Last updated on February 22, 2024 by Stefano Ferro, travelling and making photos for 20 years. Read more Guide

Travelling To America For The First Time: the Ultimate Checklist with all the essential things

Travelling to the USA for the first time can be very exciting. 

It doesn’t matter whether you are a leisure tourist, a business person or even a student chasing their dreams. 

Here is a useful checklist to ensure that you have everything that you may want or need on the trip from an ESTA visa to your phone charger. 

In this guide you will see

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Travelling to USA checklist

An up-to-date passport

USA has some of the most strictly regulated ports and boarders so a passport is something that should be at the very top of your travel checklist. 

Make sure that it is up to date, appropriately stamped and that it bears your exact identification details. 

Any discrepancy and you might end up cutting your trip very short. 

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A valid ESTA or visa

In addition to a passport, you need a Visa or an ESTA to enter the country. 

So what exactly is the difference between a visa and an ESTA? 

And what is it that makes the latter a significantly more convenient option?

  • Visa

A visa is a physical document that grants non-USA citizens permission to enter the mainland country or its other territories like Alaska and Puerto Rico. 

It is a physical issued at the US embassy of the traveller’s home country. 

Getting one can take several weeks or even months but it may offer you between one month and ten years of entry permission. 

  • ESTA

The Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) on the other hand is a non-physical document that grants the holder access to the US and its territories. 

Unlike a visa, the whole process of application and approval is electronic and you can get your permit in as little as one hour. 

It is a mandatory requirement in the absence of a US visa for non-USA citizens but is only offered to 39 specific countries on the visa-waiver list. 

The ESTA is valid for 2 years allowing unlimited business and leisure trips to the country. 

However, there is a condition that these trips cannot exceed 90 days at a time. 

It is also important to note that your ESTA expires when the passport expires even if this happens before the 2 years are up (basically they are interlinked). 

So how can you go about getting your ESTA? Here are the 3 simple steps you need to follow.

Apply online

One of the best things about this pass is that the application is very straight forward. 

Just go online and fill in the ESTA form with all the details required. 

And when you are done doing this and have uploaded any required documents, just proofread the application and submit it. 

Pay 

Payment can easily be done online using platforms like PayPal as well as credit and debit services like Visa cards. 

All you need to do is enter your details and the payment will immediately and safely be made. 

This is the easiest way to get your visa.

Receive confirmation 

Once all this is done, you just have to wait for a confirmation email. 

If you mark your application as urgent this could take as little as 1 hour. 

I personally had it in less than 10 minutes, but don’t count it happening on a regular basis.

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Personal identification documents

The next incredibly important item on your checklist should be your national identification documents. 

This includes things like national ID cards, your driving license or even a copy of your birth certificate.

Why?

Because these may be used to validate your passport and visa. 

Comprehensive travel insurance

A lot can go wrong when travelling from illnesses to injuries. 

The last thing you want is medical bills stacking up and ruining your travel budget. 

As a result, it is always advisable to invest in travel insurance to be on the safe side. 

For America travels, this is not mandatory. However, there are some visas like the F1, J1 and H1 visas where health insurance is a requirement for application. 

Keep in mind that medical bills can be really high in USA

Recommended vaccination compliance

The recommended vaccination list for people visiting USA is very dynamic. 

It depends on a lot of factors including where you are travelling from and your recent travel history as well as current global epidemic trends. 

Therefore, you will need to find out what the current requirements are before your trip and ensure that you get the mandatory ones taken care of. 

For example, if I today check on my Government Website SmartTraveller, I find that the US is currently experiencing outbreaks of measles

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Accommodation contacts

Whether you are staying with family or you booked a hotel, it is important to ensure that you have your host’s contacts on your phone and written down. 

As a first-time traveller things can be a little confusing and the last thing you want is to get lost. 

These contacts may also be required at the point of entry or even during application for the ESTA or Visa. 

Emergency contacts in the USA and your home country

This is not a mandatory checklist item but it is definitely something that may end up coming in handy. 

As with the accommodation contacts, it is best to have these both on your phone and written down somewhere easily accessible (possibly in your wallet). 

That way should anything go wrong your emergency contacts will be easily accessible, even by someone else.  

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Your phone

I mean; this probably goes without saying. 

Your phone will be your everything while on your trip. 

It will be how you contact your hosts, how you keep up with things back home, how you monitor your travel details and may even be how you pay for most services. 

So make sure you have it on you at all time on your trip. 

A tip I can give here is to buy a local SIM, unless your provider back home has a special agreement with a US Mobile company.

With a local SIM will not have any roaming charge, which can be massive.

Your WhatsApp phone number will not change, which is great because everyone can still contact you like without problems.

A travel guide

These days, you do not have to splurge on an actual human travel guide. 

All you need is your phone and some internet and you can download the right app. 

You can get a general America guide, a state-specific one or one designed for the city you are visiting.

This will give you directions, recommend attractions and generally help you make the most out of your trip. 

I personally don’t travel anymore with heavy books. 

I usually download an electronic copy of a guide from my local library, at zero cost too.

Appliance adapters

If you are travelling to USA for the first time then you might be in for a shock when you first see their sockets. 

This will make it hard for you to connect things like your device charger or other appliances you may have brought over with you. 

To make your life easier, just carry a universal socket adapter that will allow you to connect to any socket type and any appliance that you may have to work with on your trip. 

I also suggest carrying with you a small powerboard with 3-6 USB charging ports. 

That’s all you need to charge all your gears. 

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Prescription medication

Finally, when travelling to the USA make sure to carry your own refilled prescription medication. 

You may have a hard time getting refills in the country even with a written prescription. 

However, do not carry more than you need for the duration of your trip as it may land you in trouble. 

Bottom line: The most important step

In addition to obvious items like clothes and money, you need to have the 11 items above crossed off your checklist for your USA visit. 

The most important of these is ESTA (unless you need to do a particular VISA). 

So before you get that suitcase or start shopping for adapters, make sure to start your ESTA application. 

When that falls into place everything else will flow smoothly ensuring your trip is every bit as awesome as you had planned. 

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Stefano Ferro - MEL365.com Founder and Editor

About the Author

Stefano is a seasoned travel expert and the visionary founder of MEL365.com, a leading travel website with traffic across 6 continents. With a rich background in the travel industry, Stefano spent four pivotal years at Amadeus Travel Distribution System, gaining invaluable insights into travel technologies and distribution.

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