Entering the U.S. on an Immigrant Visa and Passing CBP Inspection

U.S. entry for new green card holders--understanding primary and secondary inspection procedures.

By , Attorney · University of Arizona College of Law

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 U.S. and pass inspection at the airport, docking point, or land border. This article will describe how to successfully do that.

Make Sure to Travel Before Your Immigrant Visa Expires

Although an immigrant visa leads to permanent residence in the United States, the visa itself is just an entry document. It has an expiration date. Therefore you must use it to enter the U.S. before that expiration date.

If you are immigrating in a family group, the principal applicant must enter the U.S before or at the same time as the rest of the family.

Hand Carry Your U.S. Immigrant Visa, Unopened

When your immigrant visa was issued, you might also have received a sealed packet containing your immigration file. (Alternatively, all your documents might have been transmitted electronically, in which case your immigrant visa would have the notation "IV Docs in CCD.")

If you did receive a packet, do not open it. For safety's sake, you should hand carry the packet with you and not put it in your checked luggage.

You should also hand-carry your X-rays from your medical exam if they were actually given to you rather than sent electronically, and if they do not fit in the packet.

First Stop Before Entering: Primary Inspection

The majority of people entering on immigrant visas are admitted to the United States with little or no difficulty. Still, the entry inspection process can take time, sometimes hours, so allow plenty of time between connecting flights.

If you are arriving in the U.S. by plane, upon exiting you should enter the line for "Permanent Residents," unless there is a specific line designated for new permanent residents.

The first U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officer you meet will verify your identity, then direct you to a designated secondary inspection area for new immigrants. This inspection normally takes place at the first U.S. airport at which you land, even if your ultimate destination is somewhere else. Or, depending upon where you are coming from, you might instead go through "pre-flight-inspection," in which a U.S. immigration officer inspects you at the airport you depart from.

If you are entering at a U.S. land border, the primary inspection officer will direct you to a parking area. You will then go inside the office at the bridge for further inspection. Procedures vary depending on location, so as you approach the U.S. border, be aware of signage that might direct you to a designated line or pre-border parking area for new immigrants.

Next Stop: Secondary Inspection

In the secondary inspection area, whether at an airport or land border, the CBP officer will open your packet and review your documents. Immigrants with certain medical conditions might be given information about where to go for a follow-up medical exam in their new town of residence.

In some locations, there might be other people in the secondary inspection area who were referred there because of immigration violations or criminal convictions. You might see people being questioned and denied entry, but this is no cause for concern. Secondary inspection areas are used for anyone whose processing might take longer. If you had a previous immigration violation or criminal conviction, the officer will verify that you obtained the proper waiver or that the consular officer was aware of the information and determined you were still eligible for the visa.

Successful Entry to the United States

If all goes well, your passport will be stamped to show your new status as a U.S. lawful permanent resident (or a lawful conditional resident if you're immigrating based on a marriage that is less than two years old). You can now enjoy the benefits of long-term status in the United States, and start working your way toward qualifying for U.S. citizenship, if you wish.

Your actual green card will be mailed to you some weeks later.

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