Coming to America: Visas And Entry Requirements
Get your passports ready

Changing entry visa regulations and exit rules for foreign nationals and American citizens require preparation if your family is planning a vacation to the United States of America. According to US Department of Commerce, 69.8 million international tourists visited the United States in 2013, generating an all-time record $180.7 billion in revenue. That reflected a 12% increase from 2012.

While welcoming the influx of tourism dollars, over 10 million required a nonimmigrant visa, generating a huge workload for US consular officers. With so many applicants, knowing the rules and playing by them is a must. So whether you choose to travel to the US, or outside the US, as foreign nationals, it’s essential that you be fully informed of the latest entry and exit procedures, collectively managed through OBIM, or Office of Biometric Identity Management (formerly US-Visit).

Welcome to America

OBIM replaced US-Visit in March 2013 and is now part of the National Protection and Programs Directorate. The goal is to provide a more secure nation through advance biometric identification, information sharing and analysis. checks a person’s biometrics against a watch list of known or suspected terrorists, immigration violators and criminals. It also does a check against all fingerprints the Department of Homeland Security collected since OBIM started to help determine if someone is using an alias. Passengers may have their face scanned and recorded for security purposes. The system also checks your biometrics alongside your identifcation document. And though it’s not meant to scare visitors away, many in the travel industry think it does.

Who Is Affected By OBIM And How?

OBIM applies to all visitors to the US between the ages of 14- and 79-years-old. It requires a foreign national or alien entering the US to present a passport and valid visa issued by a U.S. Consular Official, unless they are coming from a country eligible for the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), or are a citizen of Canada. The VWP accords foreign nationals holding a passport from certain countries these exceptions: they must be coming from an eligible country, staying no more than 90 days, for pleasure/medical purposes, and be able to prove they are not inadmissible. Rules differ for lawful permanent residents of the U.S., Canadian citizens, Mexican nationals, and continuing students.

There are currently 38 countries participating in the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) including Australia, Ireland,  Italy, Sweden and the United Kingdom among others. Here is a full VWP list and current regulations.  Nationals from VWP countries with machine-readable passports (similar to the newer US-issued passports with a barcode) should fill out an Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) form 72 hours prior to travel. VWP citizens should review the US Department of State website for current information, because a series of Presidential Proclamations regarding immigration and visa authorizations has been issued by the current president and your status, depending on your home country, may change at any time

Nationals from other than VWP countries must apply for a US Visa in person at a US Embassy or Consulate and, at that time, provide the required biometric information: 10 fingerprints and a photo. This rule applies as well to all citizens of VWP countries without machine-readable passports. After noting that the largest increase in visa demand came from new markets such as Brazil, China, and Mexico, the US government has allocated a 40% increase in visa processing resources for Brazil and China.

Family members are affected because every child 14-years or older will have to undergo the biometric scans during the visa application process, and again on arrival and departure. Additionally, because machine-readable and/or biometric passports can only store biometric date for one person, children of any age will no longer be able to enter the US on their mother’s passport; each child will have to carry her own passport.

Improved Visa Processing for Group/Family Travel

For groups and families in VWP countries, the ESTA system has made travel to the US a little easier. Large parties no longer have to submit applications in separate transactions. The system has been updated to make it possible for multiple applicants to enter and pay for their travel authorization in one go. A Group ID can be created and travelers have the ability to input a maximum of 50 ESTA applications under that ID, as well as pay with one credit card.

The Realities of Getting a US Visa

The paperwork, beginning with the visa application form, is complicated. In the latest regulations, males ages 16-45 are required to complete an additional form providing a detailed history of their previous travel and their affiliation with various institutions; and students and exchange visitors, regardless of nationality, must complete a supplemental application and be enrolled in SEVIS by their sponsoring institution.

Families face even bigger paperwork and financial burdens: in addition to their home country’s passport fees, US Visas cost around US$160 each (costs vary according to local currency exchange rates) and that fee must be paid in advance, in cash, at a separate payment station. Every applicant must show evidence of return transport to their home country.

Some countries where child abduction is an issue have made further use of the system. According to OBIM director Robert Mocny, in Mexico, biometric data is being recorded on children age 7 and older to be kept on file. Additionally, several US Visa issuing posts are requiring the presence of both birth parents, or a notarized permission letter from the absent parent, in order to accept a visa application from minors.

The Realities of Entering & Exiting the USA

While a fraction of one percent of visitors have been denied visas (primarily for criminal records discovered with biometric data), millions of travelers have stood in longer lines at airports, thousands have endured secondary screenings largely due to misunderstandings, and at least hundreds have missed connecting flights, been humiliated or have otherwise felt wrongly treated.

As regulations evolve, travelers who hold any of the myriad US-issued visas will find a confusing and conflicting array of rules. To expedite their passage, foreign nationals subject to the US-Visit program can access written instructions in English, traditional Chinese and Korean, outlining the most current entry and exit requirements, with an email address [[email protected]] to send complaints and enquiries.

Families should note the posted provisions regarding minors: “Single parents, grandparents, or guardians traveling with children may be asked for either proof of custody or a notarized letter from the absent parent authorizing the transportation of children across Western Hemisphere borders. This requirement evolved from international concern about child abduction. In addition, if you are under the age of 18 and traveling alone, you should carry a letter from a parent or guardian authorizing your trip across borders. Without such documentation, travelers could experience delays at their U.S. port-of-entry.”

Leaving America & Returning Home

Already a US citizen and hoping to take the family abroad? Under the mandate of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, all persons, including U.S. citizens, traveling by air between the United States and Canada, Mexico, Central and South America, the Caribbean, and Bermuda have been required to present a valid passport, Air NEXUS card, or U.S. Coast Guard Merchant Mariner Document.

U.S., Canadian or Bermudian travelers seeking to enter the U.S. by sea and/or land need to present a valid government issued ID and a birth certificate, naturalization certificate or baptismal record.  If traveling outside the Western Hemisphere to any other country in the world, all U.S. citizens of any age must present a passport.

We recommend that the average traveling family apply for a passport now.

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