Every day, nearly a million travelers from across the world arrive in the United States. When individuals arrive at a US port of entry, Customs and Border Protection officers inspect them to ensure they comply with customs, immigration, and agriculture regulations. Knowing beforehand what to expect can help to speed up the process and make things easier for international visitors.
If you plan to travel to the US in the near future and you need to reach out to US border control agencies before your visit, you can either call them at +1 (202) 325-8000 or visit their website at cbp.gov.
When entering the U.S. with a non-immigrant visa or as an immigrant from one of the nations that do not need a visa, the initial point of contact for travelers, regardless of their mode of transportation (i.e., air, sea, or land), will be an officer representing the CBP (U.S. Customs and Border Protection).
Upon arrival, the CBP officer will examine your passport to verify that you have been authorized to enter the United States. They will also ask you a few questions to obtain any relevant information that could prevent you from being admitted.
If you are traveling on an immigrant visa, you may also be required to present a sealed envelope with your immigration documents, depending on whether you have received one or not. In certain cases, the immigration info is sent electronically, and the visa will contain a note indicating “IV Docs in CCD” to signify that the information has already been transmitted. It is essential to have all the necessary paperwork ready when meeting with CBP officers since they are trained to be cautious and to prioritize security.
Be prepared for queues and delays
It is important to prepare for what could be long lines and waiting times when arriving at a U.S. port of entry or border. All passengers must undergo a “primary” inspection, during which a CBP officer will take their digital fingerprints unless they are exempt because of their visa type or age.
During the primary inspection, the officer will start by verifying your identity and then comparing your name against a couple of computer databases to identify any possible health or security risks. He or she will also check for potentially illegal activities, such as permanent stay attempts, by using nonimmigrant visas (for example, student or tourist visas).
If there is an issue that cannot be resolved immediately or if the officer suspects that you pose a security risk or are being dishonest, you will have to go for a more in-depth interview in the secondary inspection area.
To have quicker and smoother entry into the U.S., individuals from low-risk countries can apply for the Trusted Traveler program offered by the U.S. government. Successful approval of this program will grant you access to designated kiosks located at U.S. airports, allowing you to bypass the long inspection and passport-control queues.
However, suppose you are carrying a significant amount of cash or certain types of goods. In that case, you will still have to go enter via the main inspection queue, regardless of whether or not you are a member of the Trusted Traveler program.
It is important to prepare yourself for the questions CBP officials will most likely ask you upon arrival. While there are common questions, the officer may ask anything they view as necessary to ensure safety and compliance with regulations. It is essential to remain calm and courteous during these interviews and not to take any abrupt behavior by the officer personally. These men and women must screen a large number of individuals every day, and it’s not an easy job.
Here are some questions you could expect:
What is your reason for visiting the U.S.?
During the inspection process at the U.S. port of entry, CBP officials may ask various questions to ensure that visitors comply with the different legal requirements and do not intend to break any United States laws.
One of the most common questions asked is about the purpose of your visit to the U.S., which must align with your visa category or the legal entry requirements if you are arriving without a visa. For instance, individuals with a B-2 visitor visa must confirm that they are visiting for tourism purposes and not for job-seeking activities – unless they want to be sent home.
Where will you stay during your visit? Have you reserved accommodation yet?
Another important question is about your accommodation arrangements in the U.S. CBP officials want to verify that visitors have clear plans and arrangements for their stay in the country. If the visitor does not have any pre-arranged accommodation, the officer may raise concerns about this.
Do you intend to visit or meet anyone while visiting the United States?
Visitors may also be asked about the people they intend to meet or visit while in the U.S. This question is more relevant for tourists. The officer would want to make sure that the visitor has legal and clear plans for their trip.
For how long do you plan to stay in the U.S.?
When traveling to the US, the length of your stay is one of the most important factors the CBP officer will consider. If you have an immigrant visa, you are less likely to be asked about your length of stay. However, if you are a short-term visitor, the CBP officer will want to be assured that you do not plan to overstay your visa.
Even if the visa is valid for 10 years and states that you are approved for multiple entries, you will typically not be allowed to stay for over 6 months with a B-2 tourist visa. Exceptions to this rule include entry by land, e.g., for Mexicans carrying Border Crossing Cards or Canadian tourists. The I-94 arrival and departure record, which is created for visitors upon entry, will indicate the date when you have to leave the country. If you arrive by sea or air, the I-94 is only available online.
If you arrive in the United States on a student or work visa, the length of your stay will correspond to your job or the study program you will be following. This is known as your “duration of status” and is indicated by the symbol “D/S”. It is essential to access your I-94 online as quickly as possible after your arrival to verify that it reflects the correct expiration date and immigration status. You always have to keep a printed copy of the I-94 with you in case you have to prove that you entered the United States lawfully.
What is the amount of funds you have available for your visit? Is somebody else funding your visit?
Visitors have to be able to show that they can support themselves during their stay so that they will not become a burden on U.S. resources.
The immigration officer will typically ask temporary visitors (such as tourists) about the funds they have available for their trip to the United States and who will be financing the visit. This is to ensure that these people will be in the position to pay their own expenses while staying in the country for the intended duration of their visit.
Have you been to the U.S. before, and if you have, for how long did you remain in the country?
If you overstayed during a previous visit, you will need to provide an explanation, and the officer may ask for evidence to support your story. For example, if you remained in the country longer than you were permitted because you were ill, you might be asked to provide medical documentation to substantiate that claim. You could also be asked to prove that you paid for the medical expenses.
Even in cases where you didn’t stay for longer than the time you were allowed to, the border authorities might ask you to provide more details about any previous long stays in the country.
If you earlier overstayed your allotted time in the United States by 6 months or more, you might need to obtain special permission (known as a waiver) to enter the country again – unless you have been outside the United States for 3 years or more.
If you/ overstayed your welcome for a year or longer, you might have to stay outside the United States for 10 years before being allowed to return.
Visitors from countries that do not require visas may have no other choice than to return home and apply for a visa if they previously exceeded the maximum period allowed in the U.S.
How often do you visit the U.S.?
The U.S. border authorities officer will also ask how often you travel to the country, as they want to ensure that visitors are not using tourist visas as a way to live or work in the country permanently. If the officer rules that you abuse your visa privileges, you could be denied entry into the United States.