Doing D.C. in style: Things to know when visiting the White House
The White House may be dubbed the “People’s House,” but that doesn’t mean the common man can just saunter in and make himself at home. Every president but George Washington has called this iconic executive mansion his personal home and office and, as a result, tourists clamor year-round for an inside peek. Limited tour tickets are available each year, but with a bit of luck and early planning, you may find yourself walking the halls of the White House the next time you’re in Washington, D.C.
White House public tours
All requests for public White House tours must be made through your Congressional representative’s website. Fill out the online form, including your name and the dates you’ll be in town. Requests can be made up to three months in advance, but not less than 21 days before your arrival. The popular tours are granted on a first-come, first-served basis. Non-U.S. citizens should contact their embassy in Washington for information on tour tickets.
Free, self-guided White House tours are typically held Tuesday through Saturday in the morning and afternoon. The tour is held in the East Wing and includes such spots as the Red Room and the State Dining Room. The West Wing, home to the Oval Office and the Cabinet Room, is off-limits to the public.
Preparing for your tour
If you're awarded tour tickets, you must submit to a background check before the White House can provide final approval.
On the day of the tour, all guests over 18 years of age must present a government-issued photo ID, such as a driver’s license or passport. All foreign visitors must present a passport as well. You also must walk through a security screening and metal detector before entering the White House. The following items are not allowed inside:
- Video cameras, camera attachments and tablets
- Bags of any kind
- Personal grooming items
- Pointed objects of any kind
- Food, liquids, aerosols and tobacco
- Weapons, including guns, ammunition, fireworks, electric stun guns, mace, martial arts weapons or toy weapons
The following items are allowed inside the White House:
- Compact cameras (still photography only; lenses must be less than 3 inches long)
- Umbrellas without metal tips
- Cell phones on silent (talking or texting is prohibited)
- All items needed for medical purposes
The White House Visitor Center
Set inside the Department of Commerce Building, the White House Visitor Center is less than a 10-minute walk from the White House. The museum, which details the history of the executive mansion, is open seven days a week and is free to the general public. White House-themed artifacts on display cover such topics as architecture, furnishings, first families and visits by world leaders. There’s also a 30-minute orientation film and a souvenir shop. Depending on how much time you spend viewing the video and exhibits, exploring the complex can take anywhere from 20 to 90 minutes.
Visiting President’s Park
Also free to the public is the 82-acre President's Park that surrounds the White House. The park includes two trails, one of which traverses Lafayette Park, the historic square just north of the White House that is frequently filled with demonstrators. The second trail winds through the Ellipse, a sprawling green space south of the executive mansion. Be warned: the area gets crowded during the summer as tourists jockey for position to take photos in front of the White House and its famed South Lawn. The Ellipse is also packed during the holiday season when it hosts the National Christmas Tree.