The USA travel guide: what you need to do


Visas, vaccinations, phone roaming, SIM cards, internet, power adapters, money, travel insurance, handy apps and more.

United States planning and preparation


Get the best cash rate, phone rates, phone apps for maps and currency conversions, and which power plugs you need - download the USA travel guide.

Visas and passports

Australia is a participant country of the USA's VWP (Visa Waiver Program), meaning that Australian passport holders can visit the USA for tourism or business for 90 days or less without a visa, provided they meet the eligibility requirements.

This doesn't mean Aussies can just show up at the airport empty-handed though. Eligible travellers must have a valid ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization). The only way to apply for an ESTA is via the US government website esta.cbp.dhs.gov/esta. Approval is usually immediate, but it's recommended you apply as early as possible (at least 72 hours before you depart) in case your application is rejected for some reason.

You will be asked questions about your physical and mental health and your criminal history. If you're unsure of how to answer, check this advice from tourismlegal.com.au. If your ESTA application is rejected you will need to apply for a formal visa through the US embassy.

Keep a copy of your application number or print out your approval notice. You won't need this at customs, but some airlines may ask to see it.

Tip: Get your ESTA or visa sorted out before you pay for your flights and accommodation.

Your ESTA is valid for multiple trips over two years, so there's no harm in applying for it well in advance of your trip.

Scam alert: A number of websites and email scams have sprung up offering to arrange ESTA applications for a fee. Some even pose as official US government sites. The only place you need to go to apply for an ESTA is the official website: esta.cbp.dhs.gov/esta and the fee should be $US14.

Visa/ESTA rules and prices may change. For up-to-date information check the US embassy website: au.usembassy.gov.

Vaccinations

Specific vaccinations are generally unnecessary for travel to the US, however traveldoctor.com.au recommends you make sure your routine vaccinations are up to date. The risk of contracting a dangerous disease in the USA is comparable to the risk in Australia. Check the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (cdc.gov) if you're concerned about outbreaks.

More about health and safety in the USA.

Phone and internet

Global roaming and coverage

Australian mobile phones will only work on some US networks. Most Australian handsets operate on a GSM standard, whereas the US operates on GSM and CDMA. This means your coverage may be patchy as your phone will only work in areas serviced by GSM networks.

If you use your Australian SIM while in the US, you're likely to see some pretty enormous bills. Check with your telco for roaming prices:

Tip: Switch off data roaming on your phone before you leave Australia. Likewise, switch off your voicemail and ask friends and family to text you rather than calling (you'll be charged if you answer incoming calls).

Local SIM

Using a US SIM is a cheaper option, but remember your phone will need to be unlocked. Your GSM Australian handset won't work on the CDMA Verizon or Sprint/Nextel networks. You should have more luck with AT&T or T-Mobile, provided your handset operates at the right frequency. Check this guide for more information on phone/network compatibility.

US mobile phone stores sell pre-paid SIMs, but some may not be willing to sell you a SIM without a handset. Your best bet is to buy a SIM online before you leave Australia.

Travel SIM

Pre-paid travel SIMs can be bought from some Australian travel stores, phone stores and post offices, or ordered online before you leave Australia.

Remember: Your phone will need to be unlocked to accept a SIM from another network.

Disposable phones

Disposable phones cost as little as $US9 from US stores such as Walmart, K-Mart, Target or Best Buy. They come pre-loaded with credit and ready to go, but will do little more than make phone calls. Many won't even send text messages.

Tip: US mobile users pay for incoming calls and texts, as well as outgoing ones.

Beat global roaming bill shock – our guide to unlocking your phone and changing your global roaming settings.

Wi-Fi

Wi-Fi should be easy to find in cafes, hotels, libraries and even some parks. McDonald's, Dunkin' Donuts and Starbucks all offer free Wi-Fi, but if you'd rather not compromise your waistline just for a hotspot, try searching on wififreespot.com or wificafespots.com, or download an app such as wefi (Android or PC) or Wi-Fi Finder (Apple or Android).

Power plugs

Standard voltage: 120V

Frequency: 60Hz

US sockets have a lower voltage than Australia's 230V and a higher frequency than Australia's 50Hz. Most electrical appliances, such as laptops and phones, are designed to work on multiple voltages and frequencies, but it's always best to check. If your appliance or charger is marked 100-240V, 50/60 Hz then it will work in the US. Gadgets without a variable voltage or frequency should never be used on 120V or 60Hz. In the best case they simply won't work, in the worst they'll overheat and catch fire (the same warning applies to electrical goods bought in the US and brought back to Australia). A transformer can solve that problem, but it's quite a bulky item to travel with. Instead, consider buying a cheap appliance once you're over there.

Power sockets: 


America's power sockets and plugs are different to Australia's, so you'll need an adapter. If you're concerned about your appliances being incompatible with US voltage, you could buy a combined adapter/transformer.

Travel insurance

Travel insurance is essential – particularly for travel to the USA where the cost of medical care could financially cripple you. Buy insurance at the same time as you book your trip, that way you'll be covered if you have to cancel for some reason before you go.

For more information read our buying guide and to choose the best cover, see CHOICE's travel insurance reviews and comparisons.

Check the small print on your travel insurance policy for common exclusions, including sports such as skiing, rock climbing and sky diving, pre-existing medical conditions, and anything that happens to you while under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

Tips:

  • Keep a print-out of your travel insurance details with you at all times while on your trip.
  • Share your insurance details with family or friends before you leave.

Handy links and apps

Consider adding these links and apps to your phone, tablet or laptop before you go.

Tip: If possible, choose apps that work offline so they won't chew up your mobile data or stop working when you're in remote places.

  • City Guide apps include maps and self-guided tours of popular destinations. They work offline, so they won't use up your mobile data.
  • Currency conversion apps help you work out costs in Australian dollars.
  • Unit conversion apps translate imperial measurements into metric.

Tip: To save a map onto your mobile device for offline use, select the area on Google Maps then select 'Save offline map' from the menu and follow the directions on the screen. Your GPS positioning will still work on the saved map, even when you don't have access to the internet. Alternatively, download the Google Maps app, go to 'Offline maps' in the menu and select a city.

Got a travel tip about the USA? Or spotted something in our guide that needs updating? Add a comment below.


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