Entering the USA

If you are planning a trip to the USA, some preparation is required. We will explain the most important aspects of the ESTA application, visa categories, and the procedures and problems in the entry process.


Since October 2022, you have to apply for an ESTA to enter the USA even by land! This means that uniform rules now apply to all travelers - regardless of which means of transport they use to come to the USA.

Submit your ESTA application now to travel to the USA visa-free!


The official entry permit for the USA!

Essential documents for entering the USA

Before your stay in the United States, you must apply for your ESTA or a US visa. Also, you have to take care of valid travel documents. One of the most important documents is, of course, your passport.

Passport: requirements for your trip to the US

A valid passport is the main requirement for your entry into the United States. You need it when applying for your travel permit and when you present it to the US border officials at the airport.

Your passport must meet the following requirements:

  • It has to be an e-passport with an electronic chip and a biometric photo.
  • Your passport must be valid for the duration of your trip, including the day of departure, provided that the country of issue is a member of the "Six Month Club."
    US travelers from other countries require a 6-month validity of the passport beyond the day of departure.
  • Children need a biometric passport.
  • If you only have a temporary passport or if your child has a non-biometric children's passport, you can apply for a visa but not travel with ESTA. For more information on express applications and actions to be taken in case of loss or travel via problematic countries, please read our article Passport for ESTA application.

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A valid passport is mandatory for entering the USA. Passport for entering the USA

ESTA: How does the visa-free entry permit work?

As a traveler from a country participating in the Visa Waiver Program, you do not necessarily need a visa to enter America. Instead, you can opt for the much more accessible ESTA entry permit.

ESTA stands for "Electronic System for Travel Authorization" and allows people from Visa Waiver Program member countries to travel to the USA visa-free.

With ESTA, however, there are a few things to consider:

  • An ESTA rejection due to errors or blanks in the application will result in a lifetime ban. To prevent this, you can get help from the experienced USA experts at The American Dream.
  • You should submit your ESTA application at least 72 hours before your trip. Real-time approvals are no longer possible.
  • With ESTA authorization, you may enter the USA as often as you like within two years.
  • You may only use ESTA for tourism or one-time business events. If you want to work, study, or permanently expand your business network in America, you need the applicable visa.
  • A customs and border protection officer makes the final decision about your entry into the United States at the entry point.

Good to know

A Customs and Border Patrol Officer makes the final decision about your entry into the United States at the point of entry, i.e., at the airport or port in the USA.

USA-entry with visa

If you are not qualified for visa-free travel to the US or plan more than just a vacation or short business meetings, you must apply for a US visa.

Who needs a visa for the USA?

Anyone who wants to work, study, or undergo training in the USA, needs a visa. There are over 50 different visa categories, which can be divided into two main categories: Non-immigrant visas and immigrant visas.

Non-immigrant visas





Employees of airlines or ships / crew members

Crossing the country


Authorized dealers as well as managers, directors, and specialists of companies trading with the USA

Business travel, trade


Investors as well as managers, directors and specialists of companies that have invested in the USA

Business, investments


Highly specialized experts and professionals in positions that require expertise: only with an academic degree Work, sciences


Journalists and media representatives Reporting, documentation, news

L-1 and L-1 Blanket

Employees who are transferred within the company: standard procedure or simplified application procedure for companies with many placements Work, employee transfer


People with exceptional abilities in the sciences, arts, education, business, or athletics: even without an academic degree Art, education, science, sports


Skilled workers from Canada and Mexico Work


Business travelers, domestic workers or personal employees of US citizens abroad, athletes, members of non-profit professions Business


Tourists who want to spend up to 180 days in the USA Vacation

B-1 / B-2

Travelers who want to combine business and tourism activities in the USA for up to 180 days Work, sports, service, or care combined with vacation


Students Studying, language learning, other education, and training


Trainees, interns, au-pairs, exchange visitors, exchange teachers and professors, foreign doctors in training programs Education, child care


Non-academic visitors of professional educational institutions Education

Immigrant visas





US immigrants who are incredibly valuable to the USA because of their professional qualifications

Employment-based immigration


US immigrants with special skills

Employment-based immigration


US immigrants who are qualified professionals or academics

Employment-based immigration


US immigrants who are employees of churches and religious communities Employment-based immigration


US immigrants wanting to invest money in the United States Investment-based immigration


US immigrants who are spouses of US citizens Immigration for a family reunion


Children of US citizens under 21 who are not married Immigration for a family reunion

IR-3, IR-4, ICH-3, IH-4

Children adopted outside the USA by US citizens and children to be adopted in the USA Immigration for a family reunion


Unmarried descendants of US citizens over 21 and their minor children Immigration for a family reunion


Spouses and unmarried children of Green Card holders under 21 years of age Immigration for a family reunion


Unmarried children of Green Card holders over 21 years of age Immigration for a family reunion


Married children of US citizens, their spouses, and minor children Immigration for a family reunion


Siblings of US citizens Immigration for a family reunion

How can I apply for a US visa?

The application procedure for a US visa involves several stages. Before the end of the process, there is always an interview at the responsible US Consulate or Embassy. How can I apply for a US visa?

  • Prepare documents: This includes your passport, photo, and the DS-160 application form, as well as proof of the requirements that qualify you for your visa category. For work visas, a petition for a work permit must be submitted by the US employer during the application process.
  • Application via Internet: Create an account on the website of the Visa Service Provider CGI Federal. Afterwards, you can navigate between the individual steps of the application process.
  • Payment of the filing fee: The consular fee can be paid on the web portal by bank transfer, debit card, credit card, or cash deposit at the bank.
  • Interview appointment at the US Consulate: Depending on the visa category, you will be given a personal appointment at the nearest US Consulate after paying the visa fee. Remember to bring all the requested documents with you. 
  • Payment of further fees: During the interview appointment, depending on the visa category, the Fraud Prevention and Detection Fee (for Blanket L1 visas) or fees for the verification of various documents such as birth certificates, marriage certificates, adoption certificates, and identity cards or certificates may still be due.
  • Maintain overview: Since the number and amount of fees vary significantly from visa to visa and the current waiting times are also challenging to keep track of, it is advisable to book an all-inclusive visa service package with an agency. Experienced visa experts will prevent you from making mistakes and keep you informed about your current status and any waiting times.
  • Sending your documents: During your interview at the consulate or embassy, you have handed in your passport (and the passports of any fellow travelers). After the consulate has applied the brand-new visa sticker, you can pick it up in person, or it will be sent to your home by courier.

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People who do not qualify for visa-free travel to the US, or who want to stay for longer than a vacation or short business trip, must apply for a US visa.

Which US visa do I need?

When selecting your US visa, you will need to find your way through more than 50 different visa categories. As a business traveler, trader, or manager, you would probably qualify for one of the E-Visa or the B-1 Visa and as a tourist for the B-2 Visa

Some people travel with H-1B for highly specialized professionals or the O-1 visa for people with exceptional abilities. There are also separate categories for students and trainees, namely the J-1 and F-1 categories. You are welcome to seek advice from experienced visa experts to get the right visa for your trip.

What forms do I need to complete before traveling to the US?

In addition to your ESTA or visa application, you will receive a couple of pages of forms. These include the concise TSA form with name, date of birth, gender, and the more detailed APIS form.

APIS: datasheet for the flight to the USA

When you enter the USA, your airline will request personal data for the Advance Passenger Information System. This includes:

  • Name
  • Date of birth
  • Nationality
  • Sex
  • Passport number
  • Address where you will spend your first night in the USA

Many airlines now accept digital submissions, e.g., via the airline's website. The reason for the additional query is the airline's obligation to report passenger information that is not contained in the machine-readable passport.

Import requirements for the USA

Before entering the United States, make sure you understand the import guidelines for the following items: 

  • Food
  • Luxury items
  • Cash
  • Drugs
  • Pets
  • Weapons

Also, you should familiarize yourself with the US entry regulations.

Step by step: how to enter the USA

Do you have all applications, documents, and rules for your trip to the USA? Then you are ready to go!

  1. Online check-in with the airline: You can now check-in conveniently using your computer and save time. Digital check-in works at different times depending on the airline and ends up to 40 minutes before departure. For more information, please check the website of your airline.
  2. APIS data query: Some airlines ask for the APIS information at check-in, some shortly after booking.
  3. Baggage drop-off at the counter: Arrive at the airport in time to check in your luggage, even if there are long queues. Present your passport at the counter and receive your boarding pass.
  4. Security check: The security check may take a little longer. Waiting times vary depending on the airport, current travel volume, international security situation, and travel time.
  5. Second security check (SSSS note on boarding pass): American airlines occasionally send individual passengers to the SSSS (Secondary Security Screening Selection [KM5] ). During this second security check, the hand luggage is thoroughly searched, and the passenger is scanned and asked many precise questions. Keep calm during this procedure, and answer precisely.
  6. Customs declaration: With the customs declaration (CBP Form 6059B), you declare to the US customs officials which goods, means of payment, and food you will bring into the USA. This relates to valuables that must be cleared through customs but is also useful for biosecurity purposes. The paper form to fill out has been officially abolished for environmental reasons and replaced by the electronic declaration at passport control. However, paper forms are still occasionally seen on flights and in arrival halls.
  7. Further controls: With ESTA, a GreenCard, or the Global Entry Program, you can carry out passport control at the terminals in many airports in the USA. If you are eligible for automated passport control, you will be asked to scan your passport at the machine, take a photo and answer a series of questions. The passport control machine will then issue a receipt, which you will present to U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials along with your passport.
  8. Conversation with US border officials: A United States border officer, with his piercing questions and probing gaze, can seem a little threatening. Here too, keep calm and answer truthfully, briefly, and precisely.
  9. The Decision: The customs inspector at the airport makes the final decision about your entry into the USA. If you have answered his questions truthfully and confidently, he will place the entry stamp matching your visa in your passport. Please check the date briefly and compare it with the validity period of your visa to avoid later problems when leaving the country. 
  10. Entering the USA: Welcome to the most beautiful country in the world!

Insider tips for entering the USA

With the following tricks, you can cross the border into the USA without stress:SA: 

  • Know US customs code: US border guards have their own language. To avoid misunderstandings and rejections at the airport, memorize the following dialogue:

Border control officer: „Why are you visiting the United States?“





Business traveler:


Traveler with F1, J1, or H3 Visum:

"Study." or "Traineeship."

Nonimmigrant visa with work permit:

"Work." or "Temporary Work."

DV (Green Card) owner:

"Immigrant." or "Lawful Permanent Resident."
  • Consult an agency instead of a lawyer: Visa issues can quickly become complicated, especially when family and/or employment are involved. However, you can save yourself the cost of a lawyer, as there are extensive and affordable offers from US visa service agencies.
  • Automated passport check at the terminal: If you are traveling with GreenCard or ESTA, you can save a lot of time with the electronic passport check. Passport control terminals can be found at many airports in the USA. When you are asked for the electronic passport check, follow the instructions of the machine and then take the receipt with you to the US border patrol officer.
  • Just give them a call: If you feel that you are waiting too long for interview appointments or documents to be sent, simply phone the relevant US authorities. This often clarifies misunderstandings or allows special needs and urgent exceptional situations to be taken into consideration. 
  • No alcohol, no marijuana: What is perfectly normal in your home country can upset a US border guard. At the airport, you will be on "Federal Lands" and not "State Lands." The consumption of marijuana is illegal under federal law, although it is permitted in individual states. Even a boozy breath makes border guards very suspicious.
  • Do not carry translated job certificates in your hand luggage: This is quite an insider tip: if you have a work certificate in your luggage and enter the country without a work visa, US Customs and Border Protection might suspect that you are planning to take up illegal employment. So better not carry those documents around in your hand luggage.
  • Clean up social media accounts: When you apply for ESTA, you will be asked to provide all of your social media accounts. Therefore, make sure that you do not publish misleading details about your plans in the US or display a strong critical tone when it comes to US law, government, country, and people.

    Interesting: customs officials at the border are not allowed to require passwords from you. However, there have been reports of cases where travelers had to unlock and surrender their cell phones to cross the US border.
  • No jokes at the border: your humor can cost you your visa. Therefore, when talking to officials, always stick to the truth and keep it simple.
  • Double-check the entry stamp and I-94 data: Check the dates immediately after stamping to ensure the dates of entry and exit are the same as your visa durations. Also, the I-94 form, which is now filed electronically, registers you with the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP). It should also be checked for correct data. If you find an error, contact the border control officer directly. A later correction after leaving the airport is complicated.

Entry into the USA denied: what now?

Despite good preparation, it can happen that a US border guard will refuse to let you into the United States. The reasons for such a refusal of entry are numerous.

Possible reasons for a US entry refusal

One of the most common reasons is incomplete documentation. However, there are plenty of other small and large errors that can lead to rejection at the US border. These include: 

  • Incorrect information (even if blanks were made by mistake)
  • Wrong visa category (this may become apparent when talking to the US border guard)
  • Missing requirements for the approved visa
  • Abnormal behavior (also past misconduct counts here)
  • Personal circumstances such as criminal record and infectious diseases

ESTA entry denied: What to do?

If the US Border Patrol considers you unfit to enter the US, they will first call in a second officer for a secondary inspection. If this second officer also refuses your entry, this decision is final and cannot be appealed by you. 

The border guards do not have to tell you the reason for this. Your options are now limited to contacting the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to request information and assistance upon your return to your home country using an online Traveler Redress Inquiry Program form.

After being denied entry at the US border, you are no longer eligible for visa-free travel (ESTA) for the time being. Under certain circumstances, further sanctions such as entry bans or the cancellation of your visa may be imposed.

How to prevent mistakes when entering the USA

To avoid rejections at the border, entry bans, and unpleasant situations in the preparation of your USA trip, get the help of an ESTA expert. The staff of The American Dream will be happy to advise you.

Apply for ESTA