If you are determined to visit Auschwitz I independently you need to know that during peak season (March 1- October 31) the museum makes it obligatory to buy a ticket and become part of a 3.5hr guided tour unless you get there before 10:00 or after 16:00 (Nov 1 - April 30 from 13:00) - during which times it is possible to visit for free on your own (note that last entrance to Auschwitz I is 1.5hrs before closing; Auschwitz II is always free to independent visitors). Even if visiting independently for free, you still need a 'free ticket' from the ticket office. Be that as it may, we strongly recommend the official guided tour, which is excellent, profound and professional; afterwards you'll find it hard to imagine getting as much out of your visit had you explored the grounds on your own.
The exact schedule of guided tours in various languages can only be seen online by beginning the reservation process, but tours in English depart most frequently, and there are also regularly scheduled tours in Polish, German, French, Italian, Russian, Spanish, Hungarian, Dutch, Swedish and Japanese (also Czech and Slovak in July and August). To their credit, the museum makes a big effort to provide the tour in the native language of each guest (despite the website being only in English and Polish), and tours in languages other than those mentioned can be easily arranged through the website if done in advance.
Arriving at the Auschwitz Museum on your own can be chaotic and confusing thanks to large crowds, numerous ticket windows with different designations, and excessive signage that is unclear or contradicts itself. If you are visiting independently, or in a small group, from March to October and do not yet have tickets (not recommended - get your tickets in advance to ensure you'll be able to visit), you must first visit the white Info box located in the parking lot in front of the museum to get tickets before then queuing inside for the cash desk marked ‘Individual Guests’ (from November to February proceed straight inside to the cash desk).
Once you're through the queues, your experience typically begins with a harrowing 20-minute film of narrated footage captured by the Soviet Army when they arrived to liberate the camp in January 1945. The film (not recommended for children under 14, nor is the entire museum for that matter) costs an additional 6/3zł, but is not guaranteed year-round, in which case your guided tour may begin straightaway with a live guide speaking into a microphone which you hear through your headphones. If you intend to explore Auschwitz without a guide, you must ask about the film; we recommend that you give yourself several hours to explore both camps, and that you pick up the official guidebook (10zł) whose map of the camp is crucial to avoid missing any of the key sites; these can be picked up at any of the numerous bookshops at both Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau.
Visiting Auschwitz is a full day’s excursion so prepare accordingly (comfortable shoes). The guided tour of Auschwitz I takes around 2 hours, so make sure you’ve eaten breakfast. After completing the tour of the first camp, there is only a short break before the bus leaves for Auschwitz-Birkenau II; in order to stay with the same tour guide, you need to catch that bus, so it would be wise to pack some food for the day (though there is some limited food available at the museum). The tour of the second camp is shorter, lasting 1-1.5 hours. Buses regularly depart back to Auschwitz I, or you can walk or catch a cab to the train station 1.5km away. At Auschwitz I there are restrooms (have change available), a fast food bar and a restaurant; there are also restroom facilities at Auschwitz II-Birkenau. Note that only small bags are allowed into the camp; if your bag exceeds the very small dimensions of 30x20x10cm, you'll have to leave it somewhere; lockers (4zł) are provided for this purpose.