Arrival in the US

Documents and declarations

Arrival in the US

On arrival in the US your first task is to battle your way through immigration and customs. Fortunately, this presents few problems for most people, although security is stringent and delays interminable.

You should obtain some dollars before arriving, as this saves you having to change money on arrival. You may find it more convenient to arrive on a weekday rather than during the weekend, when offices, banks and stores may be closed.

With the exception of certain visitors, everyone wishing to enter the US requires a visa. If you stop in the US in transit to another country, you may be required to go through US immigration and customs at your first port of entry. Even if you’re just going to sit in a transit lounge for a few hours, you probably require a US visa.

Arrival/Departure Record in the US

Before you arrive in the US by air or sea, you’re given an USCIS Arrival-Departure Record card (I-94) to complete by the airline or shipping company. If you enter the US by road from Canada or Mexico, you’re asked to complete it at the frontier and pay a fee of $6. If you’re a visa-free visitor, you’re given an I-94W card Nonimmigrant Visa Waiver Arrival-Departure Record. The I-94/I-94W card is divided into two parts, an ‘Arrival Record’ and a ‘Departure Record’. You must complete it in pen in block capitals and in English.

If you make a mistake, you may be asked to complete a new card. If you don’t have an ‘address while in the United States’, it’s often wise to enter the name of a hotel in an area or city where you’re heading or write ‘touring’, rather than leave it blank. If you’re entering the US by land, enter ‘LAND’ under ‘Airline and Flight Number. If you’re entering the US by ship, enter ‘SEA’ here. Complete the ‘Arrival’ and ‘Departure’ parts before arrival.

Authorizations and Visa in the US

You’re authorised to remain in the US until the date stamped on your I-94 card (departure record), entered by the immigration officer when you arrive. The I-94 card departure record is stapled into your passport and must be carried at all times. It’s this date, and not the expiry date of your visa, that determines how long you may remain in the US. When you leave the US, the card is removed from your passport by an official of the transportation, e.g. airline or shipping, company. If you leave the US via Canada or Mexico or intend to remain out of the country for more than 30 days, you should surrender your I-94 card to a Canadian official at the Canadian border or a US official at the Mexican border.

Make sure that it’s collected by the airline each time you depart the US; otherwise you could have problems on your next visit. If you fail to surrender your I-94 card (departure record) when you leave the US a future entry may be delayed. All I-94 cards are recorded in a computer, which makes it easy for immigration officials to check whether you returned your card or overstayed your last visit.

If you overstay your visit (i.e. the date stamped on your I-94 card), it’s a violation of the law. If you lose your I-94 card, you should replace it at the nearest US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) field office. A list can be obtained by calling the USCIS National Service Center or online from the USCIS website.

Occasionally, a Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officer stamps your I-94 card with a date that precedes the expiry of your non-immigration visa. Although this is technically incorrect, it’s best not to argue with a CBP admitting officer. If this happens to you, you can apply for an extension up to 60 days and not less than 15 days before the date on your I-94 card becomes due.

Many non-immigrant visas are of the multiple-entry type, which allow you to enter and leave the US as often as you wish during the visa validation period, e.g. ten years for a B-1/B-2 visa. However, the period that you’re allowed to remain also depends on the expiration date of your passport.

For example, if you have a non-immigrant visa valid for three years and your passport is valid for three months only, you’re admitted for just three months, as stamped on your I-94 card. If you have a valid multiple-entry, non-immigrant visa and obtain a new passport, retain your old passport and take it with you when travelling to the US, as the visa remains valid. You must never remove a visa from your old passport, as this invalidates it.

This article is an extract from Living and Working in America. Click here to get a copy now.

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