive one of the following types:

  • Family-based visa, for those with a family member who is a U.S. citizen or permanent resident

Essential Steps to Get an Immigrant Visa

  1. In most cases, someone must sponsor you or file an immigrant petition for you.

  2. Wait until the petition is approved and a visa is available in your category. Then apply for an immigrant visa. Do this through a U.S. consulate abroad. Find one in your country in this directory of U.S. consulates.

  3. Get a medical examination.

  4. Go to an interview.

  5. Wait for a decision on your application.

Review the details of this process for getting a family- or employment-based visa.

Another way to seek an immigrant visa is through the Diversity Visa Lottery program. This program lets people from countries with low U.S. immigration rates participate in an annual drawing for an immigrant visa.

After You Get Your Immigrant Visa

Once you get your immigrant visa, you will have to pay a USCIS immigrant fee. You will get a sealed packet of documents to give officials at the U.S. port of entry. You will be admitted to the U.S. as a permanent resident and receive your Green Card in the mail.

Do Not Apply for an Immigrant Visa If You’re in the U.S.

If you’re already in the U.S., apply for a Green Card through an adjustment of status. You will not have to return to your home country. You will still have to go through steps like those required for an immigrant visa application:

  1. Someone must sponsor you or file an immigrant petition for you.

  2. Wait until the petition is approved and there is a visa available in your category. Then apply for a Green Card from within the U.S.

  3. You will still need to get a medical examination, go to an interview, and wait for a decision on your application.

Refugees and Asylum

Refugees

Refugees are people who fled their homes for a variety of reasons, including persecution (or the fear of persecution) and war, to find protection elsewhere.

If you believe you need protection as a refugee, contact the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) or another international nonprofit volunteer agency. If these organizations are unavailable to you, contact the nearest U.S. Embassy or consulate.

The refugees' entry process into the U.S. involves many government agencies as part of the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, which explains the resettlement and a refugee's arrival.

Asylum

Asylum is a form of protection available to refugees. You must meet certain conditions to request asylum in the United States. After getting asylum in the U.S., you:

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Last Updated: August 13, 2021

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