Inspection Process for US Entry: Airport Immigration and More
The US Entry Inspection Process
All persons arriving at a port-of-entry to the United States are inspected by officials of the U.S. Government. There are four separate inspections: Public Health, Immigration, Customs, and Agriculture. You may talk to one official who does all four inspections, or you may talk to more than one official. This article will discuss the Immigration Inspection. (For information on customs inspections, see US Customs Information for Nonresidents or US Customs Information for Residents.)
When arriving at a US airport from outside the US, the airline will give all non-United States citizens a form to complete while still en route to the United States, either Form I-94 (white), Arrival/Departure Record, or Form I-94W (green), Nonimmigrant Visa Waiver Arrival/Departure Form. The forms ask for basic identification information and the address where you will stay in the United States.
Upon arrival, the airline personnel will show you to the inspection area. You will queue up in an inspection line and then speak with an Immigration inspector. If you are a U.S. citizen, special lines may be available to you. If you are not a U.S. citizen, you should use the lanes marked for non-citizens.
If you are a U.S. citizen, the inspector will ask you for your passport, verify your citizenship, and then welcome you back to the United States. You will then proceed to the Customs inspection area.
If you are an alien, the Immigration inspector must determine why you are coming to the United States, what documents you may require, if you have those documents, and how long you should be allowed to initially stay in the United States. These determinations usually take less than one minute to make. If you are allowed to proceed, the inspector will stamp your passport and issue a completed Form I-94 to you. A completed form will show what immigration classification you were given and how long you are allowed to stay. This I-94 Form, not your visa, indicates how long you may stay in the U.S. You will then be permitted to proceed to Customs. Do not lose this form. You will need it when you leave the country. For more information, see:
- I-94 Form (Arrival-Departure Record, Form I-94 Card) (this also explains how to obtain a replacement)
- Length of Stay is Determined by Your I-94 Arrival-Departure Record -- NOT Your Visa
If you are an alien, the Immigration Officer may decide that you should not be permitted to enter the United States. There are many reasons why this might happen. You will either be placed into detention, or temporarily held until return flight arrangements can be made. If you have a visa, it may be cancelled.
In certain instances, the inspector may not be able to decide if you should be allowed entry into the United States. In this case, your inspection may be deferred (postponed), and you will be instructed to go to another USCIS office located near your intended destination in the United States for further processing.
At a land border port-of-entry you will undergo the same general process. One official may conduct all four inspections. That official may send you for further review or issuance of needed papers to a second inspection area. Once a determination is made to allow you to enter the United States, you may be sent to Customs or immediately allowed to proceed on your trip.
The US entry inspection process at a sea port-of-entry is similar to the airport entry process. Often, inspections occur prior to the boat's arrival in the United States.
- A U.S. citizen generally must now present a passport if traveling from outside of the United States. Additional options are available if traveling by land or sea in parts of the western hemisphere. For more information, see US Entry for US Citizens Traveling in the Western Hemisphere.
- An alien who is a lawful permanent resident of the United States must present a Permanent Resident Card ("Green Card", USCIS Form I-551), a Reentry Permit (see Green Card & Travel Outside the US: Documents and Issues for US Reentry), or a Returning Resident Visa.
- Generally, an alien must present a passport and a valid visa issued by a U.S. Consular Official (some exceptions exist). For more information on visas, see What is a US Visa?, visit US Visas (Nonimmigrant Visas), or contact your nearest U.S. Consulate or Embassy.
- Under the Visa Waiver Program, nationals of participating countries do not require a visa to apply to enter the United States as a Visitor for Business or Pleasure (B-1 or B-2), if staying for no more than 90 days, and if not inadmissible. For more information, see Visa Waiver Program.
- Canadians generally do not require a visa for tourism but do if traveling for certain other purposes. For more information, see US Entry Requirements for Canada, Mexico, and Bermuda.
Appealing Denial of Admission to the US
If you used a valid visa to apply for admission and your application for admission has been denied, you can request a hearing before the Immigration Court, where an administrative law judge will determine your case. A judge's decision can be appealed to the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA). You will receive instructions on where and how to appeal. For more information, see How to Appeal if USCIS Denied My Petition or Application (US Immigration, Green Card Denial).
- If you apply for admission to the United States under the Visa Waiver Program, the decision of the Immigration inspector is final.
- In cases involving fraud, willful misrepresentation, false claim to U.S. citizenship or lack of a valid immigrant visa for an intending immigrant, the inspector's decision is final.
- Have a specific question? To help you find an answer quickly, we have placed "Ask a Visa & Immigration Lawyer" boxes on this page. Simply type a question in any of the boxes to receive a response online from a visa and immigration lawyer.
- If you are outside of the U.S. and want more information about the inspection process for U.S. entry, contact your nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate.
- For questions within the U.S. about the immigration inspection, contact your nearest USCIS District Office or Sub Office or call the national USCIS toll-free information service at 1-800-375-5283.
- You may also contact U.S. Customs and Border Protection by calling the CBP Customer Service Center at 1-877-227-5511 or 703-526-4200.