Immigration Inspection At A U.S. Port of Entry

Things You Must Know


Your first stop when you arrive in the United States will be a U.S. “Port of Entry” (POE). Airports, land border crossings, and seaports can all serve as ports of entry.

Many people have questions about the immigration inspection process and what to expect when arriving at a U.S. port of entry. We’ll answer them now!

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A. Immigration Inspection At A U.S. Port of Entry: What Is It?

When you present yourself at a United States port of entry for an immigration inspection, you are asking for entry into the country for a specific purpose and for a certain duration. When you apply for entry at a U.S. port of entry, the Immigration and Customs Inspector will give you permission to enter the United States, as long as you adhere to your stated activities and timelines. Immigration and Customs Inspectors are official representatives of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP).

Every foreign national arriving at a U.S. port of entry will receive an inspection. There are four distinct parts to every encounter:

  • Immigration
  • Customs
  • Agriculture
  • Public Health

1. Immigration Inspection At A U.S. Port of Entry: What Do CBP Officials Do?

At each U.S. port of entry, CBP officers review the passports, visas and other supporting documents of every foreign national arriving in the U.S.

Your first encounter with CBP officers will be at a primary inspection station. Officers ask foreign nationals questions that confirm their identity and nationality. You must present your passport and other required documents. These materials will be reviewed by CBP officers, who will determine if you are able to enter the U.S.

Most visitors and other nonimmigrants will also be “ten-printed” (meaning that they will have their fingerprints taken) and a digital photograph will also be taken.

If you are approved for admission, the CBP officer will also determine the length of time you will be able to stay in the U.S., and what your admission status will be.

At a U.S. port of entry, CBP officers will:

1. Compare fingerprint records and name check databases for any information that may be a cause for concern.

2. Ask foreign nationals about the general qualifications they have that support the visa category they are using.

2. U.S. Port of Entry Questions – What Do The CBP Officers Usually Ask?

CBP officers at U.S. ports of entry ask questions that will identify the true purpose of your trip to the U.S. If an officer is not satisfied with your preliminary answers, he or she may ask for additional supporting documentation or ask you to go through secondary inspection before allowing you to enter the U.S.

Immigration Officers are carefully trained and have considerable experience conducting immigration inspections for foreign nationals. They can easily identify individuals with a hidden agenda who are attempting to enter the U.S. under false pretenses. They also have the ability to search your luggage or personal devices (such as laptops or mobile phones) for evidence about the true purpose of your trip.

3. CBP Officials – What Power And Authority Do They Have?

CBP officers conducting immigration inspections at a U.S. port of entry have what seems like absolute power and authority. They have full jurisdiction to decide whether or not you may enter the U.S.

You cannot enter the U.S. until you pass successfully through the inspection station and a CBP officer places an admission stamp in your passport. Only after these steps have been completed will you be permitted to officially enter the United States.

If the first CBP officer you meet feels that your immigration inspection requires additional time for review, you may be subject to a U.S. immigration secondary inspection to confirm your eligibility to enter the U.S.

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Anyone – whether a foreign national or a person with a claim to U.S. Citizenship that presents a U.S. passport – is subject to U.S. immigration secondary inspection at a U.S. port of entry if the CBP officer has reservations about admitting him or her to the country.

Individuals may be sent to secondary inspection if officials believe they are smuggling contraband or violating customs or immigration regulations, or any type of federal law.

4. Secondary Inspection – What Is It?

U.S. immigration secondary inspection at a USA port of entry is much more comprehensive in nature than a primary inspection, and can take several hours to complete. In most cases, a foreign national flagged for a U.S. secondary immigration inspection is not considered to be “admitted” into the United States.

During a secondary inspection:

  • CBP officers ask you very detailed questions about your travel plans while you are in the U.S.
  • You may be asked to produce additional proof of identification and convincing documentation that supports your identity and confirms the purpose of your visit to the United States.
  • Both you and your belongings may be subject to a thorough search.

Secondary Inspection Quetions At US Port of Entry

My Case Scenario

Brenda arrived at the immigration inspection station at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. When she stepped up to the officer’s station, he observed that she seemed exceptionally nervous. After asking her a few standard questions, he referred her for a secondary inspection, where she would undergo further questioning. At secondary inspection, her luggage was searched and officials found a wedding dress. She then admitted that the true purpose of her visit to the U.S. was to get married.

Brad was on the same plane, arriving at the immigration inspection station shortly after Brenda. The officer interviewing him became suspicious when Brad said that he was in the U.S. on a sightseeing trip to Disneyworld, but he was carrying a brief case. It also seemed odd to the officer that Brad chose Chicago as his destination when it was much easier to access Disneyworld by flying directly into the Orlando area. Brad was directed to secondary inspection as well, where officials uncovered a stack of resumes in his brief case and learned that he had several job interviews lined up over the next several days.

Because false information was provided and material evidence was withheld, officials can deny both Brenda and Brad entry into the U.S. and prevent them from entering the U.S. in the future unless they can provide a waiver.

B. Arriving At A U.S. Port of Entry – What To Expect?

1. If You’re Landing At A U.S. Airport

When you arrive, U.S. Immigration Officers or airport personnel will direct you to the immigration inspection area. You will take your place in line and when it is your turn, speak with an Immigration Inspector. Dedicated lines are often available to U.S. Citizens, legal permanent residents and visitors. If you are not a U.S. Citizen, be sure to use the lanes marked for foreign nationals or “visitors”.

If you are a U.S. Citizen, the process is generally substantially shorter. You will be greeted by the inspector, who will ask for your passport. He or she will verify your Citizenship and may inquire about your trip abroad and places you visited and welcome you back to the U.S. You will then move along to the customs inspection area. U.S. Citizens, however, are not immune from secondary inspection. If there is a flag on your name or passport, you may be asked for more information about your trip abroad or your life in the U.S.

2. Inspection of Foreign Nationals At A U.S. Airport

If you are a foreign national, the CBP officer will ask why you are visiting the United States, ask to see the relevant documents, and decide how long you should be allowed to stay during this visit to the United States. These steps are usually completed within a few minutes.

If you are approved for admission and directed to proceed, the officer will stamp your passport with the date of admission, the class of admission and the date your stay will expire. The CBP officer will most likely also direct you to check online in a few days to access your I-94 record.

When you enter the United States through an airport, immigration will collect your information from your electronic travel records with the airline to create your I-94 Arrival/Departure Record. You will be able to access the Automated I-94 information and I-94 Number within a few days after entry. The CBP officer will stamp your passport/travel document with the date of admission, the class of admission and the date your stay will expire, if applicable.

3. Arriving At A U.S. Land Border Port of Entry

When entering the U.S. at a land border, foreign nationals will be subject to the same general process. However, Form I-94’s have not been automated for land ports of entry as advance travel information is generally not available. Visitors will need to fill out paper Form I-94’s. The forms request primary identification information. Once inspected and approved for admission, the CBP officer will stamp your passport and issue you a completed Form I-94. The completed form will indicate your assigned immigration classification and state how long you are permitted to stay in the U.S.

The Form I-94 – not your visa – indicates how long you may stay in the U.S. Do not misplace your I-94 because it will be required when you are leaving the country.

At land ports of entry, one CBP officer will most likely conduct all four inspections. This officer may send you to a secondary inspection area pending further review or issuance of necessary papers.

The CBP Officer at a land border port of entry will provide the required Customs Declaration Forms (CF-6059) and Arrival-Departure Record Forms (I-94) that will be completed upon your arrival.

4. Arriving At A U.S. Seaport

The immigration inspection process at a seaport port of entry is similar to the airport process.

In most cases, immigration inspections are completed prior to disembarking at the United States seaport.

It’s important for foreign nationals to remember that taking a cruise in international waters around the U.S. will be considered an exit from and entry into the U.S. No matter how short the trip, travelers should expect to be subject to inspection upon landing in the U.S.

5. Documentation Requirements For Arrivals At A U.S. Port of Entry

Each non-immigrant foreign national arriving in the U.S. must possess a valid, unexpired passport/travel document issued by his or her country of nationality and, if required, a valid, unexpired visa issued by a U.S. embassy or consulate abroad.

Foreign nationals entering the U.S. must also satisfy any other specific admission requirements that are necessary for their class of admission. For example, F-1 visa students will need to have a signed Form I-20 and H-1B workers will need to have their Form I-797 H-1B approval notice.

C. Arriving At A U.S. Port of Entry: Special Provisions For Canadians And Mexicans

1. Special Provisions For Canadian Citizens

Canadian Citizens visiting the U.S. need a non-immigrant visa only if they are traveling to the U.S. for certain specific purposes, such as:

  • Treaty Traders and Treaty Investors (E-1 and E-2)
  • Fiancée/Children of Fiancée (K-1 and K-2)
  • U.S. Citizen’s foreign Citizen spouse, who is traveling to the U.S. to complete the process of immigration (K-3)
  • Children of a foreign Citizen spouse (K-4)
  • Spouses of lawful permanent residents (V-1) traveling to the U.S. to reside in the U.S. while they wait for the final completion of their immigration process
  • Children of spouses of lawful permanent residents (V-2)

Unlike Citizens of Canada, permanent residents of Canada must have a non-immigrant visa, unless the permanent resident:

  • Is a national of a country that participates in the Visa Waiver Program (VWP)
  • Meets the VWP requirements
  • Is seeking to enter the U.S. for 90 days or less under that program

2. Canadian Citizens And US-VISIT Program

Most Canadian Citizens are not subject to the US-VISIT program. However, there are some exceptions.

  • Citizens of Canada applying for admission with a non-immigrant visa, such as Canadian Citizens with K or E Visas
  • Canadian Permanent Residents
  • Canadians with dual nationality who present a non-Canadian passport when seeking to enter the U.S.

These individuals will be subject to the US-VISIT Program. They will have their fingerprints scanned and a digital photograph taken by the immigration authorities.

CBP officers may also direct visitors to US-VISIT processing as part of the immigration inspection process if there is a reason to doubt the person’s integrity or question their intentions.

The Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI) requires Canadian travelers to present a passport or a specific Border Crossing Card when seeking admission through a U.S. port-of-entry.

3. Special Requirements For Mexicans

Generally speaking, Citizens and permanent residents of Mexico must possess a non-immigrant visa or Border Crossing Card.

TN-2 Mexican professionals must also carry copies of all documentation presented to the Consulate indicating when the visa was issued. They must present it when it is requested by the Immigration Inspector.

A non-immigrant visa is not required for Mexican B-1 and B-2 visitors who have a valid, unexpired ‘laser visa’ Border Crossing Card (DSP-150). These are issued to Mexican Citizens who wish to enter the U.S. as B-1 or B-2 visitors for visits that will not exceed 6 months. All other Mexican Citizens must present a visa.

4. Mexican Citizens And US-VISIT Program

Mexican Citizens entering the U.S. with a Border Crossing Card who travel within the border zone are not typically subject to US-VISIT procedures. Mexican Citizens with destinations outside of the border zone, or those who plan a visit of more than 30 days, must complete Form I-94. They will be processed through US-VISIT.

Mexican Citizens in the SENTRI and/or FAST program(s) will not be subject to US-VISIT procedures until they are required to re-register as part of the routine processing for the renewal of a multiple-entry Form I-94.

Mexican Citizens are not restricted by existing WHTI document requirements. Mexican Citizen visitors, including children, are required to present a passport with a non-immigrant visa or a laser visa Border Crossing Card to cross the U.S. border. This requirement applies to SENTRI program members as well.


There are dozens of U.S. ports of entry scattered throughout the country, conducting immigration inspections that give foreign nationals the opportunity to enter and exit the country safely and legally. United States takes every precaution to ensure that foreign nationals granted entry into the country meet all the admission criteria and have only the best intentions.

If you were denied admission into the U.S., or have questions about the immigration inspection process at a U.S. Port-of-Entry, contact our immigration attorneys for a a FREE Immigration Lawyer Consultation today. Our experienced attorneys will be happy to assist you!

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