All persons arriving at a port-of-entry to the United States are subject to inspection by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Officers. CBP Officers will conduct the Immigration, Customs and Agriculture components of the Inspections process. If a traveler has health concerns, he/she will be referred to a Public Health Officer for a separate screening.
What Does the Law Say?
The legal foundation that requires the inspection of all persons arriving in the United States comes from the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), see INA § 235 [8 U.S.C.]. Rules published in the Federal Register explain the inspection requirements and process. These rules are incorporated into the Code of Federal Regulations [CFR] at 8 CFR § 235.
What Can I Expect to Happen at a Port of Entry?
Airport When arriving at an airport, 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 and Customs Declaration form 6059B. The forms ask for basic identification information and the address where you will stay in the United States. Note that completion of the paper Form I-94W remains a requirement at the port of entry for Visa Waiver Travelers even if a travel authorization has been obtained via the Electronic System for Travel Authorization. For more information on ESTA visit the Electronic System for Travel Authorization page.
( Electronic System for Travel Authorization )
Upon arrival, the airline personnel will show you to the inspection area. You will queue up in an inspection line and then speak with a CBP officer. 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 officer will ask you for your passport and Customs Declaration form, verify your citizenship, and welcome you back to the United States. You may be asked to proceed to a second screening point with your belongings for additional questioning by CBP Officers.
If you are a U.S. citizen, the officer 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 CBP Officer 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 officer will stamp your passport and customs declaration form and issue a completed Form I-94 to you. A completed form I-94 will show what immigration classification you were given and how long you are allowed to stay. Also, If you are an alien, CBP Officers may decide that you should not be permitted to enter the United States. There are many reasons why this might happen (see INA § 212(a)). You will either be placed in detention, or temporarily held until return flight arrangements can be made. If you have a visa, it may be cancelled. In certain instances, Officer(s) may not be able to decide if you should be allowed into the United States. In this case, your inspection may be deferred (postponed), and you will be instructed to go to another office located near your intended destination in the United States for further processing.
Land At a land border port-of-entry you will undergo the same general process. One officer will conduct the primary inspection on the vehicle lane. That officer may send you for further review or issuance of needed papers to a secondary inspection area. Once a determination is made to allow you into the United States, you may be sent for further Customs inspection or immediately allowed to proceed on your trip. Alien truck drivers may qualify for admission as B-1 visitors for business to pick up or deliver cargo traveling in the stream of international commerce. Please see How Do I Enter the United States as a Commercial Truck Driver for more information.
Sea The inspection process at a sea port-of-entry is similar to the airport process if inspection facilities are available. Otherwise passengers will be instructed where to report for inspection on board the vessel.
What Documents Must You Present?
U.S. citizens must present a passport when entering or departing the U.S. by air. U.S. and Canadian citizens returning home from Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean or Bermuda, by land or sea, will be required to present one of the following travel documents: U.S. Passport or Passport Card, Enhanced Driver's License (EDL) or Trusted Traveler Card (NEXUS, SENTRI or FAST).U.S. and Canadian citizen children under age 16 arriving by land or sea from contiguous territory may also present an original or copy of his or her birth certificate, a Consular Report of Birth Abroad, a Naturalization Certificate, or a Canadian Citizenship Card.U.S. and Canadian citizen children under age 19 arriving by land or sea from contiguous territory and traveling with a school group, religious group, social or cultural organization, or sports team, may also present an original or copy of his or her birth certificate, a Consular Report of Birth Abroad, a Naturalization Certificate, or a Canadian Citizenship Card.
( Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative )
Lawful Permanent Residents of the United States are required to present their permanent resident card (Form I-551) or other valid evidence of permanent residence status. A passport is not required for entry into the United States. For further information, see "How Do I Become a Lawful Permanent Resident While in the United States?" and "How Do I Get a Travel Document?"
How Do I Become a Lawful Permanent Resident While in the United States? )
How Do I Get a Travel Document? )
How Can I Appeal?
In certain circumstances, 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 immigration 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, please see, How Do I Appeal? If you apply for admission to the United States under the Visa Waiver Pilot Program, the decision of the officer 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 officer's decision is final.