Updated July 7, 2020.
It’s Museum Monday! A White House Tour is arguably the most coveted tour in Washington, D.C., and that’s because it can be complicated. Yes, it’s the people’s house, but it’s also the home of the President and his family, so you can expect to jump through a few hoops to land a spot on a tour. Want to see for yourself? This is your instruction manual!
1. Start Early
This is really the key. As soon as you know your dates for your trip to D.C., go to your Congressperson’s website and find their page for requesting a White House tour. Unfortunately, every Congressperson’s website is different, so I can’t tell you exactly where to look! Definitely try to request your tour 2-4 months prior to your trip. You cannot call or visit your Congressperson’s office to request a tour; everyone must go through the automated system.
You will eventually get to this system to apply for your tour tickets:
***When selecting dates for your trip, do not request the tour for your fly-in and fly-out dates. If your flight arrives at 1:00pm but your tour time is 11:00am, you’re out of luck!
***Are you not a U.S. citizen? Apply through your country’s embassy!
2. Wait for Your E-mail Confirmation
You will have to request your tour months in advance, but you won’t receive an e-mail confirming your tour until exactly two weeks from your tour date. If you didn’t get the tour, you won’t receive an e-mail. If you do, it will look something like this:
3. Print Your “Boarding Pass”
The e-mail you receive will have your boarding pass, or ticket, attached for printing. Each person in your party has to have their own paper copy of the boarding pass, so do not forget to print them. You may not use your phone as your boarding pass. It will have a map showing the entry point, as well as a list of prohibited items:
1. Leave Your Stuff
Do not try to bring your camera bag, purse, backpack, or other prohibited items with you. Leave it at your hotel or store it elsewhere. Just don’t forget your ID!
2. Meet 15 Minutes Before Tour Time
You will have to wait in line at the check-in point, so get there at least 15 minutes in advance of your ticketed tour time. Here we are, waiting patiently!
3. Show Your Boarding Pass
There will be a National Park Ranger at the check-in point who will look at your boarding pass and make sure you are entering at the appointed time, so have that boarding pass out!
4. Do Not Joke with the Secret Service
- Your next stop will be showing your ID to a Secret Service officer. He will need to see your name and check it off his list.
- You will then show your ID and Boarding Pass to another Secret Service officer. We saw two people being turned away at this point; we are not sure why, or how they got that far only to be turned away at that point. Just have your papers in order!
- Next stop: scanning. You will go through something that appeared to be an air scanner, where you put your feet on a mat and a machine blow on you; listen for the Secret Service officer to tell you to move on to the next stage.
- You may encounter sniffing dogs; do not pet them!
- Finally, you will go through a metal detector like you’ll see all over D.C. and at the airport. Be ready to take everything out of your pockets and get scanned with a wand if you are randomly selected.
5. You’re In!
Now you can breathe easier and enjoy your tour!
Once you are through security and on the grounds, you can start your self-guided tour. There are Secret Service officers in every room for two reasons: 1) to make sure there’s no monkey business; 2) to answer your questions! Don’t be afraid to talk to them or ask questions. They are still on duty, but each officer we spoke with was friendly and helpful.
What To See
Here are some things to look out for on your trip to the White House. There is history, art, and culture at every turn, so be on the lookout! And good news: photography is encouraged!
One of the more famous traditions and artifacts from most Presidencies is the china. You’ll find some at the American History Museum, some at the White House Visitor Center, and some at this nice hutch in a hallway at the White House itself!
I’ll admit it, I’m a book worm. I love books, especially American history books! If I lived in the White House, this is likely where I would spend quite a lot of time.
The Rescued Portrait of George Washington
Don’t miss this one! This is the famed portrait of George Washington that First Lady Dolley Madison and her trusted servant Paul Jennings rescued from the White House while the British burned it down around them in August 1814. (Want to know more about the burning of Washington and where the Madisons lived in the meantime? Check out the Octagon House featured in Obscure D.C.!)
The Wall Coverings
Some of the walls in the White House are covered in silk! This was a popular way to show wealth in the 18th and early 19th century homes. I’m not sure if this is the way they were covered when the White House was completed or simply a nod to a different time period, but it’s worth taking a look!
Take a Peek Outside
Don’t forget to look out the windows! The historic views from the White House are only available from the White House, so make sure you look out!
Don’t be so distracted by the experience of being in the White House that you miss the fine details. Take a look at the fixtures, the mantlepieces, the woodwork, etc. Take it all in!
The Fresh Flowers
And speaking of details, be sure to appreciate the fresh flowers in many of the rooms.
The Photo Op
Finally, before you go, make sure you get the photo everyone wants! You can’t bring your selfie stick, so you’ll have to actually talk to someone and ask them to take the photo! Don’t forget to offer to take a photo for them as well. Unfortunately, the person taking our photo didn’t think getting the whole U.S. seal in the picture was too important. Oh well!
Tips for Your Tour
Here are some insider tips to make the most of your visit:
- If possible, stay in a hotel in D.C.; you cannot take any bags, water, food, etc., with you to your White House tour, so you will be thankful for a place to leave those things until you finish with your tour.
- There are places to store your bags if you are not staying in D.C., but you will have to pay for them; one is at Union Station, the other is at the Natural History Museum.
- You may take pictures, so take advantage of that!
I hope you’re ready to make your own White House tour opportunity a reality! Want all my D.C. resources at your finger tips? Check out my Washington, D.C. Page!
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