A long series of events do happen between the moment the plane lands in the United States from a foreign country and the moment the passengers can leave the airport.
Knowing the process step-by-step is the best way to avoid surprises. During the flight, usually a tutorial is displayed on the screens of the plane, often both in English and in the language of the departure country. However, it is important being well-aware of the Immigration and Customs procedures before the landing. Hope this simple explanatory guide will help my readers find the way of the nearest taxi and the nearest rest.
1. STEP ONE: THE IMMIGRATION CONTROL
a) Waiting in the right line
You will reach a huge room with two different types of lines. The one for U. S. Residents and the one for Visitors, including ESTA travelers (tourists), visa holders (students or workers) and permanent residents (green card holders). Differences between these categories exceed the topic of this guide and will be analyzed in a following post. In most of cases, the visitors line is longer. Be prepared to wait. In my experience, I waited the longer at Miami (one hour and half) and the shorter in Chicago (half an hour). I advise my readers who plan a flight connection considering not less than two hours for the whole immigration procedure. While you wait, you should have in your hands three things:
- Your passport;
- Your U. S. Custom Declaration Form – a purple sheet that the cabin crew distribute to passengers during the flight. You should have filled out this form before landing;
- Any other document required – such as ESTA declaration if you are a tourist, the I-20 document if you own an F-1 Student visa, and so on.
b) Passing the interview
At the end of the line, you will stand in front of an officer of the Customs and Border protection. He will shoot you a photo, asking you take off your glasses; he will take your fingerprint (thumb and four fingers separately, for both hands); and eventually he will ask you a few questions. He wants to know which is the goal of your trip and how long will be your stay. Answer accordingly. If he decides to admit you in the country, he will stamp your passport.
2. STEP TWO: THE CUSTOMS
a) Looking for your baggage
You will reach another huge room together with all international passengers admitted to the United States. Check the screens and find your luggage at the right conveyor belt. Than, there is another line, this time unique for every passengers.
b) Passing through customs
At the end of the line, you will stand in front of another officer. A lot of things can happen here. Maybe he will ask you a few questions, maybe not. Maybe he will read your declaration (the purple sheet), maybe not. In most of cases, he will just withdraw the form. Be aware: he can always ask you follow him for baggage inspection.
Pay attention. By the moment the officer withdraws your U. S. Custom Declaration form, you are officially allowed to go wherever you want within the United States. Leaving the purple sheet in the officer’s hands is in some extent a symbolic gesture: it means that the U. S. Customs and Border protection has ended his job with you.
At this point of the process, if the landing airport is the one of your final destination, you are done. Taxis or ground transportation will take you to your hotel. Welcome to the United States!