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Inspection Process and Admission through US Airports and Seaports

You should be aware that a visa does not guarantee entry into the United States. A visa is issued by a Department of State Consular Office abroad, but a separate U.S. agency, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), has authority to deny admission at the port of entry. Also, the period for which you are authorized to remain in the U.S. is determined by the USCIS, not the Department of State Consular Office. At the port of entry, an USCIS official must authorize your admission to the U.S.

What to expect

Everyone arriving at a port-of-entry to the United States is inspected by officials of the U.S. Government (Public Health, Immigration, Customs, and Agriculture). You might speak to only one officer or end up speaking to four.


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 US.

Upon arrival, the airline personnel will show you to the inspection area. You will wait in the inspection line and then speak with an Immigration inspector. The lines are divided by whether you are a US citizen or foreign national.

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 I-94 form will show what immigration classification you were given and how long you are allowed to stay. It is the I-94 that shows how long you may stay in the United States, NOT the visa.

DO NOT lose your I-94. You will NEED it when you LEAVE the United States.

When Inspection at the Port of Entry Goes Wrong

If you are an alien, the Immigration Officer may decide that you should not be permitted into the United States. If this occurs, you will either be placed in detention at the airport or temporary held until a return flight is scheduled for you. If you have a visa at that point, it may be cancelled.

In certain instances, the inspector may not be able to make an instant decision as to whether 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 USCIS office located near your intended destination in the United States for further processing called Deferred Inspection. This does NOT mean your visa is cancelled or void.


At a land border port-of-entry you will undergo the same general process.


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.

Documents You Need When Entering the United States

  • A U.S. citizen must present a passport when traveling from anywhere outside of the United States.
  • An alien who is a lawful permanent resident of the United States must present a Permanent Resident Card ("Green Card"), 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 (some exceptions exist). Under the Visa Waiver Pilot 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. For more information, see Visa Waiver Pilot Program.
  • Canadians do not generally require a visa unless coming as a Treaty Trader.

Appealing Denial of Admission

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. however, if you apply for admission under the Visa Waiver Pilot Program, the immigration officer�s decision is final and not appealable. The officer�s decision is also final in cases involving fraud, willful misrepresentation, a false claim to US citizenship or lack of a valid immigrant visa for an immigrant.


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The information provided on this site is intended to teach individuals and corporations their rights and protect them from fraud. It is not a substitute for professional advice from an experienced immigration attorney and should not be taken as legal advice. Please consult a lawyer for advice regarding your specific situation. Our FRAUD ALERT section contains important information to be aware of before seeking assistance.

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