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F1 Visa Students - USA Port of Entry Process

One of the biggest myths international students, who are entering USA for the first time, have is that if they get F1 visa stamped in their home country, they are all set to enter to USA and study. Unfortunately, that is not true. Recent instance of deportation of F1 students, who failed to convince the CBP officer at Port of Entry (PoE) is just an example. We would like to provide a very high level overview on the process to our Student community, what to expect at the PoEfor F1 visa students entering US to pursue higher education.

Does Having a Visa Guarantee Admission to USA?

Not always. In fact, US Visa will only let you travel to port of entry and then seek permission of CBP officer to allow you to enter US. What US Visa will indicate is that a consular officer at US embassy or consulate in other country has determined that you are eligible for entry, that’s it. The final decision vests with CBP officer.

What is Port of Entry in USA?

Port of Entry ( PoE) is nothing but the international airport, seaport or the border check point where you would enter America from international border. Sometimes students flying to smaller cities, arrive at a major city airport and then take a domestic flight. In this case, the first major city airport that you land is called the Port of Entry. If you drive from nearby countries like Mexico or Canada, the border check point would be the port of entry.

Who is CBP Officer? What is their role?

Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Officer is the officer at port of entry, who will check your documents, ask you some questions and ensure that you are properly authorized to enter in US. Their role is to ensure physical and economic security of United States. They have a guiding manual on what to do for the best interests of United States. For students, they would typically check your I-20, school info, etc and make sure you are having all correct documents.

What is Primary Inspection Booth? What to expect here?

It is the place, where CBP officer will check and interview anyone arriving to enter US. You usually would queue up in a line and there are a bunch of open booths in front of the line, where you will be directed to enter one of the open booths for interview. The CBP Officer would check your documents like I-20, US Visa, Passport, etc and ask you questions like below:

  • What school you are planning to study
  • What is your purpose of entering USA
  • How do you support your education

If the CBP officer is convinced with your answers and your documents seem ok for them, they will stamp your passport indicating your US Visa status at entry. Usually this last for anywhere from under 5 minutes to 10 minutes at the maximum. If CBP officer is not convinced or not able to verify something, they will send you for secondary inspection.

What is secondary inspection by CBP officer? What to expect?

Secondary inspection is something where student is taken for additional screening. It could be for reasons like they are not able to verify your documents, the CBP officer believes that there is some fraud in documents, they may believe that your intention to arrive in US is different, etc. It is more detailed, where you may be asked questions for an hour or even longer depending on the situation. The whole idea is to verify your details without causing interruption to other passengers who are behind you. There is nothing to worry, if you are taken for secondary inspection, if you are genuine and your intentions are correct.

The CBP officer would check your status in SEVIS. If there are some issues or need more info on program or school, they may check with your School’s Designated School officer (DSO). That’s why it is recommended that you carry the Name, Phone number and emergency phone number of your school’s DSO handy. If for some reason, it is just that your documents cannot be verified, SEVI Fee was not paid or reflecting, etc. the CBP officer may deny you entry or at their discretion issue Form I-515A Notice to student or Exchange visitor, which allows you to enter US temporarily for 30 days and you need to report to DSO and get your issues sorted out quickly.

What documents to carry as F1 student to make your entry smooth at PoE ?

While below is not a comprehensive list, it gives you general set of documents that you must carry. Make sure you do not put them as part of the check-in luggage. It has to be part of your carry on. No excuses allowed at port of entry that my documents are inside luggage, etc. You will only be allowed to pick up your check-in bags after the interview with CBP officer.

Documents Check list at Port of Entry for F1 Students

  • Valid Passport with enough validity for study in US
  • For I-20 Signed by DSO
  • Admission/ Acceptance letters from school.
  • I-901 SEVIS Fee Payment receipt
  • Documents proof for your financial support to cover your education.
  • Originals of Your Undergrad and other Education Certificates
  • Copy of your past transcripts that were sent to school.
  • Name and Contact info of DSO at your school
  • Address of where you will stay in US
  • Contact info of seniors or anyone, whom you interacted ( Optional)
  • Any other documents like GRE, TOEFL score reports ( Optional )

It is very important as an international student to be aware of the entry procedure at Port of Entry in US to avoid issues. You do NOT have to be in panic, if you are taken for secondary inspection, just stay calm and always tell the truth. It is your job to be fully aware of your school, your program, and other details of your education in US. Be prepared. All the BEST!