If you have been granted a non-immigrant (temporary) visa by a U.S. embassy or consulate, such as a B-1 visitor, F-1 student, or H-1B worker, then you will have been given entry documents to use at the end of your travel to the the United States. But you must still pass inspection at the U.S. airport, docking point, or land border.
You will be inspected by an officer of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). If entering by plane, this inspection will normally take place at the first U.S. airport at which you land, even if your ultimate destination is somewhere else. Or, depending on where you are coming from, you may instead go through "preflight-inspection," in which a U.S. immigration officer inspects you at the airport you depart from.
Even if you don't go through pre-flight inspection, your name will be checked in a security database while you travel. If CBP finds a problem (such as a criminal conviction, a name that looks like yours on a terrorist watch list, or a notation that your visa has been revoked), it might select you at the arrival gate and escort you to inspection.
(For information on the various types of nonimmigrant U.S. visas, see Alllaw's section on Nonimmigrant Visas.)
Unless your journey began in Canada, Mexico, a territory or possession of the U.S., or any adjacent island, you will need to pay a $6.00 user fee to enter the United States.
The first inspector you meet will conduct what's called "primary inspection." There will probably be a long line of people behind you, for which reason the inspector will be trying hard not to spend too much time with you. The majority of people entering on visas are admitted to the United States with little or no difficulty.
Primary Inspection ordinarily involves being asked questions about your eligibility to enter the United States using the visa you were given. The inspector will be watching you closely, judging whether you appear to be answering honestly, or are unusually nervous.
You have reason to be at least a little nervous. With nonimmigrants, the inspectors have "expedited removal" powers, meaning that if they don't believe your story, they can turn you around and send you home (or have you detained in the meantime). This blot on your record will disqualify you from entering the U.S. for many years. If it looks like you're going to be ordered removed, it is often preferable to ask to withdraw your request for admission instead, and leave voluntarily.
The inspector may search your person or your baggage, looking for evidence that either supports or refutes your eligibility to enter. For example, let's say that the inspector believes that, despite your having been given a B-1 tourist visa, you are really planning to settle in the U.S. and look for a job. He or she might search your bags for contact information of prospective employers, resumes and other paperwork you would use in job-hunting, or other indications of your true intentions.
Although it's rare, the CBP inspector can also conduct a medical inspection, most likely if you exhibit alarming mental or physical symptoms. This is an issue of both your admissibility and whether you should be quarantined. Of course, the inspector can't examine you physically. But, he or she could refer you for a followup exam by the U.S. Public Health Service or by a specially designated Civil Physician.
If the CBP inspector cannot decide whether you are admissible, you might be sent for secondary inspection (also within the airport or other entry point, but with a different inspector or a supervisor).
This allows you some privacy, and helps make sure the lines don't get longer. It also allows the CBP inspectors to ask you some tough questions. The CBP inspector may work with you to create a sworn statement about your visa eligibility and innocence of any fraud. He or she may check computer databases for more information about you and, if necessary, contact other agencies or people who know you.
If you are suspected of having committed fraud to obtain the visa, or of having a criminal record, you may be placed in "restraints," usually ankle bracelets.
For obvious reasons, secondary can be a frightening experience. There is no time limit -- it can last several hours. You will not be allowed access to a lawyer during this period. You may make a call using a CBP phone, but not your own cell phone. If enough time goes by, CBP will order in food for you.
If the inspectors still can't decide on your case, you might be paroled in (allowed into the U.S. provisionally) pending further inspection or referred to an exclusion hearing. That would be an excellent time to call an attorney. The attorney can help figure out what is creating suspicion and argue for your eligibility for entry.
If all goes well, and you pass inspection, your passport will be stamped and you will issued Form I-94 (Arrival/Departure Record), which will show the date by which you must leave the United States.
Do not make the mistake of believing you can wait until the expiration date of your visa to leave the U.S. – the visa is an entry document, and the date shown there is simply the last date upon which you could use it for U.S. entry. The date on the I-94 is the important one to follow.
For information on what happens if you overstay a U.S. visa, see Consequences of Overstaying on a Temporary U.S. Visa.