Visiting the US from the UK
By RV Forum Staffer Jackie MacKenzie (December, 2016)
We are two Scots who have been spending around 3 weeks of every year for the last 10 years visiting the USA. After deciding we would take a few years out and spend time touring the USA we then embarked on a journey to make that dream come true. This is our experience (there may be errors or omissions, please do thorough research suited to your own requirements/situation).
Passport & US Visa
Buying Travel Trailer
Things to think about for home - general and security
We wanted to apply for a B1/B2 Visitor's Visa which allows you entry for 6 months of every 12 for a period of 10 years. Because our Passports only had a few years left we decided to renew them so that they aligned with the Visa. You don't need to do this, but it means carrying 2 passports until your Visa expires.
As well as a current passport you need to get 2 photos, note that the Visa photos are a different size from the passport photo, a bit larger. Our local Post Office had a machine which produced these. We applied using the online application process - link here gives you full information and link to the application US Embassy Website. Note that before you start your application you need to have scanned your photo and have it on your computer. The application asks for an address in the States that you will be staying at. We used a friend's address, but I guess you can use a hotel or an RV park.
Once starting the application you can save it and return to it to complete it when you need to. Be aware that you cannot retrieve it once it has been completed, and you cannot view the information you have input. I suggest doing a screen print of every screen as you progress if you are concerned or want to keep a copy of what information you have submitted. You have the option to save as you go which I would also do as they website is a bit slow and clunky.
Once the Visa has been completed, you then need to apply for an interview. This does not happen automatically, you must apply online separately. We decided to go to London as it had a shorter wait period, but you can also go to Belfast. The website gives you information on wait times so you can decide which you want to apply to. You also have the option of having your passport delivered directly to your home for an extra cost, we decided to do this instead of having to collect it from a location determined by the Embassy.
We did a lot of online research to see what information we needed to take with us to the Embassy. We ended up with a folder full of originals and copies (in case they wanted to retain anything). We had bank statements for the last 6 months, mortgage info, car ownership documents, insurance policies etc. We ended up with a large bundle which we took along to the interview. I also compiled a spreadsheet detailing our finances and outgoings etc. so that they would be able to see that we could afford to spend time in the US independently.
We stayed at the Metropolis Hyde Park Hotel which was a 20 minute walk away from the Embassy. This hotel is just outside the congestion zone and has a small car park outside which cost £20 and the staff were OK with us leaving it there until after our interview. I am sure there are numerous B&Bs close by and there were plenty of hotels too. We were driving as we combined this visit with a trip to see relatives.
We arrived at the Embassy at 9am ready for our 9:30am interview. There are 3 lines - the first is for the current interview slot times where they mark your name off the sheet so they know you have arrived. The second is to get through the security check to get into the Embassy. The third line is for the later interview times. There are people there to advise you which line is which or just ask someone. We had to wait in line 3 until we were told to move into line 1.
You need to take your passports, visa photos, application information which is emailed and other bits and pieces. Check website and emails sent to you for full info.
We got into the Embassy and were given a number and some paperwork to take with us. We went and sat in the Front waiting area. When we were called up to a booth we were asked why we were not travelling on an ESTA. We explained that we wanted to travel and spend more time on the parks etc. The girl checked our paperwork and told us to go to the lady controlling the Rear waiting area. We were put into a row and told to wait for that row to be called. The person at the end of the row gets a number and when that number is called the whole row goes into another line to wait for a personal interview. Again this is at a small booth. We were asked a few questions about where we planned to visit and why we were not using the ESTA, and if we owned our own house and then told our Visas were approved. Our passports were retained by the Embassy to enable them to fit the Visa. Whilst we were not asked for any of our paperwork, we felt well prepared for any eventuality.
Our passports with Visas were received within 7 days and we had to sign for them upon receipt.
We knew that it would be difficult and expensive to live in the US using our UK bank accounts. We did a bit of research on line and found that there were several Banks which would give a bank account to people who reside outside of the US. You have to wait until you are in the country before applying. We decided on Bank of America. I rang a branch in Las Vegas and confirmed that they would indeed give us an account and arranged an appointment for the day after we arrived. The process was relatively simple and took around half an hour. They used our UK address as well as the address of a friend in the US (to send the bank cards to). You need to take in your passport and driving licence or other form of identification. Most of their communication is done on line via their banking app (which we could not download to our phones as the phone thinks you are in the UK) and via email. We had to deposit money to open the account, a minimum of $20. You are given a temporary bank card and some temporary cheques. The lady we dealt with was very helpful. She made sure we could access our accounts on line by setting us up there and then, and ensured the bank cards worked also.
As exchanging money is very expensive we did some research into this too. We found a website called Transferwise. This site gives you the current published exchange rate and charges 0.5% to transfer money into the US Bank Account. There are no other fees so for £10,000 you will pay £50. It took 7 days to transfer the money into our account and we could see where the money was at all times. The next time we changed money it only took 3 days as it was going into the same account, but they advised 5.
After our visit to the back we set up a personal mailbox account with the UPS Store - this is a box where your mail is sent to and they will forward or retain it but it is not a PO Box so looks like a normal postal address. We subsequently updated our Bank Account to use this address instead of our friends. I would suggest you set up a postal address in advance of setting up a Bank Account so that your cards are posted there and you have a local address. We had to get our friend to post them back from Texas to Vegas. However, having the temporary cards meant we were able to use these meantime. There are various companies providing this service, so a bit of research should be done to see which works best for your needs. This is relatively cheap and a great way of getting your mail and having an address to use for checking into campgrounds etc.
Buying Travel Trailer
We decided to purchase a travel trailer as we didn't want to maintain 2 engines and wanted a vehicle to go touring in after setting up camp and one we could use on forest tracks and off road trails so this was the best set up for us.
When previously visiting Las Vegas we had popped into an RV Dealer and were shown a trailer which we thought would work perfectly for us. We looked at numerous other trailers online but the Heartland Sundance 288RLS was the one we liked best. This trailer is 28ft inside and approx 32ft external length including the spare tyre and A frame hitch.
We dealt with Johnnie Walker RV at 3700 Boulder Highway, Las Vegas. At no time were we put under any pressure to purchase anything. We dealt with their salesman Steve Vanhoose by calling and emailing from the UK. They took a credit card deposit of $1000 and ordered the trailer for us. It was delivered a few weeks before we arrived. We were told that we could stay for 3 or 4 days in their small campsite behind the dealership which is secured and has someone staying on site, to ensure we were happy with the condition and workings of the trailer.
We arranged a handover day and were asked to provide a bankers draft. As we had not exchanged money they were happy for us to provide a cheque that day which we then exchanged for the bankers draft a few days later. During this time they were more than happy for us to stay in the trailer.
The handover was performed by Tom, one of the guys who repairs the RVs, he went over everything thoroughly and was very patient. I took notes and asked lots of questions. He gave advice about cleaning and maintenance too.
After the handover we stayed in their lot so we could be confident that everything was working and that we understood the functions of the trailer. They asked us to make a snagging list so they could rectify anything we were not happy with. The faults we found were promptly rectified, most of which were cosmetic. We were extremely satisfied with the service, advice and friendliness of all of the staff.
We ended up staying there for over a week as we didn't have a truck. They would happily have delivered the trailer to an RV Park had we asked, but as they were not busy they were happy for us to stay there.
We had booked into a cheap hotel for 3 nights before we arranged the handover and obviously could have extended this if required.
Buying a Truck
As we were keen to do off road driving, we had to be sure the truck would happily go off road and tow the 10,500lb trailer. We looked at both diesel and gas versions of various trucks and spoke at length to someone who was used to towing. He told us that the trailer we had would be OK with either type of vehicle. We decided to go with the gas truck as the servicing is slightly cheaper, the weight of the vehicle was lower which would be of benefit off road and the overall purchase price was around $8,000 less.
We were unaware of the nuances of towing and were glad that we had signed up for the RV Forum because the advice we were given regarding cargo carrying capacity and towing requirements was invaluable. We checked the yellow sticker on the driver's door in each truck we looked at and found a lot of them did not have sufficient CCC for our needs.
We did some online research again before leaving the UK and had found a few dealers in Vegas and one in Idaho which was significantly cheaper. We did find that some of the online contacts never got back in touch, so don't be surprised by this (same for travel trailer dealerships).
We went to the Ford, Dodge and GMC dealerships in Vegas. We visited 3 Dodge dealers (2 were owned by the same company so no competition there), 1 Ford and 1 GMC. We liked the Dodge Ram 2500 Laramie and the GMC Sierra. The Dodge was cheaper and we really liked everything about it.
Two of the dealers said they couldn't sell us a new truck as we were not US Residents. They could sell us a used one though. It turned out that this is because they were concerned that we would be buying the truck with a view to exporting it back to the UK. We told them our intention was to tour the states for several years. One of the dealerships was adamant that they still could not sell us a truck. We provided the details of our trailer to the dealer we eventually purchased from and provided our Visa information and this seemed to appease them and we were able to purchase the truck easily.
When it came to pricing though we really struggled to get any kind of decent discount from the Las Vegas dealers. We had been talking to Dennis Dillon in Idaho and the same truck from them was $4,000 cheaper. The Vegas dealers couldn't match or get anywhere close to the pricing.
My partner got a cheap flight with Allegiant and flew up to Idaho. Dan Malone from Dennis Dillon collected him from the airport and took him out to see the trucks on his shortlist. He had taken a bankers draft for the approximate cost and would use his debit card to top it up with the balance to allow him to drive the truck out same day. The trip back to Las Vegas was 800 miles so this was a good opportunity to run in the engine (500 miles) without towing anything. The truck had a bit of a wobble and after talking to Dennis Dillon my partner took the truck into a dealership in Vegas who checked it over. One of the wheels was missing a weight. This was rectified and the truck was perfect.
The title documents for both truck and trailer are sent to you from the DMV office where you register. We received ours several weeks later.
You need to have insurance before you can register your vehicle. Not being a US Resident and not having a US driving licence can severely restrict the number of companies willing to insure you. I found 3, Good Sam, RV America and Explorer RV. All 3 had approximately the same pricing - approximately $3,700 for 12 months for both vehicles excluding roadside assistance. We will look into obtaining a US driving licence, however on first checking most states require you to be a resident. You would also need to ensure that it allows you to tow the vehicle weight you have, as some states have limited this and you would then need to apply for a commercial licence. Also ensure your UK driving licence covers you as the codes have changed over the years, check driving licence categories for info.
We decided to register our vehicles in Nevada who are very accepting of foreign visitors and although the sales taxes are not low we felt happy to pay them. As we have used Vegas as a base 90% of the time we have visited the states we decided to continue with this. I believe there are other states which are cheaper for registration so do your homework on this one. After reading through the website I had a couple of unanswered questions so I submitted these online and received replies within a few days. Here is a link to the main DMV USA site, you can go into every state's site from there.
You need to go to the DMV Office to register your vehicles and we were told that you could pay an agent to go and wait in line, however you can book an appointment online very easily, although usually not for the same day. There are different queues for waiting and pre booked appointments. We had to get the truck VIN checked so do that before you go in for your appointment, we did not need to do this for the trailer, bus but suspect you may need to do this for your motorhome, please check. We took in all of the purchase paperwork and our passports. The process was very quick and we had our registration completed in about 20 minutes. They were happy to use the UPS Mailbox address we had provided. We paid for 3 years of registration for the trailer as it was discounted. We could only register for 1 year for our truck.
As we were spending 6 months in the USA and had previous medical conditions, we researched how best to get travel/health insurance. As luck would have it we managed to get it through our current insurance company AXA - AXA Personal Travel Insurance. They provide cover for longer stays. However, if you don't have any medical problems, you could probably get cheaper insurance by searching for long stay insurance, there are many companies offering this. We also looked into the possibility of buying an American policy but this looked very complicated due to our personal previous medical history.
Storage of Vehicles when back home
There are several ways to store your Travel Trailer/Truck/Motorhome. You may have someone who can keep it at their home. You can store outdoors, outdoors under cover or indoors. Check your insurance policy as this can be problematic when you are in a different country, even though you could fly there in a day. The Good Sam policy states that if you are over 150 miles from the location of your RV you need to have it stored in a secure location which has security gates and cameras. The pricing for storage varies greatly. We decided on indoor storage as our vehicles are brand new and we wanted to have peace of mind (we also don't have anyone who can regularly check them over so this was our best option). Chatting to other RV owners will often give you ideas of where best to leave your vehicles.
We set up USA specific emails which is handy if you need to give out an email address. We also bought a US SIM from AT&T so we had a US number which is really useful for calling campgrounds etc. There are various SIM only deals, note that the cheapest we found was $30 and that was for talk and text within the US only. We paid an additional $30 when we left which keeps the number active for 6 months - my voicemail message states not to leave a message but to use email or my UK number. We will see if there are better ways to do this when we go back. Google voice may be an option.
We took out 3 Feel at Home contracts in the UK. They allow you to use your UK mobile for calls/texts and data (not tethering) for 2 months. As we were nowhere near using our allowance we managed to use the phones for the full time we were there, but this can't be guaranteed. Again other companies are now offering similar services so check these out first. I would not recommend using them for streaming or you will run out of data very quickly.
Things to think about for home - general and security
If your home in the UK will be empty please check your home insurance policies. Our current Contents policy would only cover us for 30 days unoccupied. We had to take out a new policy and this still meant we had to have someone checking the house weekly, and we had to turn off gas and water. There are some requirements regarding the type of locks you have in your home, alarms, security cameras etc. so don't leave this till the last minute. You may be expected to tell them the dates you will be out of the country. I would strongly suggest turning off the water and gas anyhow, we came home to a leak first time we were away for a few months.
Security cameras - consider fitting the ones which can be accessed remotely so you can regularly check house.
Mail - make sure someone comes and removes mail from your door or you won't be able to get in or redirect to a friend!
Doctor - our doctor sends us appointments for some regular checkups, if yours is the same make sure you tell them you are going away or may have missed appointments.
Medication - if you have regular medication, you may find that you cannot get enough to last you for your trip. You should speak to your doctor about this and do some online investigation, see CBP for info, read thoroughly. CVS have a minute clinic that you can go to and see a doctor. If you have a prescription or letter from your home doctor, they perform a medical assessment and then decide whether or not to write you a prescription. However, note that it will likely be an expensive exercise. I have been told that you can visit Mexico and buy prescription drugs there cheaply or by from Canada. This is a problem we will need to overcome next time we visit, this is a very complicated subject and you should do your own research.
Police - I contacted them with dates and they offered to do a regular drive past the house. They took contact details.
Answering machine - switch it off, or ensure you know how to access it from abroad.
Have you emptied your fridge/freezer? If so switch off and leave doors open.
Do you want to set up lights which go on and off at set times? You can get wifi operated light bulbs and/or switches that you can operate from your phone/laptop when abroad. Examples on this link Wifi Plugs & Bulbs.
Do you need to access your home PC when abroad? We have a wifi plug connected to our PC so that we can switch it on and use Teamviewer which lets you operate your PC from a remote location.
Car storage - are you keeping your car(s) being kept in a garage or outside - consider any preventative maintenance you need to do on these, do you leave full of fuel, disconnect battery, blow up tires fully to prevent flats etc. We considered using a cover, but after research decided not to as it said that you could have moisture build up and cover should be removed weekly. Also possibility of damage if windy.
Car insurance/tax etc. - will your car need to be reinsured, taxed or mot'd whilst you are away? If so take copies (electronically) of your details and policies with you. Consider completing the SORN which will save you money but also the problem of taxing and MOTing your car. Your car would need to be off the road to do this.
Garden - will someone cut grass etc. so it is not obvious you are not there.
Curtains - consider installing Powered Blinds which will go up and down at set times which makes it look as if someone is home. Leave vertical blinds in a position which makes it unclear if open or closed.
Neighbours - if you have honest and reliable neighbours let them know where you are going and a contact number. If you are lucky they will keep an eye on things for you.