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The basics
THE USA: Essentials - Must read

Essentials: US customs and airport arrival

What can you expect when you land in America? And what should you do if things go wrong at borer control? Read our guide to arriving in the States...

Arriving in America - JFK airport

America may be the land of opportunity, but it can also be a scary place; particularly if you’ve arrived on your own. There are numerous things that you can do in order to make your move to and arrival in the States a little easier. Find out below what you can do so you can prepare...



Arriving in the right place

As far as countries go, America is pretty large so the probability that you’ll be able to get a direct flight to any final destination that is not LA or New York is pretty low. If you’re studying somewhere that isn’t considered to be one of the major American cities, then you’re going to have to change to a domestic flight. You should know that if you’re taking a domestic flight (i.e. from one American airport to another), there are fewer security checks to go through which makes things a lot quicker; it’s only when you’re arriving from outside the States when you are subjected to more checks.





Preparing properly so you know where you’re going will minimise any stress which comes with making a connecting flight. Most large cities such as New York have more than one international airport, so double check that you're in the right place. After all, you don’t want to land in New York’s JFK airport only to discover your connecting flight leaves from LaGuardia Airport in ten minutes time!


You should also plan in advance how you’re going to reach your accommodation once you land, make your way through customs and collect your luggage. Some universities offer an airport shuttle service for new undergraduates, but this isn’t an option that is available to everyone. Could you possibly take a Greyhound coach or train? Or would it be easier to splash out on a taxi? Most airports have cab stands near the entrances and exits, so finding some form of travel shouldn’t be too difficult (though it can be expensive).



Watch the following video to see what you can expect when you land in America:




Have you got the correct documents?

When you arrive at US border control, you will be expected to undergo an inspection process. Although this sounds incredibly daunting, it is simply the required process for all of those seeking entry into the US. When arriving into the airport, all travellers will be given a 6059B declaration form to fill out. Those wishing to gain entry into the country with a visa will be expected to fill out the additional I-94 form.


Read our guide to applying for a US student visa


Before attempting to enter the country, you should have already applied for and have documented proof that you have been given a visa. The earlier you apply for your visa, the quicker your application will be processed, so it is recommended that you submit your application as soon as you are able to do so (i.e. once you accept your offer from a university). To qualify for a student visa, you should be able to demonstrate that you’ve been accepted on an academic course of study, and that you have the financial means of supporting yourself while you study. You should also have an I-20 form from your school or university that outlines to the government that you are eligible for an F-1 student visa.


When travelling, you should carry this documentation on you at all times as you will be processed at customs before you are allowed to pick up your baggage. Without your documentation, you will not be allowed entry into the country. You will not only be expected to produce your I-20 and visa documents, but also to show that you have a valid passport. Keep these on you or in your hand luggage which you do not check at all times.


However, a visa itself will not guarantee your entry into the country. Homeland Security and CBP (Customs and Border Protection) officials are able to permit and deny entry into the USA. The I-20 documentation should also be produced every time you enter or exit the country, so it is important that you keep these documents safe.


Once you make your way through customs, your passport and customs declaration form will be stamped and you will be issued with an I-94 form which outlines once more how long you are allowed to stay.


Remembered everything? Read our guide, ‘40 Questions international students should ask before they leave’ and keep our checklist of essential documents.



Also, a recent update you should know about...

Any passaengers entering the US must have all electronic devices on them charged up when boarding their flight bound for America. This may sound strange, but it is precaution set out by authorities to prevent any dangerous weapons passing through border control and into America. Any devices which are not charged and are out of battery will not be allowed on flights heading to America. So make sure you don't use up your phone or tablet battery on the way, or you may have to leave it behind.



What to do when things go wrong

As well as the above documentation, it is advisable that you keep the contact details of your university on you at all times (specifically a named member of staff at the university whom you’ve been in contact with who can vouch for you). More often than not, foreign students manage to navigate customs in the USA without much trouble; but just in case something does go wrong, it is always helpful to be able to contact your place of study so that they can clear up any concerns passport control may have about your time in the USA.


Think to yourself, ‘How would I prove to a stranger that I am who I say I am (i.e. a border agent)?’


Of course, every once in a while, there is a glitch in the system or a misunderstanding; after all, so many pass through border control each day, that it’s bound to happen here and there, but don’t worry. Hopefully you will be able to avoid this, but if not, it is important to know just what will happen if you are denied entry to the USA. Even with a valid visa and all of the correct documentation, entry into the country can still be refused – remember this when you’re going through security and remain on your best behaviour, following rules at all times. If you don’t follow the rules you may be placed in detention or temporary custody until alternative arrangements can be made for your return home. If the customs officer is undecided about your status, you may be postponed and relocated to another office closer to your final destination where you will be further processed.


Sometimes, there may be some smaller uncontrollable glitches with your journey, such as a flight delay or simply your baggage going missing. If any unavoidable issues do arise during your journey, then the worst thing you can do is panic. The airport staff are there to help you, and should be more than happy to help solve any problems you may have (they usually have excellent people skills and can even speak multiple languages).



Now that you know what to expect when you arrive in America, why not start browsing courses now?



Read more:

‘The US higher education system... simplified’

‘Tuition fees in the USA’

‘Applying to study in the US’

‘Applying for a US student visa’

‘Student accommodation in the USA’

Study in the USA


'Study in the USA' eBook

Enjoy what you’ve read? We’ve condensed the above popular topics about studying in the USA into one handy digital book.

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