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Everything You Need to Know About Air Travel in the U.S.

Traveling to a U.S. airport? Here’s what to expect for security protocols, how to navigate U.S. customs, and more

Nov 21, 2022

Immigrant in Airport, Traveling

The holiday season is coming up, which usually means an increase in air travel across the U.S.! If you have plans to reunite with loved ones or take a holiday vacation, you’ll want to read up on the immigration, customs, and security processes at U.S. airports so you can navigate your trip with confidence. Whether you’re new to flying in general, or you’ll be flying into the U.S. for the first time, here are some helpful travel tips and important information about U.S. airports that every traveler should know.

Arriving at a U.S. Airport From Abroad

If you’re arriving at a U.S. airport from abroad, you will technically pass through a “port of entry” to officially and lawfully enter the country. Everyone arriving at a port of entry to the U.S. (U.S. citizens and foreign nationals) is subject to inspection by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers to ensure compliance with immigration, customs, and agriculture regulations.

Immigration Checkpoints

For foreign nationals, arriving at a U.S. airport is a two-part process — passing through an immigration checkpoint as well as a U.S. customs checkpoint. For the first step, you will pass through a U.S. immigration checkpoint shortly after you exit the plane. At the immigration checkpoint, foreign nationals must establish their admissibility to the U.S. and prove they have the proper visa or immigration status to enter the country. During the immigration inspection, you will be required to show your passport and valid visa to a CBP officer, who will enter your biographic information into CBP’s electronic tracking system and stamp your passport to indicate that you entered the U.S. lawfully. CBP now gathers all foreign nationals’ travel records (otherwise known as Form I-94 Arrival/Departure Record) electronically. You can access your most recent and any past Form I-94s online at CBP’s official I-94 site.

U.S. Customs

After the immigration checkpoint, the second step in the process is to pass through U.S. customs. Overall, the customs process may take longer than the immigration checkpoint and include an additional interview with a CBP officer about your travels and what items you intend to enter the U.S. with.

There are several steps you can take to better prepare for U.S. customs and ensure you pass through more efficiently. Before your flight, be sure to familiarize yourself with what you are allowed and not allowed to bring into the U.S. CBP restricts certain types of items that are deemed threats to community health and public safety.

It’s also best to have all required papers in order and ready to show to the CBP officer when it comes time for your customs interview. Anyone entering the U.S. by air must complete the CBP Declaration Form 6059B, which provides basic information about the traveler and what personal items, food, or currency they are bringing into the U.S. The declaration form also includes specific questions on agricultural and wildlife products and whether or not you have visited a farm prior to traveling to the U.S. If you are traveling with other immediate family members, you generally only need to complete one form for your entire family. Many travelers choose to complete their declaration forms before their flight arrives to reduce any delays after they disembark the plane. Airlines typically provide passengers with the CBP Declaration Form 6059B during the flight, so that you can have the document ready once you land.

When it’s your turn to speak with a CBP officer at the U.S. customs checkpoint, be prepared to answer questions about your stay in the U.S. CBP officers are authorized to ask you questions about your travel plans and your personal background, including:

  • Your citizenship or immigration status
  • Your purpose of travel
  • Duration of your trip
  • Where you’ll be staying in the U.S.
  • Any personal items you’re bringing into the country

CBP officers also have the legal authority to search you or your baggage. It’s important to answer each question truthfully and thoroughly, and comply with any additional requests the CBP officer may have.

Inspection Step-by-Step

Overall, the CBP inspection process includes the following steps:

  • Gather the necessary travel documents prior to boarding your flight (this includes your passport, valid visa to enter the U.S., or Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) information, if eligible for the Visa Waiver Program)
  • Complete the CBP Declaration Form 6059B on board the airplane
  • Arrive in the U.S. and pass through an immigration checkpoint (if applicable)
  • Pick up baggage from the baggage carousel (if applicable)
  • Show your declaration form to a CBP officer and answer any additional questions (baggage may be inspected)
  • Pay duty (if applicable)
  • Proceed through the final CBP checkpoint and enter the U.S.

Departing From a U.S. Airport

What Documents Do I Need to Bring?

If you’re flying within the U.S., a valid driver’s license or other government-issued photo ID is all that is required for U.S. domestic flights. You’ll need to present your photo ID when checking into your flight, passing though the security checkpoint, and when boarding your flight.

If you’re flying outside the U.S., a passport from your country of nationality is required. If you’re unable to provide a passport or photo ID, you may be denied boarding or removed from your flight at the discretion of CBP officers.

What to Expect at Security Checkpoints

If you’re departing from a U.S. airport, you’ll be required to pass through a security checkpoint prior to boarding your flight. The Transportation Security Agency (TSA) is the government agency responsible for the security of transportation systems within the U.S., including all airports. TSA agents conduct security checks at U.S. airports, and all travelers are required to comply with the TSA’s security protocols.

After finding the correct terminal building for your flight, and checking into your flight with your respective airline, you’ll now be ready to proceed to the security checkpoint. Most airlines in the U.S. recommend that you arrive at the airport at least two hours before departure for domestic flights and three hours for international flights. These are general guidelines for everyday travel, but during peak travel times in the U.S. such as holiday weekends, it may be wise to allow even more time at the airport, to ensure you have enough time to navigate the security checkpoint and find your gate before departure.

The security checkpoint process usually includes the following steps:

  • A TSA agent will check your boarding pass and ID (driver’s license or government-issued photo ID for domestic flights, passport for international flights). To save time, have both items on-hand before entering the security checkpoint line.
  • Enter the baggage screening line and when it’s your turn, prepare your plastic bins with clothing, liquids, electronics, and any other carry-on luggage items.
  • Take off your shoes, jacket, and belt and make sure to empty your pockets
  • Take out your laptop, iPad, and any other large electronic devices. Smaller devices such as tablets and phones can generally be kept in your carry-on luggage.
  • Push your bins and carry-on luggage through the scanner and then join the line to go through the X-ray machine. Be sure to comply with any additional instructions or requests TSA agents may have as you pass through the checkpoint.

The TSA’s site contains a travel guide section with frequently asked questions and a detailed travel checklist, which you can download and check off as you prepare for your flight. The U.S. Department of Transportation also put together a list of helpful air travel tips on their official site.

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