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.
The U.S. Department of State issues visas
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
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
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 38 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.
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
If you want to apply to become a permanent resident of the United States, where you are determines how you apply.
Do You Need a Green Card or Immigrant Visa?
If you’re in the U.S., you do not have to apply for an immigrant visa. Instead, apply for a Permanent Resident (Green) Card by filing for an adjustment of status. The advantage of this is that you won’t have to return to your home country to complete visa processing.
If you’re outside the U.S., apply for an immigrant visa through a U.S. Department of State embassy or consulate abroad.
Both procedures involve several key steps.
In most cases, someone must “sponsor” you, or file an immigrant petition for you.
Once the petition is approved, and there is a visa available in your category, you apply for either a Green Card or an immigrant visa.
Get a medical examination.
Go to an interview.
You’ll then receive a decision on your application.
Top Types of Immigrant Visas
Most people who come to the U.S. using an immigrant visa receive one of the following types:
Review the step-by-step 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 take part in an annual drawing for an immigrant visa.
After You Get Your Immigrant Visa
Once you get your immigrant visa, you’ll have to pay a USCIS immigrant fee before you’ll receive your Green Card. The best time to pay the fee is after you pick up your immigrant visa from the U.S. embassy or consulate abroad, before you leave for the United States.
When you receive your immigrant visa, you’ll get a sealed packet of documents to give officials at the U.S. port of entry. If you pass inspection, you’ll be admitted to the U.S. as a permanent resident, and will receive your Green Card in the mail.
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 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:
Presidential Proclamation on Immigration
On September 24, 2017, the president signed a presidential proclamation that makes changes to the immigration policy.
These agencies provide information to the public about presidential proclamations and Executive orders related to immigration and have the latest information about traveling to the U.S. :
If you are outside the United States, you may be able to find more information from the U.S. Embassy in your country.
Do you have a question?
Ask a real person any government-related question for free. They'll get you the answer or let you know where to find it.
Last Updated: March 5, 2020