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Airport Customs and Immigration Inspection Process

All passengers entering the United States must go through an inspection process conducted by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), an agency within the Department of Homeland Security. CBP officers will inspect each passenger's travel documents and ask questions. Fingerprints may also be collected during the process. If everything looks good the officer will grant admission to the traveler, and also specify a period of authorized stay in case of non-immigrant visitors. The majority of people go through this process in just a few minutes, in addition to waiting in line for inspection.

If the CBP officer still has questions, however, he will send the visitor for second-level inspection. This is typically conducted in a separate room, and can take hours depending on the situation. The outcome of a secondary inspection may be regular admission, in which case the visitor moves on to baggage claim along with other passengers. But it could also be denial, and the visitor will be sent back on the next flight available.

Passengers waiting for inspection are often divided into two lines: One for U.S. citizens and permanent residents, and the other for non-immigrant visitors. It is important to stand in the right line to avoid wasting time. Cell phone calls are not allowed in the inspection area.

The next step after immigration inspection is to retrieve your baggage, and the final step is Customs inspection during which your suitcases may be opened and checked.

The following flow chart demonstrates the overall inspection process at a U.S. airport:

  • Preparation
  • Ensure your travel documents are ready (passport, green card, AP, visa, etc.)
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  • In Flight
  • Fill out Form I-94 (required for most visitors) and Customs Declaration Form while on board the plane. Flight attendants will distribute the forms before landing. These forms may be available in foreign languages. Ask attendants if you have difficulty completing the forms.
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  • After Landing
  • Collect your carry-on luggage and go to the CBP inspection area. Wait in line. Make sure you find the correct line if there are more than one.
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  • CBP Inspection
  • When it is your turn, present your travel documents and answer questions. You may be requested to take a photo and scan your fingerprints. If you're traveling with a spouse, a child or otherwise as a close group, you may conduct the interview together.
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  • Secondary Inspection
  • You may be requested to go through a second-level inspection, conducted in a separate room away from the general inspection area. You may be allowed to make phone calls during the interview.
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  • Admission
  • If you have passed the inspection, CBP officer will stamp your passport and staple the I-94 card (if applicable) to your passport. Double check the information for errors, especially your class (status) and duration of stay. It will be much more difficult to correct a CBP error after you leave the airport.
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  • Baggage Claim
  • Go to the baggage carousel and pick up your luggage.
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  • Customs Inspection
  • Present your declaration form to CBP officers who may or may not inspect your luggage. If they do check your bags and find restricted items, you may be asked to pay duty and/or fines.
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  • Connection Flights
  • Follow the signs if you need to catch a connection flight. There will be airport staff to transfer your luggage. Since this is now a domestic flight, you will not go through CBP inspection again after landing.
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  • Congratulations!
  • Now you are all set. Simply follow the flow of passengers to depart the airport. If you have arranged for pick up, they will be at the exit where you will also have access to ground transportation such as shuttles, buses and rental cars.

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