Hu landed at Andrews Air Force base and was expected soon afterwards at the White House for a rare private dinner hosted by President Barack Obama in recognition of the key nature of a relationship under severe recent strain.
The full pomp of the state visit comes Wednesday, when Hu will be greeted by full military honors before Oval Office talks and a lavish state dinner -- only the third of Obama's two-year presidency.
The two leaders will also take questions from reporters.
Hu's visit will mark the start of a turning point in US-China relations, as it will be his last full scale journey to the United States before a power transition begins in China that will culminate in a new top leader in 2013.
Obama and Hu will host the talks with a string of difficulties testing Sino-US ties at a time when the United States is weakened by a slowly recovering economy and China's soaring expansion augments its growing power.
The White House has minutely planned the visit, with top members of Obama's national security team, frankly laying out areas of disagreement -- though also stressing the vital nature of workable relations to America's future.
Washington has also made clear it wants to talk to China about moderating its ally North Korea's belligerence, and officials said they believe their pressure on Beijing on the issue might be beginning to show results.
On Tuesday, the White House was forced to defend the decision to offer a state visit to Hu, despite the fact that the two sides appear to be as far apart as ever on crucial human rights questions.
"We will continue to have difficult conversations, but necessary conversations that have to be had with China and we'll do that again tomorrow," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters.
"In order to make progress on certain issues you've seen the two countries work together, despite, again, continuing to have differences on things like continued economic growth and human rights."
Last week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton candidly entered the long debate over whether China is a foe, a friend, a partner or a strategic competitor for the United States in Asia and the global economy.
"This is not a relationship that fits neatly into the black and white categories like friend or rival," Clinton said.
"We are two complex nations with very different histories, with profoundly difficult political systems and outlooks."
Clinton also warned that human rights would remain at the "heart" of US diplomacy, a stand sure to provoke conflict with Chinese officials who see such conditions as an infringement of their sovereignty.
Hu's visit to Washington is especially delicate as Obama's successor as Nobel peace laureate, Liu Xiaobo, is in a Chinese prison after calling for democratic reforms.
Washington sharply criticized his detention and praised the Nobel committee for honoring him -- provoking a furious Chinese reaction.
China was also infuriated by the visit to Washington of Tibet's exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama last year.
While US officials have not been pulling punches, Hu has been willing to flex China's growing economic power, despite American complaints over his country's economic policies.
Hu implicitly criticized the Federal Reserve's decision to pump 600 billion dollars into the US economy in answers to questions submitted by the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal.
"The monetary policy of the United States has a major impact on global liquidity and capital flows and therefore, the liquidity of the US dollar should be kept at a reasonable and stable level," Hu said.
Washington argues that China has kept its yuan currency at an artificially low rate to boost its own economy, and thereby hurting US exports and the creation of American jobs.
Gibbs said on Tuesday that despite a slow rise in the yuan's value permitted by China, "more must be done."
In addition to economics, the two sides have also been at odds over Chinese treatment of US intellectual property rights, Internet freedom, and naval rivalries in the Pacific, as well as US arms sales to Taiwan.
Still, both sides have shown signs that they are keen to ease recent spats, and want to make Hu's visit, a key part of his legacy, a success.
Beijing commissioned a 60-second promotion video featuring basketball superstar Yao Ming, piano virtuoso Lang Lang and Chinese astronaut Yang Liwei aimed at boosting China's image in the United States.