BACKGROUND: Over half of malaria cases reported in the USA occur among people travelling to visit friends and relatives (VFRs), predominantly to West Africa. Few studies have queried VFR travellers directly on barriers to seeking pre-travel care. We aim to describe the knowledge, attitudes and practices of VFRs travelling to malaria-endemic countries from the USA. With these findings, we aim to design interventions to encourage preventive behaviours before and during travel. METHODS: Sixteen focus groups were held in two US metropolitan areas with West African immigrant populations: Minneapolis-St. Paul, MN, and New York City, NY. A total of 172 people from 13 African countries participated. Focus group discussions were audio-recorded and transcribed, and modified grounded theory analysis was performed. Participants reviewed themes to verify intent of statements. RESULTS: Participants described the high cost of provider visits and chemoprophylaxis, challenges in advocating for themselves in healthcare settings and concerns about offending or inconveniencing hosts as barriers to malaria prevention. Cultural barriers to accessing pre-travel care included competing priorities when trip planning, such as purchasing gifts for family, travel logistics and safety concerns. When participants sought pre-travel care, most consulted their primary care provider. Participants expressed low confidence in US providers' knowledge and training about malaria and other tropical diseases. CONCLUSION: Barriers to pre-travel care for VFR travellers are multifaceted and extend beyond their perception of disease risk. Only some barriers previously reported in anecdotal and qualitative literature were supported in our findings. Future interventions should be aimed at barriers identified by individual communities and involve primary and travel specialist healthcare providers. Additional work is needed to address systems-level barriers to accessing care and establishing community-based programs to support West African VFR traveller health.