At first glance, the USA’s entry requirements are comparatively complex, but with the appropriate preparation, they turn out to be easy to fulfil. After applying for the ESTA permit, you can even enter several times without a visa for up to about three months at a time for two years.
After all the formalities and a short entry interview at the border crossing, enjoy the freedom of movement across the country.
Entry into the USA: what needs to be done in advance?
In principle, entry into the USA is free of visas for German citizens for tourist purposes. You can stay in the country for up to 90 days as part of the so-called Visa Waiver Program. Similar rules apply to business travellers and transit.
If you want to work in the United States, for example, as a casual musician or journalist, you need a separate permit. The U.S. entry requirements stipulate that all visitors must have an electronic passport that is valid for the entire duration of their stay.
This should, therefore, have a built-in chip. For visa-free stays, a return or onward flight ticket is also required.
Visa Waiver, ESTA and Visa
Since January 12, 2009, tightened entry requirements for the United States have been in effect. Before you arrive, your background will be checked in the ESTA procedure.
For example, you control which activities you carry out, whether you commit criminal offences or open fines in the USA, for example for comparatively light offences such as incorrect parking.
The Electronic System for Travel Authorization is an entry permit valid for approximately two years. From the time of issuance, you can come to the USA as often as you wish.
The ESTA approval must be obtained from the website of official providers – corresponding links can be found on the homepage of the American embassy. Alternatively, you can hire a travel agency for procurement. Make absolutely sure that you only use the licensed providers. The U.S. authorities are charging a $ 14 fee for the ESTA. You can conveniently pay for them online by credit card.
After the procedure has been completed, the American border guards have the permission electronically. However, the embassy recommends expressing confirmation and taking it with you on arrival. The ESTA is not a guarantee of entry. The final decision is made in conversation with the border officials.
Among other things, they take the fingerprints from you via a scanner and conduct an interview with you for about half an hour, in which you explain your travel reasons. Sometimes the conversation can be shorter or longer. Officials may have the right to search laptops and media. Personal checks for explosives and weapons can also be carried out.
What if ESTA is rejected?
Anyone who is rejected in the ESTA procedure must apply for a visa in one of the American diplomatic missions abroad. This is also necessary if you have previously travelled to countries that are considered potentially dangerous in the USA. These include Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Somalia and Sudan.
Exceptions apply if you were a Bundeswehr diplomat or soldier in these states. Dual nationals from the countries mentioned must always go through the visa procedure. For these people, it makes sense to contact the US authorities in Germany before booking a trip. The USA’s entry regulations regarding the countries of origin can change daily and also affect other Muslim countries and regions.
The Federal Foreign Office points out that when filling in the ESTA form and all visa applications, care should be taken to ensure that the information is correct. In the past, there were rejections because the letter “O” was mistaken for the number “0”. The number of the identity card, not the passport, must always be specified in the “Identity number” field.
In addition to a rejected ESTA permit and origin from a country that is classified as critical in the USA, there may be other reasons for applying for a visa. This is the case even with unpaid work. For example, as an au pair, musician or independent journalist, a corresponding registration is required. In some cases, the authorities compare the information you provide with online data, for example from Facebook profiles.
You will also need a visa if you are participating in an exchange program, studying in the United States, starting a research project, or getting married in the United States or wanting to live long term. Visa-Free entry to search for a flat and the subsequent application for a visa are not permitted.
Anyone heading for American territory with their own sailing ship or plane needs a visa, so to speak. During your stay, it is a good idea to have a copy of your passport with you, including your residence permit. In some states like Louisiana, this is even mandatory.
Attention: Visa-free entry to the USA is not possible with a children’s passport. A visa must therefore always be applied for minors under the age of twelve. If the children already have an electronic passport, this qualifies them for the Visa Waiver program.
What are the customs regulations when entering the United States?
When you arrive in the United States, you have to expect a comprehensive customs inspection. Already onboard the aircraft or ship, you will receive form 6059B, in which you explain yourself about the goods and objects you have brought with you. The information must be given, for example, if you carry more than 1 litre of alcohol with you.
The regulation only applies to people over the age of 21. Customs fees apply to all higher quantities. There are separate guidelines for absinthe. This must not contain more than 10% of thujones. With food, there are various restrictions, including the taking of meat and meat-based dishes, milk and cheese.
The US authorities also advise against taking the oil, vinegar, spices, honey, tea, and coffee with you. Most foreign fruits and vegetables are also not allowed to be brought into the country to limit the possible spread of parasites and plant diseases. A special permit is required for plants, plant seeds and mother earth.
In principle, unlimited quantities are allowed as long as it is personal clothing or gifts. For unaccompanied shipping, packaged fabrics and products arriving from China or African countries in the United States, a more detailed check is usually made. If the items are intended for sale, you will have to expect customs fees.
There are also restrictions on products from countries that are currently subject to an embargo. Some of these still include Cuba and Iran, Burma and Sudan. Verifications can still be made on merchandise from the Western Balkans, Belarus, Ivory Coast, Congo, Iraq, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Syria and Zimbabwe. Political propaganda material is mainly affected. Brochures and books,
Officials will ask you for cash in most cases – for amounts over $ 10,000, you will need to provide information about the origin of the money and declare it. The entry form will ask you how to finance your trip. Simply enter “credit card and small amounts of cash” here. Gifts can be brought into the country up to a value of $ 100.
For prescription medication, a medical certificate and leaflet, preferably in English, are required. You can bring cars for a one-year stay. If you plan to sell, these must comply with US environmental regulations. Sporting and hunting weapons are in principle permitted after prior authorization but must be carried out again. Fully and semi-automatic weapons are generally prohibited.
Even the smallest amounts of intoxicants can lead to law enforcement in the United States. In addition to prison terms, lifelong entry bans are usually imposed. The fines quickly reach six figures. Targeted controls are carried out even in the transit area.
On the way with animals
Anyone wishing to take pets to the United States must present a health and vaccination certificate in English. Rabies vaccination is mandatory for dogs. This should be done at least 30 days before arrival. Cats are not subject to any specific vaccination regulations, but an examination is usually done at the border crossing.
In many cases, the animal is now quarantined at the owner’s expense. If hamsters, guinea pigs and ferrets enjoy the best of health and are free from communicable diseases, they can be brought to the USA without any problems. Restrictions mainly affect monkeys, which are generally not considered pets, and turtles. Special attention is paid to protected animal species such as birds and fish.
If you need to take animals on board the aircraft, please contact the airline in advance. For smaller cats, dogs, guinea pigs, etc., this allows you to take them with you in the cabin. Larger pets, mostly from a weight of 8kg including the transport container, must be transported in the cargo hold.
Rabbits and rabbits generally fall under this rule – regardless of weight. You need a suitable box for the transport and should clarify whether your four-legged friend can withstand the stresses of an unaccompanied long-haul flight in the air-conditioned cargo area. You should check in with the animals at most airlines at least 90 minutes before departure.
Which vaccination regulations and medical recommendations apply?
Specific vaccinations are not required when entering the United States. Proof of this may only be required when entering from yellow fever areas. For your own protection, all standard vaccinations should be refreshed before you travel.
In the event of a particular exposure, the Robert Koch Institute recommends preventive measures against hepatitis A and B. Meningococcal and measles vaccinations are highly recommended for longer stays and especially during exchange programs in schools. Many educational institutions in the United States even require proof of this.
Cases of West Nile fever are increasing in parts of the east coast. You can protect yourself against the infectious disease transmitted by mosquitoes by wearing long, body-covering clothing and applying insect repellents.
In the past, there were some infections with the Hantavirus in Yosemite National Park. The disease is transmitted via rodent secretions and excretions. Frequent hand washing and mindfulness on trips into nature are helpful.
In an emergency, you will find excellent medical care nationwide. Given the large distances in the west of the country, you should still take the necessary medication in sufficient quantities to be able to react quickly.
All in all, as a simple vacationer, all you have to do is obtain your ESTA permit online and you can use it to fly to the USA without a visa. Entry requirements are only more stringent for previous stays in sanctioned states or for planned paid and unpaid activities in the United States.
Upon arrival, you will be interviewed to explain your reasons for your trip. You also have to expect fingerprints and a customs check. An electronic passport with biometric data is mandatory.