RELOCATION: If you are moving to New Jersey for the first time, the actual process of what happens when you arrive at your first US airport is useful to understand beforehand. Mostly this is for your own peace of mind and also to know what will actually happen. Sometimes not knowing what to expect, can make things seem much worse than they really are. So here is an overview of this part of your relocation adventures – the US immigration entry process.
On the plane to the US: get your Customs form
On the flight to the US, you should receive a customs form. This needs to be filled out prior to going through immigration and customs, ideally on the plane. This will help to avoid unnecessary delays at disembarkation. The customs form is fairly simple to complete. However, ensure you read all the questions carefully. If you are not sure about any food items you are carrying, then tick the box (yes) to indicate you have food.
Be sure to have the food items readily available to show the customs officers as they will want to know what you have. Somethings such as chewing gum, packaged items (commercially purchased) may not create a problem and you will likely be able to carry them through. Items of fresh food such as fruit, nuts, etc. however, cannot be brought into the country. If you have these by mistake, dispose of them in a nearby rubbish bin after you leave the plane. Otherwise you will have to declare these at customs and have your form reflect this.
The I-94 Form
Prior to May 2013, visitors to the US had to complete a paper I-94 form to show the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) staff. This is the US government department who do both immigration and customs inspections at the airport. Nowadays the I-94 is electronically developed using the plane’s manifest to obtain passenger names and personal details. The electronic version is used at all ports-of-entry for people travelling by air and sea. The land border entries, still use the paper versions (as of 2016). An I-94 or other immigration record is needed by all people entering the US, unless they are US nationals or permanent residents.
Entering the US off your plane
If you are coming from Australia, you will normally go through US immigration entry at Los Angeles airport, even if you are catching another flight to a destination further on such as New Jersey. Regardless whether you arrive here as your first port-of-entry or at other airports e.g. Chicago, New York or Newark, the procedure is exactly the same: once you come off the plane, you go through immigration first, collect your baggage, go through customs, then move onto to your next flight.
This process can be a bit long and frustrating, when you are jetlagged, lacking in patience or feeling frazzled by relocation chores prior to getting onto the plane. However, in more recent times thankfully the process has gotten much quicker, causing less frustration.
The US Immigration Entry Process
Once off the plane at your first port-of-entry into the US, you will enter the immigration hall. Here you will get your immigration papers reviewed. There is often one long big queue, especially if you are arriving at the same time as other flights. Fortunately, many visitors are from visa-waiver countries and they are carrying an ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization). These are days travelers with ESTAs are handled by an automated kiosk. These travelers are split away from the main line to go to the automated passport control kiosks. ESTA travelers do not need to have their documents reviewed the same way as visitors with visas.
Visa-holders though must go through though US immigration
All visa holders must go through immigration and get their documents checked, then fingerprinted and photographed. This occurs every time you re-enter the country. The only exception is children 12 and younger, who miss out on the this latter part. The good news is that the line of people needing to be seen at US immigration entry is often not very long. In this context, 10-20 people per officer as not considered a long queue versus the multitudes previously handled. Going through customs though can still be a bottleneck . The wait can still be somewhat long. At times, it can be up to an hour till you are through both customs and immigration. This is often only when it is extremely busy. Occasionally, connecting flights can be missed as a result.
When you arrive at your new country initially, you may experience a range of different feelings. This is after all, a pretty momentous occasion entering your new country of abode for the first time. You should be mindful though, that you are about to go through immigration. If possible, you need to be alert as your visa is processed. There is no need to be nervous as the CBP officers are usually polite, even if not chatty. It would be fair to say they take this job very seriously and have a brusque business approach. This is not the time to tell your favorite joke. Nor is it the time for strange behavior or impatience.
What Happens at the Immigration Counter
You will stand in the queue of applicants until you get beckoned forward. Have your passport and customs form ready to hand to the CBP officers. It is a standard procedure to get fingerprinted and photographed as you go through US immigration. Have your visa application package with you in the unlikely case this may be required. The norm though is for the officer to just inspect the visa in your passport(s) and the details online which will form your electronic I-94. After examining your visa, he/she will enter in the I-94 record online any details not already prefilled electronically from the flight’s records. This will include the last date up to which you are authorized to stay in the country. While we cannot see any of the I-94 information, you will get the entry and last legal exit dates stamped on your passport.
While at the immigration counter, if you have multiple names for your first, middle or surnames, try to get the CBP officer to check they have been placed correctly on your form. Sometimes middle names become surnames and vice-a-versa. It is really important if you can pick up any mistakes early, as this may save you a lot of time later. Getting correct names for expats relocating to the USA, on your I-94, can influence your later experiences with getting your Social Security card and driver license.
At the same time, the immigration officer should stamp your customs form, for the next section, after immigration. Check the passport stamp details before you walk away too far from the immigration officer you have. This in case there is something you want to query or looks incorrect.
Customs and rechecking your baggage
After finishing at immigration, you will need to collect your baggage and go through customs. Here you will hand in your customs form, and assuming you have nothing to declare, you will be allowed through. Once past here, you will be re-directed to a transfer area where your baggage is rechecked in.
This rechecking of baggage can be a confusing step. The transfer area is within the same terminal where you have been processed already. In case you thought all the fun was over, at LA International airport, this transfer area is one floor above the immigration/customs area. You access it up a winding ramp which takes you to the next floor.
Pushing your luggage up this ramp will be a nice workout to stretch those cramped muscles from the flight! The way to the transit area is usually signposted but pay attention to where you go after exiting customs. It is possible to take the wrong exit. Once at the Transit area, you will be basically dropping your baggage off before going onto your next flight. Make sure the baggage handler sees your luggage though and confirms which flight the bags must go on, before you move away, as sometimes they are handling more than one flight at this drop-off point, and it can be quite chaotic. The hardest part is done and you can now sigh with relief.
Moving onto your final destination port
If you are flying onwards e.g. LA to New York, depending on the airline, your second flight may be in the same terminal as your arrival. This is often the case with QANTAS. Otherwise you may have to move to another terminal. When we flew United Airlines, we had to change to a different terminal, as we went from an international flights terminal, to one which only had United Airlines domestic flights. Regardless, you will need to go through security once again before you get onto your next flight. Once you have arrived at your final port, you can pick up your luggage and exit the airport, without any further need for immigration or customs. You have arrived!
Welcome to the USA! Soon you will be in your new home town in NJ.