Traveling to, from, and within the United States isn't as simple as hopping on and off a plane. The various departments of the U.S. government have issued specific requirements for travel documents that allow travelers (U.S. citizens and foreign nationals alike) to enter, exit, and move freely throughout the country.
If you are planning to travel to or within the U.S., it's imperative that you carry the proper documentation as you cross country and state borders or pass through transport hubs like airports, harbors, and bus stations.
So, What is a Travel Document?
A travel document is a form of identification issued by a government or international treaty organization that allows for the movement of individuals across government-regulated boundaries. A passport is the most common example of a travel document.
While everyone is required to travel with one or more travel documents, not everyone will require the same documents. It is therefore necessary to research the documents that pertain to the country you are departing from and your country of nationality.
Use this page as a starting point for your research.
Documents Required to Enter the U.S.
As part of the entry process for the United States, you are required to show valid travel documents. The documents you will need to produce depend on the country from which you are arriving, as well as your citizenship status.
For international travelers, these documents have been determined by the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI), which was put forth by the U.S. Department of State and the Department of Homeland Security to strengthen U.S. border security.
Travel Documents for American Citizens Entering the U.S.
American citizens entering the U.S. are required to carry one of the following types of travel documents:
- Valid passport
- S. Passport Card
- Trusted Traveler Program (TTP) Card (NEXUS, SENTRI, Global Entry, or FAST)
- Enhanced Driver's License (EDL)
If entering by land or sea, Americans may also show the following types of travel documents, where applicable:
- S. Military ID card, when traveling on maritime business
- American Indian Card (Form I-872)
- Enhanced Tribal Card, when available
Americans on a closed-loop cruise (departing and arriving at the same U.S. port) must show a birth certificate and a government-issued ID. Note that you may still be required to show a passport to enter the countries your ship is visiting. If this applies to you, check with your cruise line to find out which travel documents to prepare.
Travel Documents for Lawful Permanent Residents Entering the U.S.
Permanent residents of the United States are required to carry at least one of the following types of travel documents:
- A Permanent Resident Card (aka Green Card/Form I-551)
- Other valid evidence of permanent residence
(A passport is not required for permanent residents entering the U.S.)
Travel Documents for Citizens of Canada, Mexico, and Bermuda Entering the U.S.
When entering the country by land or sea, citizens from Canada, Mexico, and Bermuda must show one of the following types of travel documents:
- Canadian citizens — a valid passport, Enhanced Driver's License, or TTP Card (NEXUS, SENTRI, Global Entry, or FAST)
- S. or Canadian children under 16 (or under 19, when traveling with a school, religious group, or youth group) — a birth certificate or other proof of citizenship (the birth certificate may be an original, photocopy, or certified copy)
- Bermudian citizens — a valid passport
- Mexican citizens (including children) — a passport with a visa or Border Crossing Card
Travel Documents for Citizens of Other Countries Entering the U.S.
All international travelers entering the United States, regardless of country of citizenship, need to carry a passport upon arrival at the border.
Certain foreign nationals, including permanent residents and long-term visitors, may also need a visa, which you'll need to apply for before the start of your trip.
Read on to find out if you need a visa for your trip to the U.S.
Who Needs a Visa to Enter the United States?
Foreign nationals (anyone who is not a U.S. citizen) traveling to the United States are required to apply for a visa prior to entering the country. Visas are issued in the traveler's passport by the U.S. Department of State at an embassy or consulate abroad.
There are two types of visas that travelers may apply for ahead of their trip to the U.S.:
- Nonimmigrant (visitor) visa
- Immigrant (permanent resident) visa
The following is a guide to help you determine which type of visa you should apply for and whether you fit the requirements for entering the U.S. without a visa.
If you are traveling to the United States for a limited time period (meaning you are not intending to remain in the country for residency purposes), you may need to apply for a visa prior to entering the U.S.
These are a few of the most commonly requested nonimmigrant visas:
- Business visitor visa (B-1)
- Visitor visa (B-2) for tourism, pleasure, social events, amateur performances and/or contests, visiting family or friends, or to receive medical treatment
- NAFTA Professional Visa (TN) for business professionals from Canada or Mexico
- Student or vocational training visas
- Transit visa for foreign nationals traveling through the U.S. on the way to another country
The nonimmigrant visa application process involves its own set of required and supporting documents. Missing documents, such as those proving your ability to cover the cost of travel in the U.S., are grounds for denial of a visa application.
Discover all the required and supporting USA visitor visa documents you may need for your trip.
PRO TIP: To help prevent a visa denial based on insufficient financial means, it's a good idea to consider purchasing a visitor health insurance policy. Travel health insurance that provides coverage during your travel in the U.S. can help prove to the U.S. Department of State that you could cover unexpected medical expenses that may arise during your trip.
Some insurance plans, like Atlas America, provide a letter of coverage to present to visa officers, which can help simplify the application process.
Discover more about the benefits of traveling with Atlas America.
Who Doesn't Need a Visa? (Visa Waiver Program)
In certain cases, international travelers will not be required to get a visa before traveling to the United States. This exception applies only to foreign nationals from any of the 38 countries participating in the Visa Waiver Program (VWP).
Foreign nationals from these countries who are traveling to the U.S. for business or pleasure for a total of 90 days or fewer may be eligible for the VWP.
Requirements for fulfilling the Visa Waiver Program:
- Be a citizen of one of 38 participating countries
- Have an e-Passport* (electronic passport) with an embedded chick, a digital photograph (not glued or laminated), and a machine-readable zone
- Fill out the ESTA online application (Electronic System for Travel Authorization), which immediately determines a traveler's eligibility under the VWP
- Pay the $4 processing fee and $10 authorization charge (if approved)
*Don't be thrown off by the name — most modern passports are e-Passports. As of 2019, the majority of countries issue e-passports as standard passports. An easy way to tell if your passport meets the requirements is by looking for this symbol:
If you are outside the U.S. and are planning to travel to the United States for the purpose of permanent residency, you must apply for an immigrant visa at a U.S. embassy or consulate abroad. This applies if, for example, you are planning to move to the USA to join a spouse or family member or you have been hired for permanent work by a U.S. employer.
Once a U.S. citizen has "sponsored" you and filed an immigrant petition for you, you will need to go through the immigrant application process: fill out an application, get a medical examination, and go to an interview to determine whether or not you will receive the visa.
The most common types of immigrant visas are:
- Family-based visas — these are based on being related to a U.S. citizen or permanent resident
- Employment-based visas — these require a job offer from a U.S. employer
You can also obtain a visa for entry to the United States through the Diversity Visa Lottery program.
If you are already in the United States, you are not required to apply for an immigrant visa. Rather, you should apply for a Permanent Resident (Green) Card by filing for a status change.
Refugees & Asylum
You are considered a refugee if you're fleeing your home for reasons such as persecution, fear of persecution, or war, and are in search of protection.
If you believe that you require protection as a refugee, you should contact the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) or another international nonprofit agency. You can also contact the closest U.S. embassy or consulate.
The process for entering the U.S. as a refugee involves multiple government agencies. Before embarking on this application journey, you should research the U.S. Refugee Admissions program.
If you do meet the requirements to request asylum in the United States as a refugee, you can then request permission to bring your spouse and/or children into the country. You may also apply to become a permanent resident.
All foreign nationals entering the United States are subject to arrival inspections conducted by Customs and Border Protection (CBP). Every traveler is subject to the same search criteria for CBP to decide whether his or her documents are in order.
When traveling with a pet, your pet is also required to meet certain travel requirements, including health requirements. Be sure to travel with a health certificate for your pet. If your pet does not meet health requirements, you may be denied entry.
You may also be denied entry to the U.S. for bringing prohibited substances, including certain foods and medications.
While there are no specific rules banning pregnant women from entering the country, it is prohibited to enter the country with the intent to give birth. Pregnant travelers should note that pregnancy is taken into consideration during the CBP assessment.
Documents Required to Travel Within the United States
The TSA mandates that all travelers within the USA, citizens and noncitizens alike, carry certain identifying documents when traveling.
The following travel documents are acceptable forms of identification for traveling within the U.S.:
- REAL ID (from October 2020, REAL ID will replace the standard DMV-issued driver's license as an acceptable form of ID for air travel within the US)
- S. passport
- S. Passport Card
- TTP Card (Global Entry, NEXUS, SENTRI, FAST)
- S. Department of Defense ID, including those issued to dependents
- Permanent Resident card
- Border Crossing Card
- State-issued Enhanced Driver's License
- Federally recognized, tribal-issued photo ID
- Homeland Security Presidential Directive ID Card (HSPD-12 PID)
- Foreign government-issued passport
- Canadian provincial driver's license or Indian and Northern Affairs Canada Card
- Transportation worker identification credential
- S. Citizenship and Immigration Serviced Employment Authorization Card (I-766)
- S. Merchant Mariner Credential
Travel Documents Required to Leave the U.S.
The United States also has travel document requirements for any traveler leaving the country. These documents are not the same as the documents required for entry.
Types of travel documents considered acceptable for leaving the U.S. include:
- A government-issued passport
- S. Permanent Resident Card
- Stateless travel document
- Re-entry permit
- NEXUS Card
- S. Merchant Mariner Card
- Military ID card
- Emergency travel document issued by an embassy or consulate
Before you embark on the U.S. trip you've been dreaming of, make sure everything goes as smoothly as possible by preparing the proper travel documents and completing all the necessary procedures. Hopefully, this page will help to guide you along the way.
Once you've taken care of all the necessary paperwork, download our Ultimate Guide to U.S. Culture and Customs to brush up on all the cultural do's and don'ts so you enter the U.S. fully prepared.