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Visiting USA – A Guide for First Timers

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(Last Updated On: October 26, 2018)

I’ve lived in the US for about 6 years. Also visited it couple of times for work and leisure (on visit visa). And I share a lot of my experience on my blog. Perhaps because of this, lot of people ask keep me about visiting USA. What is the process involved, things to keep in mind etc.

Guide to Visiting USA

In this article, I thought I’ll write up everything I’ve learned over the years about visiting USA. Sort of an ultimate guide to visiting US. Both on work and pleasure. So, here goes.

Types of US Visit Visas

So, USA is one of those countries which is very strict with it’s visa process. Probably for the same reason, it is one of the most sought after travel destinations in the world.

United States of America goes through a very strict vetting process when it comes to who they decide to let in the country for visit. The visit visa is called the B1/B2 visa and can be given for two purposes. Work or Leisure.

Usually the visit visa is given for about ten years, which means that those who get the visa can enter and exit the USA anytime they wished during these ten years, provided they have a valid reason to visit.

Here is the official website for reference on visit visas

Tip
Beware of “agents” who promise you a visa to the U.S. You don’t need an agent and can do it all by yourself, easy and safe.

USA Visit visa for work or business

Visiting USA on Visit Visa - Guide

So, essentially, you can visit the USA, for work (like a conference, business meeting, on-site visits etc) or for leisure (pleasure trip, travel, sight seeing etc).

For work related visits, you’d need a sponsor. Essentially, this is the entity who is inviting you to visit the USA, is sponsoring your stay and accommodation and ensures your safety during the stay in the U.S.

Certain companies invite their employees in other countries to visit the U.S on this visa. Mostly, this will be an employer sponsored visit, where the flight tickets, hotel stays etc would be sponsored by the employer.

USA Visit visa for leisure

The other type of reason to visit USA is for pleasure trips or travel.

You know, folks who wanna visit the Disney land, see places in US etc.

For these visits, the sponsor is the person traveling himself. What that means is that the person traveling has to pay for his flight tickers, accommodation etc. And unless you prove that you can afford it (during the visa interview), you’re not getting the visit visa.

How To get a tourist visa to USA?

You can get a tourist visa to USA by applying for it online, attending the interview and getting the visa stamped on your passport. The application process is pretty straight forward, but the interview can be tough. Here are the details…

Step 1 – Online Application

In this very first step of the visa application process, the applicant submits a DS160 form. In this application, the applicant submits all the necessary details that tells the authorities why you’re eligible for a visit visa. Things like your travel history, bank account details, relatives in USA if any, employment details, travel details etc.

Basically, a background check of everything about the applicant. The visa interview is gonna be based on many of the details furnished on the DS160 form.

Step 2 – Scheduling the interview

In this step, you pay the application fees to the bank and schedule a time for your interview online. You then travel to the consulate on the day of the interview, attend it, answer the questions and hope everything goes well.

If the visa officer think that you need to try another time, he/she will let you know then and there. But if your visa is approved, you’ll have to wait for a few more days when you will get your passport stamped with the visa via post.

How much does it cost to get a US tourist visa

It only costs $160 to apply for a US tourist visa. This is the visa fees for DS160, that you have to pay at a bank in local currency (Rupees).

There are incidental charges though.

Like, the amount you have to shell out for attending the interview in a US consulate near you. But these are variables and can change based on where you are located.

What type of visa should I get?

Based on what your requirement is, you can apply for either a work visa or a tourist visa. Technically, both are the same and fall into the B1/B2 category, but the visit purpose will be different.

Say, you want to visit the USA for a pleasure trip, then apply for a B1/B2 visa yourself. Make sure you have the financials sorted out when applying for DS160.

If you are going for a business purpose, like meeting, conference or interview, then it’s your employer who’s got to apply for it on your behalf.

What documents are required for US visit visa

You’d need a set of documents ready for US visit visa application. Here is a list.

US Tourist Visa Interview Questions

Cracking the visa interview is one of the most important part of the process. Different questions get asked, based on your background and qualifications, but there are some common questions you can always prepare for. Here are some of the most common US visit visa interview questions.

How long does it take to get a tourist visa to USA from India

It can take anywhere from 1 – 3 weeks to get your visa stamped on your passport – post approval. But the entire process right from application to approval can take up to 2-3 months.

Traveling to USA on Visit Visa – The entire journey

Now, that you have your US visit visa, the adrenaline rush begins. In this article, I’m sharing my visit experience to Las Vegas, USA. I’ll break down the entire steps in to smaller parts so that you can comprehend. I’m hoping this will be useful for folks traveling to USA on a visit visa. Things they got to do, and avoid during and after the trip.

Here is a quick list of things you’ll be doing during your journey from India to USA.

Arrive 3 hours early

Visiting USA Check in Early at Airport

Make sure you arrive at least three hours early to the airport. For example, if your flight is at 3 PM, make sure you report at the airport at 12 PM. This is to ensure that there are no last minute delays or unexpected surprises.

Check with the “information kiosk” where you should report for your airlines. Usually they have display boards for each airlines so it’s easy to find out.

Get currency exchange preferably from outside the airport

Visiting USA Foreign Exchange

Make sure you carry some dollars in cash with you. You are allowed to carry up to $10,000 with you. Anything above that will have to be declared to the immigration officers while you enter the US soil. I personally recommend you to carry a few hundred dollars for miscellaneous expenses during your trip. Say, $500 – $1000.

You will not get good exchange rates at currency exchange kiosks inside the airport. They are usually on the higher side. So, make sure you go to your bank or a local currency exchange center and get the money in had earlier. You’ll need your passport and sometimes flight details to get this done.

Check in luggage & get boarding Pass

Check for your flight status either online (just Google your flight name.l Ex: EK530) or at the displays at the airport. It would clearly state your flight number, the time of boarding, gate number and the destination. If you have multiple legs on your journey, like stop overs, then you will get boarding pass for each leg, make sure you hang on to them and not lose it.

Tip
You might be asked details about your stay in the U.S, local contact number if any, hotels tickets if any by the airline crew. Be prepared for it. I suggest writing down or printing out details for quick reference.

If you have lot of luggage, it’s a good idea to get a trolley. Some airports have them available for free while some airports charge for using them.

When you get to your gate number, report yourself with your passport so that the personnel there can give your boarding ticket.

This boarding ticket will have your seat number etc mentioned on it. Keep this ticket with you through out the journey. Some airports, even need it while you get out of the plane and will check it at the exit. So don’t lose it.

USA_Visit_Visa_Travel Boarding Tickets

Security check

Once you check in your luggage, you’ll be left with your hand bags and your boarding passes. The boarding pass will mention which gate you will be boarding your plane from (Ex: Gate E6). Find out from the directions which way your gate is, get there and wait for the announcement to board. This usually happens about one hour before the actual time of flight.

But before finding your way to the gate, you will have to go through a security check. Here. there’s going to be a long queue because people flying on all flights go through the same security check (unless in some airports, where there are multiple queues).

At the security check, you will need to take out your laptops, mobile phones and other electronic devices if any, put them in separate trays before letting them pass through the security scanners. Some airports require you to remove your shoes, belts, jackets if you have any and be totally available for security frisking.

Once done, make sure you carry your stuff back from the trays and not leave them behind.

Go to corresponding gate & wait

Next up, go to your boarding gate and wait. The airline crew may not be there when you report, and they usually come an hour before the actual flight, so keep waiting. You can do some shopping during this time, as usually, there would be shops around this area.

Visiting USA on VIsit USA Boarding Gate

Board plane

When it’s time to board your plane, the airline crew will make announcements at your gate. Watch out for this as sometimes you won’t be able to figure out what they’re announcing (because of accent differences etc). Keep an eye on what others around you are doing. Don’t get lost in shopping and ignore announcements. If you are late to the gate, sometimes the crew will announce your name. You don’t want that because most of the times they pronounce your name awkwardly and it’s an embarrassment more than anything.

Visit USA Travel - Boarding Plane

Lay over & connection flights

Usually, I don’t book long direct flights (which is easier but too boring and slightly expensive).

I take flights with one stop over. I’ve flied on flights with stop overs in Belgium, Abu Dhabi, Dubai (favorite because they have lot of shopping options), Hong Kong etc. It just makes the journey more fun and less boring.

But the problem is that if your first flight is late for whatever reasons, then you’re going to go into a panic attack mode, for fear of missing your second leg of flight.

Here are some tips to successfully dodge the crowd and make it to your connection flight.

I’m saying this from my experience catching a connection flight from Dubai to San Francisco.

As soon as you exit from the plane, you’ll see directions for connection flights… follow this sign (Red board in Dubai Airport).

Travel to USA - Connection Flights

There, all the connection flights would be listed. Find the gate at which your plane is.

Tip
Please note that the boarding gates change all the time, so make sure you check the updated gate, because, it might be different from the gate number printed on your boarding pass. If confused, check with the information kiosk at the airport.

Connection flight to USA at Dubai

Some airports are huge and the walk to your gate can involve long walks or sometimes getting on a train to another terminal. Make sure you don’t waste any time and get the information you need before making your move.

Remember, you might need to go through security check again, so you don’t have much time to your flight if the time window is less than an hour.

If you are an elderly person, I suggest you opt for “Wheelchair Assistance” with the airline you are flying. This has to be booked at the time of booking your ticket. With this service, someone from the airline ground staff will pick you up, as soon as you get out from the plane, and take you directly to the gate on a wheel chair. This way, you can escape all that walking.

If you have infants or kids with you, grab a stroller if available. (Emirates have them available free at the airplane exits. See pic below.) It’ll help a lot to move around easily

Infant scrollers at Emirates in Dubai Airport

There will be a security check, where you’ll have to do the same thing as you did earlier before boarding the flight. Remove electronics, laptops, charging stations etc from your hand bag. Remove liquids more than the allowed quantity etc.

Tips to save time while catching a connection flight to USA

Luggage
If you have already checked in your luggage to the final destination (which is why you get the boarding passes for all legs of the journey till the final destination), then there is no need to collect your luggage at the connecting airport. Your luggage will be transported all the way to the final destination, automatically and you need to collect it only at the final destination.

That’s it. Clear security, get to your corresponding gate and wait till the boarding is announced.

Check in at connection flight gate Dubai

Once boarding is announced, check in with your boarding pass and passport at the gate, where the airline personnel will help you.

Tip
Some airports like Abu Dhabi sometimes have immigration officials from USA (or the airline staff itself) who will check your passport and visa before boarding the airplane. This is a good thing, because it will save you time.

Fill customs/immigration form

Food in Dubai to USA flights

Once on the plane, get some food, enjoy the entertainment (Emirates has good collection of movies) and get some good sleep. I usually fly on flights with one stop over, usually in Dubai or Abu Dhabi. So that, the second leg of the journey is only 15-16 hours of flight. (I can’t stand long 24 hour flights).

Before getting out at your final destination (say San Francisco) the airline crew will hand over a customs immigration form for all passengers who are visitors to US. You need to fill it. This is how it looks.

US Customs Immigration Form

You’ll need to fill in details like…

  • Your name
  • Passport details
  • Flight details
  • Items that you’re carrying (eatables, plants, seeds etc)
  • Valuables and their overall value (if above $10,000)
  • Purpose of your visit etc..

Make sure you fill all the details accurately.

Tip
Make sure you carry a pen in your hand bag to fill this form. And be ready to share it with your co-passengers. Not many folks would have a pen and would frantically be looking for one at that point.

After arriving in USA

Things to do after arriving in USA

After arriving in USA, there are couple of things you need to check.

First off, follow the signs to “Visitors” queue (See pic above). There are separate queues for visitors, U.S. Citizens/ Permanent Residents and Diplomats etc.

Once you get to the visitors queue, there will be a huge line and many kiosks where US Customs and Border Security Protection officers will be seated. Follow the instructions given by the security personnel there.

US Immigration for Visitors

Once you get to the officers, you might be asked a few questions. For example…

  • What is your purpose of visit?
  • Where are you staying?
  • Local contact number if any.
  • When will you be flying back?

You are obliged to answer these questions correctly and provide documents if required.

Once cleared, the officer will stamp your arrival on the passport. An i94 will be issued (sometimes along with the stamp, sometimes not).

Tip
It is very important that you note it down, because it will have your exit date printed on it. You are supposed to exit the country on or before the exit date. Any failure to do so, will result in you overstaying and make your stay illegal.

Congrats! You’ve made it to the U.S, successfully.

Enjoy your stay and make the best of it. (And, play well and nice.)

Additional Reading

About the author

Mani Karthik

In my pursuit to happiness, I share everything I've learnt on this blog. From productivity to spirituality and everything in between. I quit my cozy job in Silicon Valley to pursue blogging & is an Entrepreneur now. I help startups grow & teach people blogging.

Let's make it a better life. One article at a time.

In my pursuit to happiness, I share everything I learn on this blog. From productivity to personal finance, spirituality and everything in between.

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