As soon as I booked flights last year to visit Washington, I started researching how to get a tour of the White House. It was something I had always dreamt of doing. I invested hours and hours researching how to make that dream a reality. And I succeeded. On 21 March this year, I was able to take a self-guided tour through this historic building, which was an experience that I will treasure forever. However, from the numerous accounts I read online during my research, it appears that not all foreigners have the same luck. And there is a lot of conflicting advice out there. So, here is my proven guide to giving yourself the best chance of getting a White House tour.
This guide is aimed at Australians, purely because our embassy in the United States wants nothing to do with assisting us in getting these tours, despite the White House website asking foreigners to contact their embassy. It will also suit foreigners from other countries who find themselves in the same shoes. So, without further adieu, here it is…
Step 1: Work Out Your Dates ASAP
Tours are only available through advance registration, six months to three weeks before the desired tour dates. So, early planning is key! Work out the days you will be available for the tour as soon as possible. And also try to be as flexible as you can. Nominating multiple dates will give you a better chance of being successful. I nominated three days and I was allocated to a tour of the last day I nominated. In deciding what dates to nominate, be sure to check the tour operating days and hours. Note that no tours run on Sundays and Mondays.
Step 2: Apply To A Congressperson
You are a foreigner, so you obviously do not have a local congressperson in the United States, right? Yes, but you can still send your tour request to one, which they will then forward on to the White House. This is an important step, as the congressperson you choose seems to affect your chances of success. I spent hours reading recommendations from people around the world as to which one to choose. Many suggested Congresswoman Eleanor Norton, so I decided to put my request through her and it obviously worked! Follow the instructions on her website as to how to complete the request. Basically, you need to fill out the online form on that page and then also email the completed clearance form to email@example.com. It is paramount that you fill out all of the information correctly. I left the Social Security Number section blank on the clearance form. Make sure to complete the whole request process as early as possible, up to six months in advance.
Step 3: Be Patient
Upon finishing the whole request process, it should take about two days for you to receive confirmation back from Congresswoman Norton’s office that your request has been submitted. However, it becomes a waiting game after that. You will probably not receive notification as to whether your request has actually been successful until about one to two weeks before your nominated dates. For example, I only found out on 11 March that I was approved for a tour on 21 March. This makes it a bit hard if you want to prebook tours or the like in Washington, but it is worth this slight inconvenience!
Step 4: Get Prepared
If you receive confirmation that your tour request has been successful (yay!), then it is time to get prepared. You absolutely must follow all of the requirements stated on the ticket. Seriously, the White House is not the place to break rules. When I went for my tour, I saw two people who seemed to miss this memo. They tried to bring in cameras, but they are clearly listed as a prohibited item. The White House does not provide any storage facilities for prohibited items, so if you bring any, you simply will not be able to go on the tour. I saw both of those people get turned away at the gate. You will be permitted to take a mobile phone, which you can use to take photos once you exit the White House at the North Lawn. So, make sure you are prepared on the day of your tour by having your phone charged. You should also consider calling the White House Visitors Office 24-hour hotline on 1-202-456-7041 on the day of your tour, just to check that the tours are definitely running. The tours are subject to last-minute cancellations.
Something that is not mentioned on the tour ticket at all is that there is actually a small gift shop inside the White House. So, take some money if you think you will be interested in purchasing some souvenirs.
Step 5: Go And Enjoy!
From what I could tell on the day we were there, security will let you in when you arrive, even if you are slightly early for your scheduled time. I am not sure whether they afford the same flexibility if you are late. The tours begin near the South Lawn. You need to enter from the corner of 15th Street and Hamilton Place. There are several security measures that you will need to pass through… and then you will be able to begin your self-guided tour!
That is all there is to it! Hopefully you will find yourself touring the White House in no time. I actually had low expectations for the tour, purely because I thought we would only be permitted to see rooms that had no major historical relevance – but that was not the case at all! You can check out the list of rooms here. There are Secret Service Agents in each room, who are there to answer any questions you may have about the room. They are seriously knowledgable! Another great thing about the tour is that it is self-guided, so you can take your sweet time, soaking up all of the history before you.
The inside of the White House is absolutely stunning and it is definitely worth the bit of effort it takes to see it! If you have any questions or suggestions, feel free to let me know below.
UPDATE (02/07/15): It was announced today that you will now be able to take photos inside during tours of the White House! So exciting! Be sure to check all of the requirements on your tour ticket, as they have definitely now changed since I originally wrote this post.