For someone who has never traveled to the United States, a likely question you might have would be “What happens at the Port of Entry when I arrive?”
Foreigners traveling to the United States will first arrive at a “port of entry” (POE). This POE can be an airport, a land border crossing, or a seaport. Generally speaking, you are asking the border officer (a member of the US Customs and Border Protection agency, or CBP) for permission to enter the United States, for a specific reason, purpose, and time.
Once travelers present their passport and other required documents at the port of entry, CBP officers determine who to admit and how long each traveler can stay. CBP officers meet travelers first at the primary inspection, where they ask them questions to determine, among other things, their identity and nationality. Officers also check passports, visas, and other documents, compare fingerprint files and name databases for recent derogatory information, ask questions about general qualifications for the visas they hold, examine Form I-94 Registration Arrival and Departure (or, for travelers with Visa Waiver, I-94W)
The officer may also ask you to sign a Form I-9, Employment Eligibility Verification, which you must complete and sign at that time. You will then be given a Form I-94 card that you can use to travel through the US again. If you are admitted to the United States, you will receive a Form I-94B, which is a temporary I-94 card. You are generally not required to return to the port of entry to apply for a visa. You may apply for a visa at a consulate in the United States or at an embassy abroad. The process at the Port of Entry may take several hours or even days.
Customs and Border Protection officials determine if the traveler is qualified to enter the United States based on this information. Travelers enter the United States once the inspector stamps and date the I-94 forms and stamps the passports and pass through the inspection process.
If additional time is needed to review a traveler’s eligibility, CBP may refer them to a secondary inspection for a more extensive review. Travelers referred to a secondary inspection are not considered as having entered the United States.
What happens in the secondary inspection?
At secondary inspection, the traveler is asked more detailed questions about their trip and required additional identification and other documentation to determine their true identity and purpose of the visit. The traveler and her belongings can also be checked and the traveler can be subjected to a complete set of fingerprints.
Other federal agencies may interview the traveler to determine compliance with a wide variety of federal laws and regulations. The traveler may also be on secondary inspection for quite some time until government personnel from federal agencies arrive at the port of entry for an interview.
Any traveler, even someone presenting a U.S. passport, may be sent for secondary inspection if the CBP officer has any questions about allowing a traveler to enter the United States or the possibility of the traveler smuggling or entering something. violate any other customs or immigration regulations, or federal law in general.
During secondary inspection, CBP officers check the contents of a traveler’s luggage. They may ask questions about the contents of the luggage and request that a traveler opens it and show them what is inside. This can include opening suitcases, boxes, and other containers to search for contraband or to inspect the contents. CBP officers may also search the traveler’s person. In addition to the questions that CBP officers ask, travelers are often subjected to a strip search or pat-down.
These searches may take place in a private room at the port of entry or at another location, depending on how far along the traveler has been on the inspection line. A pat-down includes feeling all over a traveler’s body, including under her clothing, for any items that could be considered contraband.
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