Before leaving for a great adventure, you have to go through that… What are the formalities to (legally) enter the US ? I will mostly talk about my point of view as a European and French person in this article. We used to go from a country to another very easily here… Unfortunately, as soon as you leave the Schengen area, things are getting a little bit more complicated – and you certainly should do some research before leaving ! Even though the formalities are not that long, the American authorities are quite strict about it, and you will not slip through the net. I am going to provide you with a check-list so you will not forget anything !
» Passports out !
You must be smiling a bit, it seems quite logical… But you would be surprised by the number of people with their heads in the clouds who notice (in time or not, that is the issue) that their passport is out of date ! So, the first thing to do is to make sure that the validity date is going beyond your return date. It is even recommended by the American embassy to have a passport valid at least 6 months after the date you set foot on the American soil. If it is not the case for you, no worries, you just have to renew it (or get one if you never had a passport). Unfortunately, I do not know about the means and ways to get a passport in every single country… If you are French, please have a look at this website. It is the government’s website but it is actually quite well organized (surprisingly enough). For all of the other nationalities, I encourage you to check the process on the American embassy’s website in your own country. If you know how it is done in your country, you can also leave a quick comment here to help someone else ! Once that is done, please proceed to the next step !
» Do I need a visa ?
This answer to the question will depend on what the purpose of your trip is exactly and what you plan on doing once you are there… If you are in the US only as a tourist, you have a biometric passport and you come from countries such as France, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, Australia, Japan… (please find a complete list here) – you do not need to get a particular visa. In fact, those countries are in the Visa Waiver Program, a program that allows their citizens to spend 90 days in the US to travel just by getting the ESTA (see below). If you are not coming from one of the countries on the list, or if you plan on working while being in the US (even for an internship or a part-time job for example) or on staying more than 90 days, you will have to contact the American embassy in your country to have more details about the formalities. In that case, I would simply advise you to be careful about the length of the process.
» L’ESTA, what is that ?
I mentioned it just before, if everything is in order with your passport and you are part of the lucky ones who do not need a visa, you will simply be required to have the ESTA. What is that ?! It is the Electronic System for Travel Authorization. It is an authorization that you need to travel within the US (even if you are just passing through to go to another country). Do not be scared, it is quite easy to get : you need to apply for it on the American government’s website. Be careful, go on the official website, and not the first hit you get on Google, you might get an invalid authorization ! Fill out the form as requested and make sure not to misspell anything (it would be a bit stupid). You will have to pay $14 (approx. 12€) for it. Be careful, once again, if the amount you have to pay is different (like significantly higher), you are not on the right website ! You will know immediately if your request is accepted or not (authorization granted, denied or put on a waiting list), follow the instructions and keep the confirmation number somewhere in case you are asked for it later. In theory, you have to proceed to the application latest 72H before your flight – better do it as soon as possible. If you missed out on this or if you decided to leave
very last minute, you should be able to do it at the airport, but better be safe than sorry and anticipate this step. This authorization does not grant you access to the US (yes, Americans are always complicated) and you will still have to identify yourself at the customs. The ESTA is valid 2 years : you cannot stay in the US 2 years, but you will not have to renew your ESTA if you are coming back within 2 years.
» Other documents, what do I need ?
Technically, all you need is your passport and your ESTA (well, in any case, you will not be able to board without this 2 elements). But once you are at the customs, what do you need ?
Passport, ESTA : We have talked (long enough) about it, that is the minimum.
Form : During the flight, you will be given a form. Even though the questions might seem totally ridiculous sometimes, fill out this form seriously (believe me, the custom officials are not laughing about this). This document has to be presented when you are in the customs area. You will maybe be asked the same questions than what you already answered on paper, they are just making sure you did not lie when you filled out the form.
Return flight ticket : It is not supposed to be mandatory, but you should definitely carry with you your return flight ticket so you will be able to show it to the custom official if asked to do so. It will probably save you a few minutes and some questions at the border.
Solvency proof : That is also not supposed to be mandatory, but you can be asked to prove your good financial health – just to make sure that you have the means to take this trip. Altogether it should just be a document signed by your banker stating how much you have on your bank account. Speaking about my own experience, I did not have this document, and I was never asked for it – but once again, better be safe than sorry, right ?
Your trip : If you are reading my posts in English, you should not have any problems speaking in English… Actually, you should just be able to (understand and) answer a few questions. Even if you decided to totally improvise your journey fro your road trip, try to answer to those questions as precisely as you can : where are you staying (at least the first night(s)), how long are you staying, with whom are you traveling… There is no right duration of this line of questioning – but trust me, the custom officials will not eat you alive ! That goes without saying, but you should also be polite and smiling.
» Insurance, what should I do ?
So, after all this, you finally stepped foot in the United States. But what should you do if you are sick or if you have an accident ? Here, you should should get in touch with someone at your health insurance (or even at your bank as some of the insurances are including in the card contrat). Only you can decide what you need, especially depending on the amount of time you spend in the US. Just know that the medical care is VERY expensive over there (at least compared to France), so you should really do your research on this topic before leaving. Let’s hope nothing happens though, but you never know (especially on the road).
» Bank, what should I do ?
Being in the United States also mean… Dollars ! You will have to switch to a new currency (well, unless you are actually from the US) and that can lead to a number of hidden costs from your bank (commissions, exchange rate…) that you did not plan ahead. You should definitely set up a meeting with you adviser or check your options on the bank website’s to see what is the best way to save some money and enjoy even more your trip once you are there. Speaking for myself, I had a very nice deal with my bank which allowed me to enjoy for free (without any commission taken by the bank) : unlimited card payements, 4 cash-withdrawals per month, 1 international bank transfer per month. Because I was a student and I spent 5 months altogether in North America, I got a good offer. But every bank system is different, and every bank in this system has a different way to handle that – hopefully you will be able to make the best out of the situation.
» All in all…
This article is quite long, and it might have scared you already… But I tried to make a complete list of what you should think about, even though I am sorry for not being able to provide you with the information about all the different countries. When you think about going on a road trip, you mostly think big adventure ! …But in reality, you still have to get prepared a bit because there is no way around these elements mentioned above. I hope that I was clear and that I examined the question from all sides, but do not hesitate to ask me for more details by leaving a comment just below ! See you soon !