Last updated on August 16th, 2019
The most coveted tour in all of Washington DC is always the White House. It has been the home to 44 different presidents and their families. The White House has been at the center of our American History since the beginning. It’s been burned down, rebuild and remodel. But one thing is for sure, it will always be a symbol for our nation. After my third visit to DC, looking upon the White House from outside its gates, I finally got to walk inside and get the full White House tour experience. I’m sharing with you all the secrets and what you need to do before visiting. And a little bit about what they don’t tell you.
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Part One: Getting Tickets to See the White House
How to Get Tickets
The White House is one of the most in-demand tours to get in our Nation’s Capital. To get passes you need to contact your local state congressman. Ticket requests can be submitted up to three months in advance. Here is the kicker, even though you submit a request, you may not get in, even if you do everything right. And they only confirm your tickets a couple of weeks before you arrive. So you’ll have to be flexible on planning your trip.
To increase your chances, request ticket as early as possible. Yes, three months in advance. Most state representatives will have a formal process on their website about how to obtain your tickets. An intern will be the one taking care of everything for you. Once the White House gets your request, you will be contacted by them to complete an additional screening process. You’ll provide basic background check information for you and everyone in your party. After submitting your request, sit tight. Start planning like you will get in.
One mistake I made, was being flexible. I requested a tour of both the White House and the US Capitol at the same time. Giving a window of two days. When I got approval for the White House Tour, it was at the same time as the Capitol Tour. I was able to reach out to the intern and get my tours rearranged. I can’t say requesting the tours on two separate days would have improved or hurt my chances, but remember this could be a possibility.
Part Two: You’re In, Now What?
What to Bring With You?
The White House has some serious rules and regulations around what can come in and what can’t. To sum it up, plan on leaving everything at the hotel. Bags, Purses, just about everything you normally carry with you. On their website, they have an official list. If you have medical related things, it’s fine… but otherwise, don’t bring it. Wallets and phones are still fine in your pockets.
You can bring in a compact camera, as long as it doesn’t interfere with the other people on the tour. The White House doesn’t have any lockers to store stuff you are not allowed to bring in. That’s why you should leave as much as possible at the hotel. If your hotel is out of the way, there are lockers at the Smithsonian’s and the Metro Stations. I also heard that nearby hotels like the JW Marriot will store items for you for a fee.
No small action cameras like a GoPro. No DSLR Cameras with removable lenses. You can bring in a traditional style pocket camera, like a Canon Power Shot. The lenses cannot extend past 3 inches. Security has a good idea of what’s allowed and what isn’t just by looking at it. They didn’t even question mine. If you are concerned about what you have, swing by the White House a day or two early and ask some of the secret services offers hanging out around people. You can bring your cellphone. Actually, they encourage it. I’ll get to that part later. But the camera can only be used for photos, not videos.
The secret service has the right to confiscate anything you may bring. So if you get caught misusing it… beware.
Where to go for your Tour?
The tour line starts in the back of the Treasury Department. A group of National Park Rangers will confirm that you are in the right place. You will get an official map with your confirmation. It’s recommended to line up about 15 minutes before your starting time. Talking with people in line, they did not hold you to that time. It took me about 30 minutes to get through security, so officially I was 15 minutes late for my timed entry.
They ask that everyone have their own copy of the ticket. This includes children. Kids will not need a state-issued ID, like the adult need. They just need to know their Date of Birth. Otherwise, make sure to have your ID out until you cross through the gates and are on White House Property. They ask for it multiple times.
You will spend a good part of your time in line outside, without shelter. There are some sections that have tent cover, to give you a break. They recommend that you hydrated before getting there because you cannot bring water in with you. While I agree, don’t overdo it because there is no place to go to the bathroom. I recommend that you wear sunscreen or take any other precautions you normally would dress for the weather.
Part Three: The White House Tour
Where is my tour guide?
The White House tour is all self guided. This one took me by surprise too. Before going, download the official app- The White House Historical Association. It walks you step by step through each room you’ll see on your tour, along with information about some of the artifacts and key pieces in their collection. There are also secret service positions around the rooms to help answer any additional question you may have.
This took a little bit of time to get used too. In my mind, these people are on duty to protect and serve. Outside the White House during the security process, it was very intense. If you were not where you were supposed to be, you would be reminded to keep the line moving. Don’t leave gaps while you take pictures. You didn’t mess around. But inside, the people were very friendly. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure we were being watched at all times. But they welcomed questions and were even quizzing each other on the history of the rooms. It was very light-hearted.
What will you see on a White House Tour?
East Wing Lobby
They call it a lobby, but it was a hallway into the White House.
The Family Theater was created by Franklin D. Roosevelt for viewing wartime newsreels. Since then First Families have used it for a theatre room.
East Garden Room
The Garden Room looks out onto the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden. The room also houses a Bust of Abraham Lincoln and has the White House Historical Association Gift Shop, where you can pick up the official presidential ties and other apparel.
Ground Floor Corridor
More of just a hallway, the ground floor corridor is where you can peak your head into other rooms. But more notably it holds the Baltimore Sheraton Breakfron Bookcase housing some china and other pieces from past presidents. You’ll also find Laura Bush and Hillary Clinton’s Portraits there. Half of the hallways are blocked off as it is access to the West Wing of the White House.
The Library was built in 1935 and houses more than 2,800 different books representing the best of American history and literature.
The Vermeil Room was originally a ladies sitting room. But after the White House acquired a collection of gold-plated silver or vermeil, it now is the home of those pieces.
The China Room host different China from each president and their wives. Like with all of the rooms on this floor, you cannot enter it. The only way to see some of the pieces is to visit the Smithsonian American History Museum.
By far the most intimidating of all the rooms for a few reasons. First, it’s the largest and used for ceremonial events. It’s used for presidential funerals and bill signings. It also includes the portrait of George Washington the Frist Lady Dolley Madison had servants save as they fled the White House when the British invaded in 1814.
While in this room, turn around and take a look at the long hallway. A lot of press conferences are held here. Include the one where President Obama announced the death of Osama Bin Ladin
Commonly used as a sitting room for teas, interview, and small parties.
The Red Room is where smaller gatherings and dinner parties are held. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt held women-only press conferences in this room as well.
State Dining Room
The State Dining Room was originally used as Thomas Jeffersons offices. During Theodore Roosevelt times, the room was enlarged in 1902 and holds the primary place for formal dinners to honor heads of state and other dignitaries.
The hallways connect the State Dining Room and the East Room. In the halways, you’ll notice a lot of portraits including John F. Kennedy and Ronald Regan. There is also the presidential seal located above the entrance of the Blue Room. It’s a great place to snap a pic…
The Entrance Hall is a place where the President and First Lady have always used to greet guests. A couple of fun things to watch out for is the Steinway Piano and the pictures of George W. Bush. There is also a plaque embedded on the floor that most people miss, marking the dates of the construction, and major renovation years the White House underwent. The stars representing the number of states present when the stone was first installed.
The North Portico, or the main entrance to the Whitehouse is the most ionic. This is probably the only place you’ll be able to get a shot of the White House without the fence.
Why does it feel like a museum?
A good chunk of the rooms is blocked off, with the exception of a few that you can walk through a designated path. They don’t want you getting close enough to touch anything for obvious reason. Think of it has walked through a museum.
Just because it’s a museum during the tours, doesn’t mean that it’s always that way. Around 1pm, the tours stop and the executive family takes full control of the White House again. If the family wants to use the room during tour hours, the staff has the ability to close particular rooms or even shut down the tours altogether. This is part of the reason why they don’t let you know if you’ve been approved until a couple of weeks before your visit.
Additional Tips Before your White House Tour
- If you are unsure at any time in DC or have questions about things, smile at a secret service member, police or anyone nearby. If they smile back, you are good to ask a question. Even silly questions like “What Happened to the Top of the Tree?”
- If you have time, go through the White House Tour app before going on your tour. This way you will have an idea of what to expect and some of the fun facts about the White House before your visit. As someone who spends most of their time using their phone for pictures, I did not want my nose in the phone reading as I entered each room. I also feel that knowing your history before visiting always makes the visit more memorable. Like knowing where the State Dinners are held, and in that room they hosted Queen Elizabeth and other Dignitary’s. It elevates a room from just an old room to History.
- Do not feel rushed. Yes, you have to be moving in with the flow of traffic. But if you want to get a picture of something, linger a little longer. This is probably going to be the only time you set foot in here again, so make it memorable.
- As always be respectful. It doesn’t matter who holds the office and where you land politically, this is the White House. It’s a symbol of our history. And one thing I appreciated on my tour was that everyone left politics aside. There were no MAGA hats. There was no one talking in favor or against the president’s politics. They were just excited about getting to walk through the gates.
- When you walk outside the front doors of the White House, don’t be afraid to look back. It’s going to be one of the best views you’ll get of the White House.
Part Four: What if I don’t get in?
If you get the rejection letter, don’t worry. Chances are they had too many requests. Try again on your next visit. Stop by the White House Visitor Center and see a lot of the historical pieces and learn more about the White House. Take a walk around the White House. It’s an experience all on its’ own. Around 7 am during the week, you will have an unobstructed view of the white house with the exception of a few secret service members. You will have to stay a block away from the White House one each side, and in back, but you will still be able to walk along Pennsylvania Ave up front. As it gets later in the day, you’ll be dealing with tour groups, protesters and preachers broadcasting in front of the building.
Before you go, I recommend brushing up on your White House Facts. There is no shortage of great book on the topic form all different points of view. Politics aside, here are my favorite recommendations.
- Inside the White House: Stories From the World’s Most Famous Residence. This book has interesting stories for the First Families through the ages. Including great images from their time. It’s a great way to give you a sense of what to expect and the events that happened here.
- The Hidden White House: Harry Truman and the Reconstruction of America’s Most Famous Residence. Dealing with one of the biggest crises to happen to the White House in recent day, find out what went into the biggest renovation in the Houses history.
- The Residence: Inside the Private World of the White House. Told from the perspective of a White House usher, this book brings new insight into what it’s like to live inside these walls. It’s my favorite book in the collection because it tells one person’s story.