What to Expect When Traveling to the U.S. From Abroad

February 09, 2017
Tahreem Kalam

U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) Officers inspect and admit all individuals, whether an immigrant or U.S. citizen, into the U.S. The chart below outlines what you can expect after an international flight to the U.S. and the rights you have as a U.S. citizen or as a non-U.S. citizen.

Primary Inspection at an Airport

Who: All individuals, U.S. citizens and non-citizens, entering the U.S.

What:  A standard primary inspection consisting of review of relevant entry documents.

Where: Typically in a large open space at a booth after standing in line with all travelers entering the U.S.

Time: Typically 2-3 minutes with a CBP officer.

Review of travel documents:

  • If U.S. Citizen: U.S. Passport
  • If Legal Permanent Resident: Foreign Passport and Permanent resident card (i.e. Green Card.)
  • If Temporary Visa: Passport and Visa stamp and other immigration verification document(s).

Expect Generic Questions:

  • Where are you traveling from?
  • Purpose of your travels?
  • Customs Declarations – what are you bringing into the country?

Additional questions for non-citizens:

  • What is your immigration status/history?
  • What is the purpose of stay in the U.S. (work, tourism, school, etc.)?

Secondary Inspection at an Airport

Who: Selected Non-U.S. Citizens and U.S. Citizens.

Where: Smaller room within the airport with a waiting area, front desk, and smaller interview rooms and holding cell in the back.

Time: Anywhere from 30 minutes to several hours.

What: If an officer at CBP cannot verify your travel documents or responses during the primary inspection, you will be sent to ‘secondary inspection.’ It is not uncommon for non-U.S. citizens to go through a secondary inspection.

Search of your materials:

  1. CBP may search luggage, laptops, and cellphones (this includes e-mail and social media on your phone).
  • You are not obligated to provide passwords and logins to your phone or social media accounts, however, this may prolong your time in secondary.
  1. CBP may make copies of the files contained on your electronic devices.
  2. CBP may confiscate your electronic device for further study but they must provide you with a receipt of the item(s).

Search of your person:

  1. A strip search is not a routine search and must be supported by ‘reasonable suspicion,’ and must be done in a private area.
  2. You have the right to request a CBP officer of your gender.
  3. If a personal search lasts more than 2 hours, CBP may offer to inform someone, including an attorney, of the delay.

Verification of your responses:

CBP may call friends/relatives/employer in the U.S. or overseas to verify your responses.

Do I Have the Right to an Attorney?

Requesting a Lawyer as a U.S. Citizen

  1. You have the right to an attorney to be present with you during secondary inspection.
  2. Have the name and number of a local attorney readily handy should you need one.

Requesting a Lawyer as a Non-U.S. Citizen

  1. You do NOT have the right to an attorney in secondary inspection
  2. Exception: You DO have the right to an attorney if questioning goes beyond immigration-related matters, such as matters regarding your religious practices.
  3. TIP: CBP policy may vary from airport to airport – some CBP officers will meet with your attorney, even if you are not allowed communication with the attorney.
  4. You DO have the right to an attorney if you are detained or arrested.
  5. NOTE: CBP may contact someone, including an attorney, if you are administratively detained for more than 3 hours after referral to secondary. However, you may not communicate directly with others until after processing has been completed.


  1. Always tell the TRUTH, but keep your answers short and direct. Example:
    1. CBP officer: How long were you in Country X?
    2. Improper answers: “About 1 week.” “4-5 days.” Correct Answer: “1 week.” “5 days.”
    3. Do not volunteer additional information that does not respond to the questions asked.
  2. Keep a Record: Write down the name and badge number of the CBP officer questioning you in secondary.
  3. U.S. Citizens: You have the right to enter the U.S. with the presentation of proper documentation, i.e. U.S. Passport. CBP may temporarily hold you in secondary, but you must be allowed to enter the U.S.
  4. Non-U.S. Citizens: Your rights are severely limited at a U.S. port of entry. Be prepared by traveling with the name and number of a lawyer and a friend or relative to contact should you be potentially denied entry into the U.S.
  5. If CBP denies your admission into the U.S. and initiates expedited removal (deportation) proceedings: Ask to withdraw your request for admission instead of being subject to a removal order.
  6. If you are denied entry into the U.S.: Hire an attorney to attempt to gain lawful entry back into the U.S.
  7. If you believe you were discriminated against: Contact an attorney to file a complaint.
  8. Do NOT be pressured into signing any documentation without proper review or against your will: If you are a lawful permanent resident (have a green card) do not sign Form I-407. This will terminate your permanent residency status.
  9. If you speak little to no English: Request an interpreter. Interpreters are available at the airport or via phone.
  10. If you are a non-citizen and have a criminal record: Carry a certified court disposition related to each arrest that shows the final outcome of the case. IMPORTANT: certain criminal convictions may make you inadmissible to the United States, even as a permanent resident. Please speak to an immigration attorney before making travel plans.

Please note that this information is presented as a general overview. It is not intended to be used as a conclusive guide for action in any particular case. Please seek assistance from an immigration attorney with regard to individual cases.

The material contained in this alert does not constitute direct legal advice and is for informational purposes only. An attorney-client relationship is not presumed or intended by receipt or review of this presentation. The information provided should never replace informed counsel when specific immigration-related guidance is needed.

© 2023 Minsky, McCormick & Hallagan, P.C. All rights reserved. Information may not be reproduced, displayed, modified, or distributed without the express prior written permission of Minsky, McCormick & Hallagan, P.C.

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