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Landing in the USA

So you are on your way to America, prepared to land. Exciting feeling, isn't it?

Most US airports reserve one or more terminals for international flights only. This not only for security purposes, but before you grant entrance to US territory you have to pass some checks. Two of them, first the INS check then the US Customs check.

As a particularity of the US that there are present all the nations of the world. It's really a policultural country. During the last century many many people moved (or immigrated) to the US in the hope of a better life, better living conditions or more money. To many of them has been granted refugee status from their suppressive governments. Just think about of the World War II.

The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) is a governamental agency responsible for immigration-related services and enforcement of immigration laws and regulations. It is in charge amongst others for

port-of-entry inspections
border control
work authorizations and permits
granting refugee and asylum status
deportation of illegal immigrants
document fraud and others

So before letting you in the US you will have to pass the inspection of an INS officer first.

In the airplane during your flight you receive two forms: an Arrival/Departure Form (also called I-94) and a Customs Declaration Form. The stewardesses will help you fill out both. Both of them are white. You will have to fill out some of your personal information like name, date of birth, passport number, your contact address in the US etc.

To the INS officer you will present your passport and the I-94 form. This is your business card. However be prepared to wait and stay a long line. Sometimes, especially when more international flights arrive in the same time the INS inspection area can be quite busy. Imagine, hundreds of people from several airplanes are waiting in line at the INS. It is not uncommon to see 20-30 or more INS officers processing applications on 20-30 or more individual lines. The lines are moving pretty fast however sometimes it might take 30 minutes or more to get through. Just be patient, smile and relax.

The INS officer always inquires about the purpose and estimated lenght of your stay. In case of tourists and students they often ask how much money do you have available, who will take care of you etc. Be prepared to answer these questions. Usually this questioning is very light, just like a formality, but sometimes if they suspect you try to hide something from them they can go into much more details. The INS has the right to refuse anyones entrance in the US. Moreover, they can even cancel your visa and send you home right away if they find it appropriate.

Stay calm and relaxed. Be helpful and cooperative. I always smile to them and answer their questions firmly and politely. I acknowledge them, their hard work and tell them about it. "Oh boy, it's a busy day today, it's not easy... :-)". At the end the INS officer will stamp on your I-94 form the admittance date, detach a portion of your I-94 form and stamp it in your passport. Take well care of it, don't loose it. You will have to submit it to the INS officer when you leave the US.

The admittance date stamped usually in red onto the I-94 is the last date when you can stay legally in the US. For a visitor visa this is usually 3-6 months. In other words you MUST leave the US at latest at the stamped date. Even if your visa is valid much longer (e.g. 10 years for a visitor visa), you can not stay past the stamped date. I mean... you can, nobody will search for you, but when leaving the US the INS will check the date on your I-94 form and you risk to be banned from the US for many years to come (3-10 years). Which you don't want of course. It just doesn't worth it. There are lots of legal ways to stay and work legally in the US. More about this later in the Immigration chapter.

After you passed the INS you have to go through the US Customs check. This is usually pretty fast. While you were waiting in line for the INS check, all the luggages from the airplane were downloaded and transferred to the luggage claim areas. After you passed the INS check you are free to find and pick-up your luggage (baggage claim area). Sometimes this can be quite time consuming, especially if there are more flights' luggages directed to one conveyor belt. But finally you will find yours, all of them in one piece, with hopefully not more damaged than a few scratches on them, you pick them up and go to the US Customs. They will X-ray your bags, ask you if you have anything to declare, if you have any hazardeous materials with you, then you will give them the Customs Declaration Form and you are free to go.

So you are in the US! You made it! Very well done!

Just as a remark, once entered in the US you probably won't have too much to deal with the INS. If you fly on domestic flights (only inside the US, without leaving the country) you never will be checked by the INS again. Normally they check you at the arrival and departure only.

OK, now let's move on now and see what legal documents, papers are used in the US and how you can get them. The main documents what you will here a lot about in the US are the Drivers Licence and Social Security Number.


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