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When you’ve traveled to the US as much as I have (every year for the past decade – for large chunks of time), you learn a lot about a country and how it works. You definitely learn all the tips and tricks for traveling in the USA, and how to prepare for a trip before you go.
When planing a trip – asking yourself what do you need to know before you travel to the USA is really important to consider for any first-timer heading over. Which is why I wrote this guide in the first place!
Whether it’s Visa’s, which airline to fly with, travel insurance, electrical adapters and converting currency…this little guide will have you completely covered on everything you need to know before you go. You can also join my Facebook group called ‘Travel In The USA – Practical Advice For Everyone‘ to ask any questions, gain travel inspiration and ideas beyond this.
(*If you’re not Australian, this information will still relatively apply to you, but do ensure you double check how some of these things work in your home country.)
Visa’s For The USA
Do I Need A Visa When I Visit The USA?
Not always. Depending on your country of citizenship (or passport you hold), you may need to apply for a tourist visa to enter the US. This means that you will be required to attend an interview at your nearest US Consulate, in order to get your visa approved.
For travelers who aren’t required to apply for a tourist or work visa, you would hold citizenship in one of the 38 (current) countries who are eligible to travel to the USA on a Visa Waiver – or what is formally known as an ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization). This Visa Waiver is part of the Visa Waiver Program; which allows those who are eligible, to travel within the USA for up to 90 days, on either business, pleasure or transit purposes – without needing an actual visa.
How Do I Apply For An Esta To Travel To The United States?
An ESTA is a simple online application which must ONLY be accessed at this link here.
Please be aware of the companies that submit ESTA’s on your behalf. They charge upwards of $50-100 which is a ridiculous amount to pay when an ESTA is $14 USD. You do not need anyone to submit your ESTA on your behalf. It is a very straightforward form to fill out and has ONE set cost. You don’t need to pay any company to do this for you. If the link you’re using is not the one above, get out of the page immediately!
An ESTA costs $14 USD and lasts for 2 years of visits from the date it is approved. (You can log into your ESTA application anytime from the link (which is the same as the one above), to check its validity or to update your travel information to use it more than once.)
Travelers who are eligible for an ESTA, must apply at least 72 hours prior to their departure date, to ensure their application processes in time – it usually goes through straight away. I would recommend you apply for this, 4 weeks before you plan to depart in case you need to visit a US Consulate, because of your travel history, background or citizenship etc.
If you do answer anything incorrectly on your application (which happens – so be careful!), or if you have a criminal record you will have to attend an interview to explain and offer further information – which is a complete hassle but the only way your ESTA (or subsequent Visa should you require one) will be approved. So you do want to have some time up your sleeve to be able to get to a Consulate should this happen to you when applying. Don’t do it months in advance or you will lose a chunk of time off the 2 years you get for this waiver in case you happen to go back for other visits.
*If you do have a criminal record of any kind – even a small offence, be sure to apply for and have an accepted ESTA or tourist visa approved BEFORE you book any travel. Some people have been known to wait months for their approval. If you feel your situation is complicated – sort this out before paying for anything in case you are rejected and cannot travel to the United States at all.
What Do I Do If I Already Have An Esta & Want To Return To The USA To Travel?
Since the ESTA lasts for 2 years, you can simply update your upcoming travel information by logging into your approved application at any time; from the same URL link where you first applied for it (the same link listed in the above paragraph. If you look at the image above on the ESTA homepage, you will see it has a CHECK EXISTING APPLICATION option listed on the homepage – that’s what you click on to update your information.
If you still have an active ESTA but have:
*A new passport
*Have changed your name
*Have changed your gender
*Have changed your country of citizenship
*Committed a crime
*Contracted A Contagious Disease
You will have to apply for a new ESTA.
If your ESTA is due to expire BEFORE your next trip is due to begin, you will need to apply for another ESTA too.
Can I Use An Esta If I Plan To Travel In The USA For Longer Than 90 Days?
An ESTA is a Visa Waiver. It is only meant for travelers who are making a short trip over, not for those looking to undertake huge half-year long adventures. Some people have managed to gain another 90 days after first arriving on the visa waiver – if they have the funds and a return ticket home. This is a massive risk to even try given you are not traveling on a visa and you may be refused entry back into the US. It ultimately depends on the border agent you deal with on whether they will grant this.
If you do plan on staying within the US (including any travel to Canada or Mexico) for more than 90 days, you should apply for the appropriate visa in order to legally stay without issue. For most travelers, this will be the B1/B2 Tourist Visa which allows for tourist stays of up to 6 months.
The length of the B1/B2 visa can last anywhere between 3-5 years (depending on what you’re offered on your Consulate visit) or as long as your passport is valid. If you do travel to the US on this visa, it is important to note that you need to leave the US for a decent amount of time (at least 3 months) if you have already visited for a 6 month period. If you return for another 6 months in a very quick turnaround, you may be refused re-entry as you will likely be considered as trying to remain in the US as more than just a tourist. You can however enter more than once during your 6 month period of validity as my photo above shows. However, no travelers can travel in the US for 12 months straight – even though so many people would love to do so!(Myself included!)
You can apply for the B1/B2 Visa, and other Non Immigrant Visas by firstly completing a DS-160 form and then scheduling your Consulate interview here. Once you have successfully attended your interview (which can take 2-3 hours all up), your passport will be sent off and the VISA will be stuck on a full page of your passport and sent back to you. This passport needs to travel with you to the USA if you plan on using it. If you renew or replace your passport, your Visa is tied to your other passport. This may mean that you need to re-apply for another B1/B2 Visa in order to have a valid Visa; but generally with this issue, as long as you have the old passport with you (if it has expired but the VISA is still active) you should be allowed in for the 6 months regardless. Though it will be up to the TSA agent on if they let you in – as with anything.
Don’t Forget To Bring Your Esta With You
Ultimately, if you do not have the appropriate work visa/ tourist visa in your passport, or a valid ESTA printed out with you at the airport when you arrive for your flight – you may NOT be allowed to board the plane. Don’t just have it on your phone. It is also worth mentioning that some travelers who wish to enter the USA require at least 6 months left on their passport, or they may not be allowed to enter. This is a rule that a lot of countries have, not just the USA. Some countries are exempt from this rule, like Australia but i’d always play it safe and ensure I had more than 6 months left on my passport. It’s always better to be safe.
On The Plane
It is worth having the information (name and address) of your first night stay in the USA written down or printed; whether it is a hotel or a friend’s address. Passengers (at this current time) still have to fill out a landing card on the plane…so if you don’t write this information down (or rely on wifi when you land which may not work)…you won’t be able to fill this information in if you don’t know it. You will also need your passport information so be sure to keep your passport where you can reach it during the flight. (And have a pen with you…for obvious reasons!)
Please also be aware that a U.S. Customs and Border Protection Officer at your port of entry will determine whether you are allowed to enter the United States. You do not have a guaranteed entry just because you have a Visa or ESTA approval in your possession. They will grill you a little, so be honest about your travels, who you’re traveling with and why you are there – and know that they do it to everyone even though some of them can be really aggressive and put you off side. I get it all the time when I fly in. Sometimes it’s fine, sometimes it angers me.
Which Airline Should I Fly To The USA With?
For Australians, we are lucky to have so many options to fly to the USA – because it means competition is always good. The main airlines you can fly from Australia are Air New Zealand, Qantas, Delta, Jetstar, Virgin Australia, United Airlines and American Airlines. We do have credit card surcharges in Australia when booking flights, which is beyond silly and needs to change; so if you have the option to use POLI (your bank must be listed in their list) you can avoid this charge as the money comes out of your internet banking as a transfer rather than off your card as a purchase.
I have flown with every airline listed here except American so I know the pros and cons to most of them. To help you make a decision, I will give you an overview of these airlines so you know which ones I rate and how much you’re likely to pay with each of them.
To preface all of this, most airlines only offer 1 checked bag at 23kg (50 pounds), a carry on item at and a personal item like a laptop bag or purse – at a combined weight of 7kg (though it will depend on the airline if they weigh your bags and are strict on this). Some airlines allow 2 checked bags for travel to and from the United States – probably because of the baggage allowances that the US have domestically – they allow carry on bags based on size not weight!
After having flown on 4 flights with Air New Zealand from Melbourne to Los Angeles (Via Auckland) in the past 2 years, Air New Zealand are my number one choice.
It’s always a comfortable flight with Air New Zealand. I love their planes, the humourous safety videos, the ambiance inside the cabin and the professionalism of the cabin crew. The food is usually good (I am yet to have a bad meal) and the selection of entertainment is awesome as well. I watched the whole mini series of Big Little Lies on my last flight…which was awesome considering it is a HBO title and not something all airlines have access to.
Every time I fly with them I have paid $1100 or less return – and in what is an even better deal, it is only $1 more to buy and check a second bag at 50 pounds (23 kilos) when you book directly on their website. Score! Take it even if you’re not sure if you will be using that much.
Qantas is a great airline. The plane is comfortable (especially if its the A380!), the food is good and you get a whole heap of different snacks – even during sleep time. I found them very good value for money in 2013 when I last flew with them internationally, so I would definitely do it again.
Qantas can be more expensive than other airlines. That said, I found a really good sale for the Summer (Arrive June, Depart August) which was awesome, and again paid about $900 AUD return from memory – which was fantastic for the time of year.
You can fly multiple routes with Qantas – with Dallas and San Francisco direct options worth considering depending on your travel plans.
Delta is an airline I regularly fly with within the US, but when I flew over during peak season (Christmas) to New York, they were the cheapest option – though still a few thousand bucks (cringe!)
I was blown away by how awesome Delta actually was. From the comfortable cabin, to the food – it was actually the selection of entertainment that had me won over. (They had new releases, all the classics…the greatest selections of any airline I have flown with).
Delta was definitely the best US airline I have flown internationally with. I would not hesitate to fly with them to the US or within the US again. I also have many friends who have flown with them to the USA and agree with me.
Jetstar is the baby of Qantas…a budget baby. Jetstar are a great option if one is looking to travel to the mainland USA via Hawaii – because this is the only destination in the US they fly to.
Jetstar is a pay for what you use airline. You pay for baggage; a hot meal (or snacks on board like sandwiches, pies, etc – which are actually preferable in all honesty); entertainment (Ipads with a selection of choices) and seat upgrades. But, if you aren’t concerned with all of this, you can pick and choose what you want to buy, or purchase a package with a few things at an overall reduced price when booking. The more you buy before you fly, the cheaper it ends up being compared to purchasing at the airport or on the flight.
Jetstar are one of the best domestic airlines in Australia. They fly from Melbourne and Sydney to Honolulu for crazy steals. I’ve flown 3 times with them to Hawaii and the best deal we received was $300 AUD return! What a bargain right? The best part about Jetstar is that you can have 2 holidays in one…Hawaii is definitely the best place to layover between Australia and the West Coast on any day. I will never say no to this.
Virgin Australia is another fantastic airline option in Australia. They do code share with Delta so sometimes you will fly with them when booking with Delta – which it will tell you prior to booking.
One of the best things about Virgin Australia in my experience was the ambiance of the cabin. The lighting was really nice when I flew with them, with purple and pink colours, which was something that I noticed over other airlines straight away. It made the cabin feel really good and relaxed.
Virgin do have amazing deals under $1000 AUD so if you find them, don’t hesitate to book with them. I am with their frequent flyer program – and so is my credit card, so I tend to get more points with them than anyone else.
I will preface this by saying that it has been a long time since I flew with United Airlines internationally. I am sure they have upped their game (even with those passenger dragging off planes incidents recently); because it wasn’t great when I did fly with them.
Firstly, my flight out of Melbourne was cancelled and we were all put on Qantas or Air New Zealand flights to get us over there…it was the worst way to start my very first international trip. The flight back I did finally fly with United and whilst cabin staff were really good, and the flight had no issues; back in 2008, the entertainment was pretty bad – we all had to watch the same screen in the aisle…it was a long flight doing that!
Given the advancements in the airline world, I am sure this no longer is the case. I do fly domestically with them – which you can pay for in AUD so I would consider them as an option if the price was good now.
I can’t comment on American Airlines because I am yet to fly internationally with them. For what its worth, they are good to fly with domestically in the US, and if you fly Qantas to the US, you can check your luggage through to your final destination, should you have a domestic connection with American Airlines. So, that was pretty helpful traveling from Melbourne to New York.
No matter who you’re flying with, one of the best ways to find the cheapest flights that are out there is through Skyscanner, as they will atleast show you what the average price is for the time you’re looking for, and if any sales are happening. So be sure to start your search there.
Travel Insurance Options For The USA
Travel insurance is dependent on many factors: age, nationality, health status, length of your trip, what country you are traveling to and what you are covering within your insurance.
I have used many companies over the past decade, however since 2012, I have continually purchased my coverage with World Nomads. The best thing about insurance with World Nomads is your trip is allowed to have already started when you buy your policy – which helps when you don’t know how long you will be away and may need to purchase or extend your existing policy.
Majority of companies will not allow you to purchase a policy with them if you are not in your home country when purchasing (ie; your trip has not yet started.) I also found the World Nomads basic and premium options to be cheaper than most other companies too, so they were always the best option for me and my travel needs. They also have heaps of different promo codes which also helps lower the cost.
One thing to note when buying travel insurance for the USA – from any company, is that you must select the region as WORLDWIDE, not USA. So always ensure you do this when purchasing your policy. And always ensure that you have UNLIMITED MEDICAL coverage, and CAR HIRE coverage if hiring a car…costs like these add up if you get in an accident. So always ensure you are covered – and read the fine print.
Did you know that if you have been drinking alcohol when something happens to you, even if you get hit by a car…the alcohol can void the policy altogether? Always be aware of the policy rules to be safe; and always be sure to print your policy/save it on your phone as well. Should you need to make a claim it is imperative that you can reach your insurance provider without issue and actually use your coverage should you need to.
How Do I Charge My Electronics In The USA?
In today’s world, electronics are very easy to keep charged and alive.
There are 2 things all travelers need to consider when it comes to being able to use their devices or appliances.
Outlet Adapters In The USA
Make sure you have the correct adapter for the country you’re in. For the US, there are 2 types of adapters available. One with 2 prongs and one with 2 prongs and a circle. To use the adapter just plug your electronic device into the adapter and plug it into the wall outlet.
(It pays to travel with both kinds, as sometimes there are outlets that only have 2 prongs (and no circle); which means you can’t always insert that particular adapter into the wall – it is rare to have this happen though.)
There are many times travelers will be required to use a converter when traveling because the voltage is different between Australia (230 V) and the USA (120 V). Ultimately, you don’t have to have a converter – you can just use an adapter; but there is a chance that if you have a hairdryer or straightener especially, the voltage difference can kill your appliance, or not work to its full capacity. I haven’t had this occur with my hair curler yet, which is a British made appliance, and the same voltage as Australian appliances; so I only use adapters.
Basically, if you love something, you may want to buy something especially for your trip in case it dies when you try and use it in the US.
Power Banks – Never Be Without Battery In The USA
Along with being able to charge devices, I would also recommend that you buy a power bank to use when traveling. When you are using your phone to get around, check in on Facebook or just taking photos…your phone will lose a lot of battery.
In Australia, you can purchase power banks from places like Office Works or JB Hi-Fi. If you forget and you’re already in the states, I would stop by Staples or Best Buy as they are usually pretty good price wise. I always travel with 2 small fully charged power banks that allow for 1 full recharge each, so I can guarantee myself at least 8-10 hours of battery life per day. I do this because I won’t know how to get home if I don’t have access to a Google map – even if I need to find wifi to use it…and should I cross paths with Bradley Cooper on the streets of New York, I’d kinda like to be able to capture the moment!
How Do I Convert AUD into USD?
Converting money is serious business. You want the best rate so your conversion goes as far as possible – especially if you are converting thousands of dollars!
At the time of writing this piece, the Aussie dollar (AUD) was at a rate of 79.39 cents per every $1 US dollar (USD) as specified on the XE website/app.
Unfortunately, when buying money you do not get this rate as companies do need to make money. That said, there are ways to get the best option so you can buy your money as close to this rate as possible. There are many companies out there, however I have traveled enough that I know what my main 3 always are.
Here is what I always do:
- Shop Around.
When purchasing, check all of the online rates that are available for the following currency companies: Travel Money Oz, Travelex, Australia Post and Qantas Cash.
- Compare Them. Once you have all of the rates on the amount you want to buy, compare them and see which one gives you the BEST rate.
- Ask For A Better Rate. When you have worked out which company has the best rates, contact the company that has the second best rate, usually in person at a store location and ask what rate they can give you that is better than the competition. On a side note, if you are transferring large quantities ask if they can give you a better rate for that too.
- How Do You Want It? Once you have the rate set, decide if you want cash or a money card. I always take at least $500 in USD anytime I travel to the States. I also get it in all currency types from $1 bills to $50…though I always ask if I can have mostly $20 bills – as $50 bills can be harder to break unless you are spending close to $50.
To compare these 4 companies, here is how I would fare today if I was to buy when the rate is 79.39 cents per dollar. Upon comparison, you’ll see who to convert with and who to avoid!
AUD To USD With Travel Money Oz
Travel Money Oz had the rate of 0.7548 per $1000 AUD spent, giving a total of $754.80 USD.
The rate actually improved though if you choose to spend $2000 AUD, but only slightly with a rate change to 0.7666, totaling $1533.20 USD for that amount.
This is something to consider though if you do have $2000 AUD to spend that day, rather than doing two $1000 AUD transactions at different times – because if you add your transaction types up, you actually gain $23.60 USD more on $2000 AUD spend due to getting the better rate.
If you make two transactions of $1000 AUD it will only get you $1509.60 USD, but the larger $2000 AUD transaction will actually get you $1533.20 USD. That’s almost two lunches right there! So if you have the funds…spend a little more if it makes your money go further!
Travelex, I have used in Australia and other countries many times. I found the best place to haggle was in London, and rightfully so – it’s pretty competitive there. I always scored the best rates and happy hours too – sometimes better than what Australians were getting to convert the same amount of USD as I was!
But in the US recently, when I had Canadian (CAD) to convert into USD, Travelex wouldn’t match their online price at all. It was only because I had $1600 CAD that they gave me a better deal but it still wasn’t good enough. I was really surprised at that.
That said, Travelex do offer the best rates in Australia from what I often see as the below image shows with a rate for $1000 AUD at 0.7706, which is half a cent better than what Travel Money Oz were offering if I spent $2000!
With Travelex, I would receive $770.60 USD if I spent $1000 AUD with this rate, making me $15.80 USD better off if I bought from them.
If you chose to spend $2000 AUD with them however, the rate again changes to 0.7721 making it a total of $1544.20 USD per that amount; or $11 USD better than if I spent my $2000 at Travel Money Oz.
So in reality, spending $2000 AUD in this instance, would give me the best rate I can find online, as long as I purchased through Travelex.
Australia Post is another option, but they are usually the lowest. Sometimes they have higher rates, but it isn’t often. With Australia Post the rate remains unchanged no matter what you spend and it is lower than the others at 0.7512. So for $1001 AUD you only receive $752 USD and for $2000.80 AUD you receive $1503 USD.
So that $1544 USD Travellex offers customers for $2000 AUD is an amazing $41 USD better off than Australia Post. Score right!?
So to recap:
If I spent $1000 AUD I would receive the following conversion amounts:
Australia Post Rate: 0.7512 per $1001 AUD = $752 USD
Travel Money Oz Rate: 0.7548 per $1000 AUD = $754.80 USD
Travelex Rate: 0.7706 per $1000 AUD = $770.60 USD
The rates increase for Travel Money Oz and Travelex if you spend $2000 AUD.
Can I Get An Even Better Rate?
Since Travelex is the best rate by far no matter what the spend, one would assume they are the best one to go with.
But in fact, this is not true.
You see, Travel Money Oz do a Price Beat Guarantee. So if Travelex have a better rate than they do…they will not only match it, but also beat it too!
How you score this deal is by showing them the rate of the day when you go to an outlet store to purchase. If you can prove to them Travelex is better on that day (or any other competitor) they will give you an even better deal to get your business.
When I travel, I always convert my money with them, especially if I need cash. It is up to you on whether cash or money cards work best for you, or if you prefer to use a credit card and take on any fees associated with it – or one that waives the fees. I have used every money card out there and I have never had a problem. I would prefer that my name be on the travel money cards to avoid fraud, but it’s a secure way to carry large sums of money nonetheless if that’s your oly option.
*Do note that if you eat at a restaurant or stay at a hotel, and you pay this bill with a money card, it can take 2 weeks for the money initially debited as a hold, to return to your card. Hotels do this for incidentals so it is VITAL that you have a credit card with you when you’re in the US and that you use them for things like this. If not, you face losing US Dollars temporarily that you have on a money card and can’t actually spend…as these funds may not reappear on your card until you’re back home. It’s such a headache!
Other Currency Options For The USA
I use Transferwise more recently in my travels, because I know people in the USA and I trust them obviously. Transferwise requires you to know the bank account information of the person you’re transferring to. Transferwise offer great rates…some of the best around as the image above highlights. For $1000 AUD transferred to a friend in the states, I would get right now $785.70 USD which is actually $15.70 USD better than the Travelex rate.
During my 3 months in the States recently, I transferred to a few people and they just withdrew the money for me when i saw them. It was a money saver and I didn’t have to carry large sums around either!
I have spoken to a few people who regularly travel to the USA and I have looked into this one based on that information. Citibank offer Australians a really good deal with their Citibank Plus Everyday Account.
Rather than needing to convert a set number of funds, you can use your debit card without incurring a fee for your purchases – and the rates are usually around what Transferwise pass on based on the rates set by Visa and Mastercard (which is better than most Australian banks.) If you need to withdraw money, just find a Citibank ATM.
The positive here is you can use the card just as you would at home; however the negative (which is a very small one) is that should the dollar lose value you may have to pay more than if you locked your money in. But i’d still consider this one if you want an easy and value for money card to use at home and abroad.
Now To Plan Your Trip!
As someone who first traveled to the USA for the first time 10 years ago, it is hard to remember that many people aren’t sure how to even get to the United States…let alone what to prepare for.
Hopefully my wealth of knowledge helps you even in some way, whether you’re an Australian or from somewhere else – all of this applies to everyone no matter where you’re from. If you need help with Tipping – read my post on EVERYTHING you need to know about HOW, WHO, WHAT and WHEN to tip right here!
If you have any questions always let me know and make sure you have joined my Facebook group called ‘Travel In The USA – Practical Advice For Everyone‘. I will always try and help people feel confident in heading overseas for the first time, especially to the USA. As always information can change and I will endeavor to do my best to update this and the group as this happens. But as with anything, always do your own research and ensure you cover yourself and know what requirements there are surrounding your individual circumstances.