With a visa promise in your passport, you finally fly to the States. But whether you will actually enter the US will only be decided by the local immigration officer.
As you probably already know from the article about the difference between a visa and a visa pledge, simply putting a document with the word “VISA” in your passport at the consulate or embassy does not guarantee that you will be allowed to enter the United States. It is the same situation with a CV from monstratext. The final decision in this matter is taken by the US immigration officer posted at the border crossing point – e.g. at the airport. He does so on the basis of an interview, which you can read about below.
From the text you will learn, among others:
- what happens on arrival in the US,
- what is the use of self-service machines to speed up the check-in process,
- what an interview with an immigration officer looks like,
- what questions may he ask,
- what to do if you don’t speak very good English,
- when to expect additional secondary inspection,
- what happens when you get permission to enter the US (or not),
- what is customs control
At the outset, let us briefly recall: a visa promise, i.e. a document that you are applying for in your passport, which you are applying for in Poland, only proves that an employee of the American diplomatic mission stated that you may attempt to enter one of the border points of this country (called port of entry). These points are essentially at land borders and airports and seaports. Poles most often reach the USA by plane, so we will focus on that…
What happens upon arrival in the US
Everyone coming to the United States – whether they are citizens of that country, have a visa, or are in the visa-free program – must pass documentary checks. After disembarking the plane, it is best to follow other passengers, because most of them probably already know where to go (and you have to go to the so-called Immigration ). At some airports there are special buses that will take you to the right place, others have to be covered all the way on foot.
Depending on a specific airport, the directions of queues in which US citizens and residents (e.g., US CITIZENS/RESIDENTS) and foreigners line up separately may also be different. (e.g. VISITORS). These queues line up to the counters, which can be several or even several dozen at a given airport. Unfortunately, it often happens that only a few of them are active.
When your plane lands late at night at a small airport, because it took off, for example, after a transfer in Iceland, there is a chance that you will get to one of such windows quite efficiently and quickly. When choosing more popular connections, e.g., to Chicago, Washington, or New York, where there are a lot of planes, and dozens or hundreds of passengers in each – try to wait for at least an hour. And you’d better take the book because using phones is not welcome. The airport staff walking around the hall will be happy to show you the way when you deviate from it or ask for help, but they can also request that electronic devices be turned off for safety reasons (in case someone thinks of taking pictures or recording videos revealing what it all looks like there).
Self-service vending machines speed up the check-in process more and more often at more modern airports. Some can only be used by US citizens and Green Card holders, but others – by all newcomers. In this type of machine, the passport with the visa is scanned and answered a few questions, about the type of visa or the planned duration of stay in the United States. Also, the machine will scan your fingerprints and take a photo of you, and finally print a piece of paper, which you have to hand to the appropriate official later. The airport staff present nearby and supervising the use of them will direct you to the right place, and will also assist with the machine itself if necessary.
What is it like to talk to an immigration officer?
If you fail to “pass” such a machine along the way, a photo and a scan of your fingerprints will be taken when you finally reach a vacant post with a US Customs and Border Protection (US Customs and Border Protection) officer also known as the Customs and Border Protection Authority or the US Customs and Border Guard; US CBP reports to the Department of Homeland Security). It is he who allows you to enter the USA and determines how long you can stay here – but also has the right to refuse this entry.
The decision is made based on an interview that strongly resembles a conversation with a consul when applying for a US visa. In the beginning, give the clerk a passport and possibly a printout from the machine, as well as a Customs Declaration filled in on the plane – if it was filled in because it is increasingly being replaced by an electronic version. The “Immigration Officer” will carefully examine your face and compare it with your passport and visa photo, check that you are not on the US wanted or undesirable list, and ask a few questions.
What the US Immigration Officer may ask
What exactly? You should expect to do the same as before at the embassy or consulate (so be sure to read the “Frequently Asked Questions Asked by the US Consul”). So for example:
- What is the purpose of your stay in the USA?
- How long are you going to stay here?
- What do you want to see?
- Where are you going to stay?
- Is this your first time in the US?
- Do you have a return ticket?
- How much money do you have with you?
When traveling with a child, it is also worth having the appropriate permission from the other parent (if they are not with you), or from both parents or legal guardians, if under your guardianship you have a different relationship. We wrote more about this in the article “Visa for a child to the USA – step by step”.
The entire conversation with the immigration officer takes literally a few minutes and is in English.
What if someone doesn’t speak English well?
If you are not fluent in this language, ask someone to write it down for you. It should also answer the above questions – in most cases, this should be enough. If the clerk has any doubts, or if you don’t get along, and you don’t have such a sheet, an interpreter will be brought to the place.
“Secondary inspection” or additional inspection
If the immigration officer’s doubts concern a matter somewhat different from the language, you can expect a more thorough inspection, the so-called secondary inspection (the interview described above is called “primary inspection”, i.e. only a preliminary, routine inspection).
This more detailed control takes place in a separate room by another, more experienced immigration officer who has detailed insight into the history of your previous visits to the US. Sometimes it happens that you have to undergo an additional procedure, because, for example, a man at the counter to which the queue stands, works too shortly at his position to correctly assess whether you can enter the States. So there is nothing to worry about unnecessarily. In this case, the conversation follows a predetermined scenario (if necessary – accompanied by an interpreter), a protocol is also created from it, which you finally get to sign. To check whether you are really going e.g. to your family or work, the clerk may contact the indicated persons, i.e. with relatives or the future employer.
Entry permit or refusal to enter the States
Usually, however, after the first interview – regardless of whether she was rather dry or quite nice – the immigration officer simply welcomes you to the US and gives you a stamped passport and, possibly, a customs declaration (once a form I-94 was handed over, but since 2012, its paper version is valid only when crossing the land border). The stamp contains information about the type of visa granted, the date of entry into the US, and the date by which you must leave this country. Remember not to extend your authorized stay even by one day, otherwise, you may have a problem returning to the USA in the future!
If this has happened to you before, the immigration officer may refuse you permission to enter the States. And he will do it for sure if you conceal this type of information at any stage of applying for a visa – just like information about other types of problems with the law. Then you can expect not only to return to Poland by the nearest plane but even arrest for committing the so-called visa fraud. You can read more about this in the articles “Common reasons for refusing a US visa” and “Denied entry to the US”.
Finally, a word about customs control
However, if everything went well and the appropriate stamp is already in your passport, you only need to collect your luggage and pass one more checkpoint, namely the customs officer. Most often it is limited to leaving him with a customs declaration which the immigration officer gave you (unless everything was done electronically). However, a more thorough search may also occur – for example, when you are transporting something to eat and it is sensed by a specially trained dog working at the airport. Or if you suspect that if you are from Poland, you may be carrying … sausage (which you must not do). Or for any other reason. Remember that anyone can be searched and there is no point in expressing your dissatisfaction. Especially since this is the last stage before you actually start your stay in the USA.