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What You Need To Know Before You Immigrate To U.S.

Getting Permission to Come

Before you depart for America, you must obtain a legal document from the U.S. government, called a visa. Foreign nationals coming for a short visit need what is called a nonimmigrant visa; people coming to live in America need an immigrant visa.

There are many categories of visas for immigrants and nonimmigrants. Family members of U.S. citizens make up the largest number of immigrant visas issued each year by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), the government agency responsible for issuing visas. Students and businesspeople make up the largest groups of nonimmigrant visas.

Usually, only foreign nationals approved by the U.S. Government for immigrant visas may come to the United States with the intention of staying for an extended period. The INS will sometimes allow diplomats or business visitors on nonimmigrant visas to stay for long periods, but most temporary visitors must have a time limit and a clear itinerary or plan for what they will be doing in the country. The purpose of a temporary visit must fit into clearly defined categories under U.S. immigration law, and the person must have obtained a visa that allows them to come into the country for that reason. Generally, the United States issues nonimmigrant visas for tourists, business visitors, students and workers with some kind of specialty that is lacking in the U.S. workforce.

How To Apply for a Visa

You cannot apply for a visa when you arrive at a U.S. port of entry. Unless you're from a "Visa Waiver" country, you must obtain your visa at a U.S. consulate before you depart for the United States. If your plans change between the time you get a visa and the time you want to leave for the United States, you are required by law to go back to the consulate to obtain a new visa. If you wish to enter on a Visa Waiver, simply present yourself, your passport and your ticket home to the officers you'll meet upon arrival. If you come by land through Canada or Mexico, however, you'll also be asked for proof of sufficient funds to pay for your stay.

One of the worst things you can do to your chances of getting a visa or changing your immigration status in the future is to lie during the visa application process or when you are being interviewed at the U.S. border by an immigration inspector. Lies can have both immediate and long-term consequences.


Know Your Rights

Foreign nationals attempting to come to the United States, either temporarily or permanently, have very few rights during the application and screening process. You can expect to be questioned several times: at the U.S. embassy or consulate where you apply for a visa, at the airport or harbor when you begin your journey to America, and when you arrive at the border.

Even if you suspect that you will have problems with your visa at the U.S. border, you cannot have a lawyer present to represent you when you arrive, nor are you allowed to call one if problems occur during your INS interrogation. Your bags can be searched without your permission and immigration officials can ask you almost any question. If you do not offer clear and reasonable answers to these questions -- or you appear unprepared or overly nervous -- you can be excluded and sent back to your home country. Or, in some cases, you may be allowed to appear before an immigration judge to prove that you should be allowed into the United States. If an immigration official sees a clear reason why you should be excluded -- your paperwork is old or expired, for example -- you will probably be given the boot immediately. If the officer is simply suspicious or you have committed a minor error, you may be allowed to appear before a judge.

What You Can Expect At The Border


The first person you meet on arrival in the United States won't offer you a smile or a cold drink. An unfriendly interrogation is more likely what you'll get from the U.S. Immigration Officer who inspects your passport and documents when you arrive at a border post, whether by air, land or sea. Sometimes the questioning will be nice and polite; sometimes it will seem quite harsh. In every case, the inspector is looking for information that might prevent you from entering the country.

Immigration officials are trained to be skeptical of everyone, especially someone coming to the United States on a tourist or nonimmigrant visa who looks like they might be considering a permanent move to the United States. If you are not already a permanent resident of the United States and the immigration officer finds a problem with your visa or other papers, you can be refused entry at the border and returned to your home country without the opportunity to plead your case before a judge.

Whether you are visiting or a permanent resident with a green card, the more prepared you are when you reach a border post, the fewer problems you will face. Here are a number of questions you should be prepared to answer. This is not an exhaustive list, however. The inspector is free to ask you just about any question he or she can think of.

Here are some of the questions the inspector might ask you:

Why are you visiting the United States? Your answer must be compatible with your visa. If it isn't, you could be put on the next flight home or be forced to explain your error to an immigration judge.

Where will you be staying? The inspector wants to know that you have made clear plans for what you will be doing in the United States. If you have no previously arranged places to stay, the inspector might question whether you should be admitted.

Who you will be visiting? Again, the inspector is looking to see that you have clear plans.

How long will you be staying? The inspector wants to know that you are not staying longer than you should. Even if your visa says "multiple entry" or "one year," you may not be allowed to remain that long. In fact, if you plan to stay the exact length allowed by your visa, the inspector might question your intent to make a temporary visit.

How much money are you bringing? The inspector wants to know that you have enough money to cover your expenses in the United States.

Have you visited the United States before and, if so, did you remain longer than you were supposed to? If you stayed in the United States for six months longer than you were allowed, you are not eligible to come to the United States again without special permission.

How often do you come to the United States? The inspector is looking to see if you are trying to use repeated nonimmigrant visas as a way of living in the United States.

More Tips For Entering the U.S.

  • Make sure nothing that you bring to the United States appears to contradict the visa status you have been given. If you are coming as a tourist, don't bring along a book on how to immigrate to the United States. You might have the book because you have future plans to apply for immigration, but the INS won't see it that way.
  • Do not bring illegal or questionable items through customs. It may be legal in your country to carry a firearm. It is not legal to bring it into the United States and, if you have one in your luggage, it could lead to your immediate exclusion. Make sure you are not carrying other illegal or questionable items in your luggage, like illegal drugs, pornography or plants, fruits or animals that are not allowed into the United States.

  • Pay attention to your appearance. Dress plainly and neatly. Someone coming to the United States on a tourist visa dressed in old, ragged clothes might raise questions from INS officials on how they can afford their vacation. Someone coming from a poor country dressed too richly might raise other questions on how they can afford their lifestyle. Someone coming for a short stay with a lot of luggage might also raise concerns, as might someone who comes for a long stay with little luggage.

  • Be polite and calm. It may be hard after a long airplane flight, but a little politeness can go a long way to getting you though the process. Remember that if you seem like a likeable person, you are more likely to get the benefit of any doubts the INS inspector might have about you.

  • Have all your required papers. If you lack any of the required documentation, you will be detained, even if you are otherwise entitled to enter the United States. Lacking papers will be a red flag to the INS official to take a closer look at you.

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