Entry to the USA

An entry into the USA needs to be well-prepared. We explain what you need to know about ESTA and other entry permits, the entry procedure, as well as the forms and import regulations.


Die offizielle Einreisegenehmigung für die USA!

Passport for entry to the USA

For entry into the USA, you need a biometric passport (also known as an electronic passport or e-Passport). It is also possible to enter the USA with a temporary passport or a children's passport. However, in these cases, you cannot use the visa-free entry with an ESTA. Instead, you must apply for an appropriate US visa.

You can determine if you possess a biometric passport by the following visual characteristics:

  • Hardcover (book size)
  • ICAO symbol on the front of the cover
  • Data page with a passport picture as a laminated card inside the passport
  • Scannable code in the lower part of the data page

If you are a citizen of one of the countries that are part of the "Six Months Club," your passport must be valid for at least until the date of departure. For travelers from all other countries, the passport should be valid for at least six months beyond the end of the trip to America.

ESTA for visa-free travel to the USA

Since the convenient ESTA authorization was introduced, traveling to the USA has become much easier. The term ESTA stands for "Electronic System for Travel Authorization." An ESTA allows visa-free entry into the USA, can be applied for in a few minutes via an online form and is significantly cheaper than a traditional US visa.

Who qualifies for ESTA?

Currently, America fans from 40 countries can benefit from the advantages of visa-free entry with an ESTA. Those are the countries that are members of the Visa Waiver Program (e.g., most of the countries of the European Union, Australia, or Japan).

Who may not apply for ESTA?

Even if you are a citizen of a visa waiver country, you may not qualify for an ESTA. The reasons for this can be, for example:

  • You already have a valid visitor visa for the USA.
  • You have dual citizenship from one of the following countries: Iran, Iraq, Cuba, North Korea, Sudan, Syria.
  • You have been in one of the following countries since March 1st, 2011: Iran, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Sudan, and Syria.
  • You have been in Cuba since January 12th, 2021.
  • Your answer to one of the security questions in the ESTA application would be "yes" (e.g., because of a criminal record or an unauthorized stay in the USA).
  • You have already been denied an ESTA application.
  • You have already been refused entry to the USA.
  • You have made mistakes in the ESTA application (e.g., typing errors, incorrect numbers, forgotten information).

ESTA validity

The ESTA authorization is valid for two years or until your passport expires and entitles you to multiple entries into the USA with a maximum duration of 90 days each.

The validity of your ESTA authorization may end prematurely due to the following factors:

  • Your passport expires.
  • Your personal information (such as name, nationality, or gender) changes.
  • Other events that jeopardize your ESTA authorization (such as criminal offenses).

Note that a valid ESTA does not automatically guarantee you entry into the United States. You are subject to the decision of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers.

If the officers determine that you are not eligible for visa-free entry into the United States, you may be denied entry at the border despite having a valid ESTA.

What am I allowed to do in the USA with ESTA?

An ESTA allows you to enter the USA for the following purposes:

  • Tourist trips
  • Short business trips (meetings, negotiations, attending conferences)
  • Continuous education (short-term training, private leisure studies)
  • Medical treatment
  • Transit at a US airport

What is prohibited with ESTA in the USA?

An ESTA is not a visa. Therefore, there are certain things that an ESTA traveler is not allowed to do in the United States. These include:

  • Working in the USA (even for free)
  • Studying in the USA (only short-term courses are allowed)
  • Attending public school in the USA
  • Applying for immigration (Green Card)
  • Staying longer than 90 days

Failure to comply with the restrictions associated with an ESTA is a violation of US immigration law. Consequences may include denial of entry, criminal prosecution, removal from the US, or even permanent exclusion.

When do I need to apply for my ESTA?

The processing of an ESTA application can take up to 72 hours. To ensure that your permit is issued in time for your departure, you are strongly advised to observe this deadline.

If your travel plans allow it, we even recommend that you apply for ESTA as early as about two months before your journey. This gives you enough time to apply for a visa in case of an ESTA rejection.

How much does ESTA cost?

The ESTA cost amounts to $ 21 if you submit your application on the US authorities' website. Alternatively, you can consult a service agency if you want additional security. The agency will thoroughly review your ESTA application at a cost starting at around € 50 and will provide answers to any questions you may have. In many cases, you can also book a tariff with a money-back guarantee, where you will be reimbursed in the event of a rejection.

Additional ESTA services from trusted ESTA agencies include:

  • A money-back guarantee in case of rejection
  • An ESTA appointment service with reminders
  • A multilingual customer service team
  • 24-hour customer service

Does ESTA offer any discounts or coupons?

There are generally no discounts available for ESTA: even for ESTA group applications and ESTA for children, the regular price must be paid for each traveler.

Alternatives to ESTA: visa & Green Card

Travelers who do not qualify for ESTA approval or wish to stay in the United States for more than 90 days may apply for a US visa or enter with a Green Card.

Visa for the USA

US visas are available in different categories, which usually correspond to the purpose of the stay. Depending on the category, visas are valid for up to 10 years and allow a stay in America of up to 180 days in a row.

The most common visa categories for the USA include:

  • Visitor visa (B visa)
  • Student visa (F visa, J visa, K visa)
  • Work visa (E visa, H visa, I visa)
  • Transit visa (C visa)

Compared to ESTA, the application for the US visa involves more effort, higher costs, and longer processing times (vary by category).


Green Card

Holders of the Permanent Resident Card, known as a Green Card, enjoy an unlimited right to reside and work in the United States. The most desired immigrant visa in the world can be acquired in various ways, e.g.:

  • Family reunion in the USA
  • Workplace in the USA
  • Investment in the USA
  • US Green Card Lottery (Diversity Visa Program)

Documents for entry into the USA

Before you arrive at the airport, prepare a folder with all the important travel documents you may be asked for at the border. These include:

  • Your passport
  • Your ESTA authorization
  • Proof of hotel reservations or lodging
  • Tickets for your return or onward travel
  • Proof of ties to your home country
  • Proof of financial security for the duration of your travel

In addition to these documents, you will need to fill out three forms to enter the US, either digitally when you book your flight or at the airport when you enter the country:

Advanced Passenger Information System (APIS)

Airlines must transmit their passengers' data to the US authorities on the day they enter the United States. The Advanced Passenger Information System, or APIS for short, is used for this purpose. The form, which you can submit online prior to departure or at the check-in machine or counter at the airport of departure, retrieves your personal data, flight number, and contact address in the USA (e.g., vacation home or hotel).

TSA Secure Flight

You must report certain data to the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) as early as the time of booking your flight ticket. The TSA data query, also known as Secure Flight Data Collection, is required in addition to filling out the APIS and ESTA forms. The TSA uses the form to match your data with so-called "watchlists" (data from prison authorities, intelligence agencies, or other authorities) to identify potential security risks to the United States.

Customs form for the USA

If you have declarable goods or quantities of goods in your baggage, you must complete the Customs Declaration (CBP Form 6059B) and hand it in at the customs checkpoint upon arrival in the USA. You may also use the online form at the Automated Passport Control (APC) kiosk or Global Entry kiosk (for Global Entry program members only) for this purpose. The US customs officials will then assess your goods and determine the payable import duties.

Import regulations for the USA

Certain goods are subject to strict entry regulations for the USA.

These products are allowed only in specified quantities or under certain conditions:

  • Cash and means of payment over $ 10,000
  • Food
  • Alcohol
  • Drugs
  • Cigarettes / Tobacco
  • Handguns / ammunition

The following products are not allowed in the luggage for the USA:

  • Illegal drugs
  • Fully and semi-automatic firearms
  • Knives
  • Pornography
  • Counterfeit branded products
  • Products made from endangered species (e.g., ivory, coral, certain types of fur)
  • Certain foods: meat, fish, fresh dairy products, fresh eggs
  • Plant seeds and bulbs
  • Products from countries on the US embargo list

Please note

Import regulations are subject to change at short notice. Check the US Customs and Border Protection website before your flight.

Entering the USA with a pet

If you are planning to enter the USA with a pet, you will need to familiarize yourself with both your airline's transportation rules as well as the entry requirements in the USA.

Depending on their weight and size, pets can be transported either in the cabin or in the cargo hold of an aircraft. In any case, you should have a sufficiently large and stable transport box for your pet.

Entry requirements for pets vary from state to state and are more or less strict. Be sure to find out well before your trip which regulations apply in your state of arrival with regard to vaccinations, quarantine, and, if necessary, additional permits for your pet.

For current information on bringing animals into the United States, visit the websites of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, or the U. S. Department of Agriculture.

Tips for entry into the USA

Do you need more information on your entry into the USA? With these tips, crossing the border will go smoothly:

Plan enough time

At the departure airport, travelers must already expect thorough security questioning by the airline staff. Since this can lead to longer waiting times, the TSA recommends that you arrive at the airport about three hours before your departure.

The same applies to transit in the USA: When booking your flight, make sure that you have enough time between your arrival in the USA and your onward flight so that your travel plans are not jeopardized by longer security checks in America.

Stay calm and friendly

When you arrive at the airport or port, expect to be checked, questioned, and sometimes also screened by border officials. Remain calm and collected, and answer all questions briefly and truthfully.

Don't lock your suitcase

The TSA is authorized to open baggage belonging to travelers. It is possible that suitcases or locks may be damaged in the process. Travelers to the USA are not entitled to reimbursement of the costs. Therefore, the TSA advises that luggage should not be locked. Alternatively, you can use a TSA lock that can be opened by border officials with a special master key.

Entry denied: what happens now?

If border officials have denied you entry into the USA, you must accept the decision and board a return flight. Only after you have returned, you may get in touch with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and fill out the Traveler Redress Inquiry Program (DHS TRIP) online to find out the reasons for the entry denial and appeal, if necessary.


Do you have questions about entering the USA? Then you are sure to find what you are looking for in our FAQ:

No, the COVID test requirement for international travelers to the USA has been lifted.

In May 2023, the COVID vaccination requirement for international travelers to the USA has been lifted. Since the end of the COVID vaccination requirement, international visitors may again travel to the US regardless of their vaccination status. Until and including May 11th, 2023, proof of full Corona vaccination was still required for entry.

Regulations for bringing food into the US are strict and can vary depending on the type of food. Some may be prohibited in whole or in part, while others may require declaration or certification. Fresh foods such as fruits, vegetables and meats are generally subject to stricter regulations than processed foods. It is advisable to check current food import regulations in advance to avoid problems upon entry.

While travel insurance is not a mandatory requirement for entry into the US, it is strongly recommended that you have adequate international health insurance to cover unforeseen events during your stay.

The availability of direct flights depends on where you are flying from and where you are going in the United States. Both major international airlines and domestic US carriers offer nonstop flights to popular cities such as New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Chicago. It is best to check with the most popular travel sites such as

  • Skyscanner
  • Expedia
  • Kayak
  • Google Flights
  • Momondo
  • Kiwi

Or check with your travel agent.

There are specific security requirements for bringing electronic devices into the United States. Passengers must remove laptops and other electronic devices from their baggage, so they can be screened separately at security checkpoints. In addition, electronic devices must be charged and able to be turned on when requested by security officers for inspection. Exceptions apply to travelers who are members of a Trusted Traveler Program, such as Global Entry.

When entering the US, you must go through certain immigration and customs procedures. These typically include presenting your passport and ESTA to border officials, being questioned about the purpose of your visit, providing fingerprints and a photograph (if required), and having your baggage and belongings searched.

It is important to cooperate with U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials, follow all instructions, and have the necessary documents for the immigration process.

Programs such as Global Entry, TSA PreCheck, NEXUS, and SENTRI can expedite your entry into the United States. These programs provide expedited security screening for frequent travelers at airports and other points of entry. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will recommend an appropriate program based on your citizenship and travel patterns.

As a member of a Trusted Traveler Program, you'll enjoy benefits such as the ability to keep shoes, belts, and jackets on during security screening, no separate laptop screening, and less stringent rules for liquids in carry-on luggage. You'll also be able to use automated passport control upon arrival and have shorter conversations with border officials.

You will need a biometric passport (also called an electronic passport or e-Passport) to enter the USA if you wish to travel with the fast and easy ESTA authorization. Temporary passports or children's passports are only accepted for entry with a US visa from an embassy or consulate.

You can identify a biometric passport by the following characteristics

  • Hard cover (book size)
  • ICAO symbol on the front cover
  • Data page with laminated card and passport photo
  • Scannable code at the bottom of the data page

With an ESTA, certain activities are prohibited while you are in the United States. These include:

  • Taking a job (even an unpaid one)
  • Studying or attending school (except for short-term educational programs)
  • Filing an immigration petition

It can take up to 72 hours to process an ESTA application. However, if possible, you should submit your ESTA application early in your travel planning so that you have time to apply for a visa in the event of a denial.

The ESTA application costs $ 21 when submitted through the official USA government website. If you need additional security or assistance, you can contact a service agency, which will charge you approximately $ 50. ESTA agencies such as esta-application.com offer additional services like a money-back guarantee in case of rejection, appointment services with reminders, multilingual customer support, and 24-hour service.

In general, there are no discounts or coupons for ESTA. The regular price must be paid for each traveler, including group applications and children.

Travelers who do not meet the ESTA requirements or who wish to remain in the USA for more than 90 days have two alternatives:

Apply for a USA visa: Depending on the purpose of your visit, there are different types of visas, such as visitor, student, and work visas. However, applying for a visa requires more effort, higher costs, and additional documentation.

Apply for a Green Card: A Green Card entitles you to permanent residency in the USA and also provides unrestricted work authorization. However, obtaining a Green Card involves a complex application process. The easiest way to get the US immigrant visa is to participate in the annual Green Card Lottery of the US government.

When entering the USA, you should present your valid passport, printed confirmation of your ESTA, and any other documents related to your visit, such as hotel reservations and a return airline ticket.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers have the authority to search electronic devices, including phones, laptops, and tablets. While these additional security checks are rare, it is recommended that devices be unlocked to facilitate access to stored data.

Good to know: You are not required to provide your passwords to officers. However, if U.S. Customs and Border Protection is unable to conduct a search because you do not give them access to your devices, it may negatively impact the remainder of your entry (by making you a suspect).

The USA has specific customs regulations and import requirements for items you may bring into the country. In general, personal items such as clothing and electronic devices are allowed. However, there are restrictions on items such as firearms, currency, medicine, food, and certain agricultural products. It is best to check the CBP website for more information.

You may bring medications into the United States. Keep them in their original packaging, along with a prescription or doctor's note explaining the purpose of the medication.

If a minor is traveling without both parents or a legal guardian, a notarized consent form from the absent legal guardian(s) may be required. Also, carry the child's birth certificate. Authorities are particularly vigilant when traveling with children to prevent kidnapping and human trafficking.