US Immigration

Immigration procedures upon arrival

US Immigration

When you arrive in the US, the first thing you must do is pass through US Public Health Immigration & Naturalization. This is divided into two sections, ‘US Citizens’ and ‘All Other Passports’; make sure you join the correct queue.

Once in the US, you’re under the jurisdiction of the USCIS, part of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), who have dictatorial powers over you and have been variously described as aggressive, brusque, bullying, stern and intimidating (on a good day), despite the fact that they claim to ‘treat you in a courteous manner’! You should answer any questions put to you in a direct and courteous manner, however personal or irrelevant you may think they are. It never pays to antagonise immigration officials, for example, by questioning the relevance of certain questions.

Since late 2004, all 280 million foreigners arriving in the US each year have been fingerprinted and photographed, even those who arrive under the Visa Waiver Program. To date, they only fingerprint your two index fingers, although there are plans to take prints of all ten fingers and thumbs. It’s done using a digital scanning device (no ink) and the photo is taken by a digital camera. It’s claimed it takes just 15 to 20 seconds, but this doesn’t allow for problems and it can take much longer – not to mention the interminable queuing! The security checks and delays have led to a considerable drop in visitor numbers, which many fear will increase if there are further delays and ‘harassment’.

Immigration Services in the US

US immigration officials are trained to suspect that everyone who doesn’t have the right to live and work in the US is a potential illegal immigrant (most Americans believe that, given a choice, any sane person couldn’t possibly wish to live anywhere other than in the US). Nationals of some countries may be singled out for ‘special treatment’, e.g. people from a country that’s hostile towards the US, is considered to be harbouring terrorists or which has a reputation for illegal immigrants.

It’s an unfortunate fact of life that many immigration officials (like most people) are prejudiced against certain groups. If you’re white, English-speaking, smartly dressed, sober and polite, you will have a much easier time than a black bohemian who doesn’t speak English.

Immigration officers have the task of deciding whether you’re permitted to enter the US and have the necessary documentation, including a visa if necessary. Even with a visa, you don’t have the right to enter the US; only the immigration officer can make that decision. The length of time you’re permitted to remain also depends on the immigration officer, irrespective of how long your visa is valid. If the officer believes that you may participate in activities, e.g. employment, prohibited by the terms of your visa, he can refuse to admit you. Present the following to the immigration officer, as applicable:

  • Your passport (plus an old passport if it contains an unexpired visa);
  • Your completed arrival/departure record card (I-94/I-94W);
  • Your green card, if you’re a permanent resident.

You should also have any documents or letters to hand that support your reason for visiting the US.

After entering the US with an immigrant visa, your passport is stamped to show that you’re a permanent resident. You’re permitted to travel abroad and re-enter the US by showing this passport stamp until you receive your green card, which you receive by post a few months later.

Some visitors may find themselves under close scrutiny, as people intending to live or work illegally in the US commonly enter the country as tourists, although most people are admitted with few formalities. However, if the immigration officer suspects you of not telling the truth he can search your luggage; read and/or photocopy any written or printed material, including personal letters; conduct a search of your person, including a strip search; arrest or detain you; prohibit you entering the US (although if you have a visa, you have the right to a hearing); parole you into the US, but require you to appear for a future hearing.

If a search of your person or baggage turns up evidence that contradicts the stated purpose of your visit or your visa status, e.g. work references and a résumé; letters from US companies or employment agencies offering you employment; letters from friends working illegally in the US; tools of your trade; or anything else which suggests you may look for work illegally you may be excluded.

If you plan to visit the US before applying for a job or an immigrant or non-immigrant visa, you should mail any documents you may require, e.g. to a friend or to yourself c/o a post office, rather than bring them with you. A detailed search of your baggage and person is extremely rare (particularly a strip search).

US immigration authorities

The degree of questioning you’re subject to may depend on many things, not least your nationality; the documentation you can provide supporting the reason for your visit or why you must return abroad (see below); the amount of money you have; whether you have friends or relatives in the US who can support you; whether you have a return ticket to your ‘home’ country; and your age and appearance.

Be extremely careful how you answer seemingly innocent questions from the immigration authorities, as you could find yourself being refused entry if you give incriminating answers (immigration officials never ask innocent questions). Whatever the question, don’t imply that you may remain in the US longer than the period permitted or for a purpose other than that for which you’ve been granted permission. If you’re singled out for closer examination, your passport and other documents may be placed in a red folder and you’re asked to go to a separate waiting room for an interview.

If you enter the US from certain countries, you may be required to have immunisation certificates. Check the requirements in advance at a US embassy or consulate before travelling. An immigration officer can decide to send you for a routine (and random) health check, before allowing you to enter the US. Clearing immigration during a busy period can take a number of hours, so you should be prepared and take a thick book or half a dozen newspapers.

Among the most notorious entry points for delays are New York’s JFK and Miami airports. Immigration lines are shorter at smaller airports, although you may have little choice of entry point. The CBP website has charts of average waiting times for the major border crossings and airports of entry into the US (  then use the ‘quicklinks’ or enter ‘airport wait times’ in the search function).

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

Further reading

Does this article help?

Do you have any comments, updates or questions on this topic? Ask them here: