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How Do I Get Legally Admitted to the United States?


(How Will I Be Inspected When I Come to a U.S. Port-of-Entry?)


What is the 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 only talk to one official who does all four inspections, or you may talk to more than one official. This information sheet will discuss the Immigration Inspection.

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. 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. 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. You will then be permitted to proceed to Customs.

If you are an alien, the Immigration Officer may decide that you should not be permitted into 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 into the United States. In this case, your inspection may be deferred (postponed), and you will be instructed to go to another INS 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 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 into the United States, you may be sent to Customs 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.


: Sea

The inspection process at a sea port-of-entry is similar to the airport process. Often, inspections occur prior to the boat’s arrival in the United States. In certain cases, the Canadian Border Boat Landing Program (I-68) might apply to those entering the U.S. in small boats for recreational purposes.


What Documents Must You Present?


A U.S. citizen must present a passport if traveling from outside of the western hemisphere (The western hemisphere is North, Central, and South America). If traveling from inside the Western Hemisphere, any proof of U.S. citizenship that clearly establishes identity and nationality is permitted such as a birth record or baptismal record.
An alien who is a lawful permanent resident of the United States must present a Permanent Resident Card (“Green Card”, INS Form I-551), a Reentry Permit, or a Returning Resident Visa.

Generally, an alien must present a passport and a valid visa issued by a U.S. Consular Official. For more information on visas, please see the Visa Categories page.
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.

Canadians do not generally require a visa unless coming as a Treaty Trader, classification E.

How Can I Appeal?


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, 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 Immigration Inspector is final.
  • In cases involving fraud, willful misrepresentation, and false claim to U.S. citizenship or lack of a valid immigrant visa for an intending immigrant, the Inspector’s decision is final.

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