The general selection process of each season is begun by the production team with open auditions held in various cities across the United States. Dubbed “Producers’ Auditions”, they are held months before the main stage of auditions are held. Those that make it through the initial stage, become participants in the “Judges’ Auditions”, which are held in select cities across the country, and attended by the judges. Each participant is held offstage and awaits their turn to perform before the judges, whereupon they are given 90 seconds to demonstrate their act, with a live audience present for all performances. At the end of a performance, the judges give constructive criticism and feedback about what they saw, whereupon they each give a vote – a participant who receives a majority vote approving their performance, moves on to the next stage, otherwise they are eliminated from the programme at that stage. Each judge is given a buzzer, and may use it during a performance if they are unimpressed, hate what is being performed, or feel the act is a waste of their time; if a participant is buzzed by all judges, their performance is automatically over. Many acts that move on may be cut by producers and may forfeit due to the limited slots available for the second performance. Filming for each season always takes place when the Judges’ Auditions are taking place, with the show’s presenter standing in the wings of each venue’s stage to interview and give personal commentary on a participant’s performance.
Between the fifth and seventh season, acts who did not attend live auditions could instead submit a taped audition online via YouTube. Acts from the online auditions were then selected to compete in front of the judges and a live audience during the “live shows” part of the season, prior to the semi-finals. Before the inclusion of this round, the show had a separate audition episode in Seasons 3 and 4 (2008–2009) for contestants who posted videos on MySpace.
In the ninth season, the show added a new format to the auditions in the form of the “Golden Buzzer”, which began to make appearances within the Got Talent franchise, since it was first introduced on Germany’s Got Talent. During auditions, each judge is allowed to use the Golden Buzzer to send an act automatically into the live shows, regardless of the opinion of the other judges; when it was initially used, the buzzer simply saved an act from elimination. The only rule to the buzzer was that a judge could use it only once per season; the host was later allowed to use the Golden Buzzer for an act from the eleventh season
During the live shows, the final selection of participants, which has ranged from between 20 to 60 acts and include those that were chosen as Wildcards by the judges or received the Golden Buzzer, are divided into groups and compete against each other for viewers’ and judges’ votes. The general structure of the live episodes focuses first on four quarterfinals, and then two semi-finals, aimed at finding that season’s finalists. Additional rounds are conducted when required (such as a “Top 8” or a “Top 10”, depending on the season). Live episodes are broadcast weekly, and featured performances by guest stars, including previous winners of America’s Got Talent. During these stages, the judges still provide feedback on an act’s performance when it is over, and can use buzzers to prematurely end an performance before it is over; in the first season, the judges could not end a performance before it was over. Acts which do not secure a sufficient number of votes by the public and/or the judges, are eliminated from the competition.