Border Entry Rules
Created by FindLaw's team of legal writers and editors | Last reviewed June 20, 2016
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Border entry into the United States became much stricter in the wake of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Despite these new protections, immigrants can still enter the country if they fill out the appropriate paperwork beforehand and follow the rules set forth by the U.S. government. Federal agencies, most notably the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and its U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CPB) division, are tasked with balancing the need for security with the desire for an efficient and welcoming border entry system. This section covers the basics of U.S. border entry and outlines the main procedures and requirements for entering the country.
All U.S. citizens traveling by air must present a passport or other approved travel document. Some documents that qualify include a U.S. military ID with travel orders, a U.S. Merchant Mariner document when travel is on official business, or a NEXUS card where the port-of-entry permits.
U.S. citizens returning by land or sea must present a passport or document that complies with the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI) restrictions such as a NEXUS card.
Lawful Permanent Residents
Green card holders are required to present a valid passport or secure travel document and their unexpired green card to CBP when crossing the border. Those planning to spend an extended stay outside of the United States should also acquire an Advance Parole Document to avoid issues with the abandonment of residency.
Citizens of Canada, Mexico, and Bermuda
Canadian, Mexican, and Bermudan citizens entering the United States are subject to the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI). All international visitors must present a passport or secure travel document when arriving by air. However, slightly different obligations exist for nationals of these countries arriving by land or sea.
Canadians and Bermudans must present a valid passport or a WHTI compliant document such as the NEXUS, SENTRI, FAST, Global Entry, or Enhanced Driver's License card. Some Canadians and all Bermudans are subject to US-VISIT biometric procedures.
Mexicans must present a passport with a nonimmigrant visa or a laser visa border crossing card. Some Mexican citizens are subject to US-VISIT biometric procedures.
All Other International Visitors
International visitors to the U.S must normally present a passport or e-Passport when passing through customs. Visitors from designated countries may enter the U.S. without a visa under the Visa Waiver Program, though they are subject to the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) prior to their travel. Those entering with a visa are subject to US-VISIT biometric screening procedures.
Trusted Traveler Programs
Foreign nationals who are determined to be low-risk may apply for the CBP's Trusted Traveler Program, which allows for expedited border entry through dedicated kiosks and lanes. Programs include:
- NEXUS: For use between Canada & U.S. by land, sea, and air.
- SENTRI: For use between Mexico & U.S. by land, sea, and air.
- FAST: For commercial truck drivers between the U.S., Canada, and Mexico.
- Global Entry: For pre-screened international travelers to the U.S.
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