You’ve just been outside of the US on an exciting holiday (vacation) but now it’s time to dig out your visa and line up in the US Customs queue. Maybe you’re on a H-1B, a J or an E2 or E3 visa and it’s the first time you’ve fronted US Customs since moving to the US for work or study.

I don’t know about you, but I always get butterflies somersaulting in my stomach as I wait in that line, even though I know what to expect and the questions I’ll be asked. It’s time I shared them with you so that you’re not caught off guard and tongue tied.

Remember, I’m not a lawyer, so this is all based on my experience and not a well-studied or practiced knowledge of the law. If you’re worried about anything feel free to ask away but don’t take my word as gospel.

1. Have Your Papers In Order

It seems obvious, but in the rush of planning trips, and booking flights and hotels, remembering to check expiration dates can be a tall order. Well before you leave, ensure your passport isn’t about to expire. It’s best to apply for a new one about six months before the old one expires. This might mean your visa is pasted into your old passport, while you’re travelling on the new one. If this is the case, make sure you ALWAYS CARRY YOUR OLD PASSPORT with you when you travel. Without that visa, you’re in trouble.
Having said that, make sure there is enough time left on your visa to allow re-entry to the United States. If you’re worried that a work visa may run out before you get back, follow it up with your immigration lawyer. Some visas only allow a certain number of entries into the country, so check that you are still within the guidelines.

2. Questions

You got a taste of this when you first moved to the US, and you might think it would be plain sailing each subsequent time you tried to enter the US, but that’s not necessarily the case. You’ll get most of the same questions that you were asked the first time around.
Things like: where you work, what your job title is, how long you’ve been in the states and your travel history.
Travelling can be pretty tiring (especially if you’re going home to Australia or other far-flung parts of the world), and by the time you get to US Customs you’re probably going to be tired and irritable. It doesn’t pay to show either of these things when talking to officials. They’re doing their job so try to be patient and clear when answering questions. If you’re unsure of what they’re asking get them to rephrase the question.
If you are detained by US Customs for any reason, keep in mind that you’re not guaranteed to be able to contact your lawyer or have any legal representation.

3. Photographs and Fingerprints

I’m not a fan of being fingerprinted and I don’t really know why since I’m the least likely to do anything even minutely outside of the law. It just seems like an invasion of privacy somehow.

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If you’re like me, prepare yourself to be photographed and finger printed each time you go through US Customs from an overseas destination. Your visa, passport, photograph and fingerprints will be cross checked with the information already in the Homeland Security database to ensure you are who you say you are, before you’ll be granted entry to the US.

4. Change of Status

If you’re in the middle of switching from a visa to becoming a permanent US resident, you MAY require advance permission to leave the country. I haven’t experienced this myself and it doesn’t hold for all visa types but it’s a good heads up in case you need to check this out.

Happy Travels!

Let us know about anything you’ve picked up along the way and any obstacles you’ve faced in the comment section below.

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