If you have been granted an immigrant visa by a U.S. embassy or consulate, you are almost a permanent resident of the United States (green card holder) – but not quite. The last step in your process is to travel to the the U.S. and pass inspection at the 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 or a name that looks like yours on a terrorist watch list), it might select you at the arrival gate and escort you to inspection.
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 user fee of $6.00 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 as a lawful permanent resident. The inspector will be watching you closely, judging whether you appear to be answering honestly, or are unusually nervous.
The inspector may also 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 your visa paperwork looks fraudulent, or that you are not the person you claim to be. He or she might search your bags for addresses, photos, or other indications of who you really are and where you're really going.
Although it's rare, the CBP inspector can also conduct a medical inspection, both concerning your admissibility and whether you should be quarantined. Of course, the inspector would never examine you physically. But asking questions is okay, and if your answers raise concerns, or if you exhibit alarming physical or mental symptoms, 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 CBP to ask you some tough questions. The CBP officer may work with you to create a sworn statement that you will sign. He or she may check computer databases for more information about you and, if necessary, contact other agencies, your employer, or your family.
People who are suspected of fraud, or of having a criminal record, may be placed in "restraints," usually ankle bracelets.
For obvious reasons, secondary inspection can be a frightening experience, and it can last several hours. You will not be allowed access to a lawyer during this time. 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.
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 represent you at your hearing, arguing for your eligibility for entry as as a U.S. permanent resident and your eligibility to get a green card.
If all goes well, and you pass inspection, your passport will be stamped to show your status as a lawful permanent resident (or lawful conditional resident if you're immigrating based on a marriage that is less than two years old on the day you enter the U.S.). Your actual green card will be mailed to you some weeks later.