America is one of the few countries that the has most comprehensive digital systems for immigration and visa procedures. The process to get US visa is pretty complex and getting a visa can be tough for people from certain countries. When you travel to USA, they have specific entry and exit requirements to their country ranging from how their Customs and Border Protection(CBP) Officers screen incoming passengers to enter US to how they handle incoming luggage at Customs. You need to carry all documents supporting your travel to US.
What is US Port of Entry (PoE) ? What typically happens here ?
In America, locations such as international airports, land entry checkpoints or seaports that are used to screen, check visa, interview and allow incoming passengers or travellers to enter America are called as “Port of Entry (PoE)” locations. It is first point of entry for anyone planning to enter US. Usually most of the large international airports are considered as port of entry. Also, you would see many other port of entry locations designated at the land border of Mexico and Canada, where the border is shared. Any passenger or traveller entering US need to go through Port of Entry process at these locations and also go through customs check and have their luggage screened. You need to declare goods, your history as needed in the customs form as well. Below are the basic requirements for entry at PoE.
Port of Entry Requirements to enter USA
If you are traveling to US, you need to meet the below requirements at port of entry :
- Need to have valid US Visa related to your intended travel purpose, US Green Card / Permanent Residency card, be a US citizen or have passport from Visa Waiver Countries and go through ESTA process.
- Need a valid Passport for your entire duration of travel in America and preferably 6 months beyond your travel.
Documents Checklist for US Port of Entry
- Valid Passport
- Depending on your Country of origin and status you need one of the below
- Valid US Visa Stamp in Passport
- Green Card or Permanent Residency Card
- Passport from Visa Waiver Countries for ESTA process
- Completed US Customs Declaration Card. ( Not needed for anyone eligible for Automated Passport Control ( APC) )
- Copy of your return flight ticket, if you are a visitor.
- Supporting documentation related to the US visa you are entering.
- The supporting documents vary by the visa you plan to use to enter US. For example, if you are entering for temporary work on H1B, you need to have all documents related to the same like offer letters, USCIS H1B approval notice, LCA, additional supporting documents of H1B petition.
- Copy of your Hotel stay details or details of address, where you plan to stay.
- Copy of your conference / business purpose details, if you are entering for business
Port of Entry Procedures for USA Visitors, US Visa Holders, Residents
Below are the typical process steps to enter US as a foreigner. Some of these procedures are done before you arrive at US port of entry as part of the standard verification of visa, passport and other documents.
Travel to USA – High Level Process at US Port of Entry (PoE)
Step 1 – US Visa, Passport Check by Airline
If you are flying to US, first step is that your airline would ask for a valid US visa. You need to show your valid US visa that is in good state. Any visa stamps that are damaged are not valid. If your US visa is in old expired passport, but your visa in it is valid, then you can still use that visa to enter US, provided the visa is not damaged. Also, they will check your passport and verify, it all matches. If you are traveling by road, it would not matter as there is no pre-check.
Step 2 – Fill out Customs Declaration Form
Once you are on the flight, closer to your flight landing, airline will distribute US Customs Declaration form, you need to fill it out. Check out How to Fill out US Customs Declaration Form. If you are traveling using ESTA (Visa Waiver Program), B1/B2 or D Visa, or a Canadian Citizen, including Green Card Holders, then you would not fill the physical customs declarations form. You will fill out Customs form digitally at Automated Passport Control (APC). APC kiosks are available at major international airports in USA.
Step 3 – (Optional ) Fill out I-94 Arrival / Departure Card
The arrival departure I-94 card process is fully automated and digital. But, in some cases, when you enter US using land entry point or when the online system does not work, you may be asked to complete I-94 form. Read How to Fill out I-94 form in US
Step 4 – Arrive at Airport, Seaport – Stand in Immigration Line
Once you arrive at the US Port of entry after getting down from the flight or ship, you will walk along with fellow passengers and need to look for signs of immigration. You cannot really miss it as your exit from airport will be directed in such a way that you end up at the immigration section. Anyways, once you are there, depending on your visa type, you will need to pick a line. There will be separate lines for US Citizens, people from Visa Waiver Countries, Green Card holders, etc. If you are eligible for Automated Passport Control Kiosk Processing, you should get into that line, otherwise, take the general CBP Interview line. There will be signs indicating where to go and also there will be support personnel asking you regarding the visa and directing you to the right line. If you are in doubt, ask the support person and get into the right line. Make sure you keep all the completed forms, visa documents with you for inspection and checking.
Step 5 –Automated Passport Control ( APC ) process (Applicable to few visa types )
If you are entering US at a major international airport or seaport as a Green Card Holder, Canadian Citizen, using ESTA ( Visa Waiver Program), B1 /B2 or D visa, then you will go through Automated Passport Control (APC) Kiosk process. At APC Kiosk, you will be scanning your visa, system asks few questions, asks you to fill customs form in the system, takes a picture and gives you a receipt to take it to CBP Officer. Read Automated Passport Control (APC) Kiosk Experience at US Airport. If you do not qualify for APC Process, then you skip this and go to normal CBP officer interview.
Step 6 – CBP Officer Interview at PoE
If you have used the APC Kiosk and have a receipt, then you would stand in a different line. If not, you will go through regular CBP interview line.
- CBP Officer Interview, Entry Stamp in Passport after APC Kiosk: If you have utilized APC Kiosk process, you will need to give our the receipt to the CBP Officer and they will check your visa, passport and the receipt printed. They will ask you questions regarding your travel such as your purpose of travel, what you do, where you live, etc. These are short interviews to validate your intent. They will put a stamp on your passport with date you entered, class of visa and let you go to collect baggage, if they are convinced.
- CBP Officer Interview, Entry Stamp in Passport without APC Kiosk : If you do not qualify for APC process, then you will need to go through a much more detailed process. You need to give your passport and Visa ( if in different passport) to the CBP officer. They will check the system and ask you for your reason for travel and documents supporting your visa that you plan to use for entry. For instance, if you are entering on H1B or L1 visa, they would ask USCIS approval notices, employer letters, LCA, etc. You need to be prepared to answer regarding your role, what you do and how long you intend to stay in US and all other details related to your visa. Read US Port of Entry Questions by CBP Officer. If they are convinced, they will ask you for biometrics scan of both of your hands, then take a picture and then stamp on your passport. The CBP Stamp has the Port of Entry code, date you entered in US and they write class of US Visa you are entering on and how long it is valid on it and then let you go to collect baggage. Check Sample CBP Officer Stamps on Passport at PoE. If the CBP officer is not convinced, you may be taken to a separate area for secondary inspection, where they will ask you more details and do detail interview. If you cannot convince the CBP officer and they find out that you have done any fraud or violated anything, they can deny your entry to US and send you back to your home country.
Step 7 – US Customs Clearance
After your CBP interview, you will need to pick up your baggage and take it for customs clearance. If you are bringing any items that were supposed to be declared such as soil, plants, etc. then you need to go to the Customs inspection process. The Customs officer will inspect the goods that you are bringing in by scanning your bags, manually inspecting them and then allow or deny you to carry the items that you have declared. You should declare everything as required on the US Customs form, not declaring goods that you are not allowed to carry without declaration can create issues for you. Customs officer would usually check for food items, agricultural items such as soil, plants, etc.
- Health Screening ( Optional ) : Sometimes, there maybe a Public Health Officer doing visual checks of passenger and you maybe subject to health screen, if you exhibit any symptoms of certain diseases. If you are arriving in US from a certain country that has any public current health risks, you may be subject to this special screening. This is an optional step and not everyone will go through this. Read Official Public Health Screening Guide by CDC
Step 8 – Exit Airport / Land Entry Point / Seaport
Once you are done with customs process, you are free to exit the airport, land entry point or sea port. Though it may seem complex, the process can be quite seamless, if you have everything in place and all your documents are genuine.
Check US Admission Stamp – Visa, Entry, Admit Until dates
It is very important for you to verify and check the US Port of entry stamp on your passport by CBP officer. It should have the correct date of entry, correct visa class you are using to enter US and correct admit until date ( basically the validity date for you to remain in US). If CBP officer writes any wrong information, it will impact your status in US, how long you can stay, including applications for benefit or a document at places such as SSN office, Driving license, etc. Make sure you check and correct them there itself, if any issues.
Below are some of the common FAQs on US Port of entry procedures
Extension for Stay in US beyond Admit Until Date in Passport Stamp ?
In general, you need to depart US by the ‘Admit until’ date written on the Passport Stamp. The admit until date is your deadline to exit or your visa status expiration date . In some situations, you may need to extend your stay for health reasons, need to stay with your family or any other reason. In such case, you need to file Form I-539 with USCIS with all the documentation to extend your status. If you are visitor planning to extending your stay, you will use the same form.
Your US Visa Stamp Validity vs Admit Until Date in Stamp at Port of Entry by CBP officer
Having a US visa valid for 5 years or 10 years does not give you the right to stay in US continuously for that munch amount of time. US visa stamp on your passport is only a entry document that allows you to arrive at Port of Entry. The CBP officer at Port of Entry determines how long you can stay in US based on your visa type and writes the same on the stamp that they put on your passport. It is your responsibility to maintain status when you enter US based on your visa type by not engaging in any unauthorized activity. Read US Visa vs. Status – Expired Visa – FAQs
Travel with-in US after Port of Entry Screening by CBP Officer
You are free to travel to any state or city within America after you are screened and admitted by a CBP officer by putting a stamp on your passport. You do not have to go through any immigration check points, if you are within US. When you fly within US, you will go through domestic airport and it does not have immigration points. You will only go through general security screening, but there will not be any CBP officers asking your visa status. Also, you do not have to go through any immigration process, when you move between states with in US.
US Exit Stamp on Passport at Port of Entry / Exit Point ?
Your passport will NOT be stamped, when you exit US. The airline kiosk or check-in counter will validate your visa for the destination you plan to go and your US visa that you used to enter US and issue you boarding passes at airport. The process is pretty similar at Land check point and sea port, they will just verify your entry stamp and check your visa to enter other country and let you go. Nothing will be stamped. If you were given an I-94 card, then you will need to hand over the card to the airline staff at the boarding gate.