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Sunday, June 17, 2018

Coming to America: bold hints for painless border crossing

Once in an online discussion someone told me that British citizenship was a privilege, not a right. I thought that was an interesting perspective. It is certainly true that some countries are more privileged than others. I, for example, was born in the U.S., which is not a reflection of my merit in any way. But it is a privileged citizenship to have.
Nonetheless as Wikitravel attests: “The United States is not the easiest country to try to enter, even for US citizens.” Many countries do not ask their returning citizens any questions at all; but I (and, anecdotally, other Americans) have been asked all sorts. For this reason, I know that many citizens, never mind non-citizens, find it stressful to enter the U.S., to the point that they avoid it. (See The Economist on the world’s worst airports.)

The Discreet Traveler wants everyone to travel as freely as they want and can afford to. So I’m offering my anecdotal experience, in the hopes that others can relax and be prepared for their travels to the U.S.

Here are three things that make traveling to the U.S. different from other countries:
  1. Immigration and customs functions are combined. The same officer may ask about your immigration status (in my case, look at my U.S. passport) but also what you are carrying with you, how much it cost, etc. Related to this is the fact that every traveler to the U.S., including citizens, must fill out the blue “customs form.” 
  2. There is no secure zone in U.S. airports for transferring from an international flight, as there is in most international airports. This means that everyone who lands in America must clear U.S. customs and immigration, even if they are only transferring from, say, Europe to South America.
  3. The U.S. has no exit immigration controls at airports, and at land borders they may or may not take a departing non-citizen’s record properly. This means that the onus is on the airline, and ultimately the traveler—you—to document when you left the U.S.
  • Hints for non-citizens: When you depart the U.S. by air, save your boarding pass. The next time you travel to the U.S., if there is any question that you left on time, you can offer this as evidence (along with any dated stamp in your passport).
  • If you depart the U.S. by land, make sure the official removes the stub of the I-94 (white or green) form from your passport. If they don’t, you could be refused entry the next time if it’s still in your passport. This happens so commonly that U.S. Customs and Border Protection has a specific web page instructing you what to do to solve the problem. Follow these steps at before your next trip to the U.S.
Now, you wouldn’t need this blog post if traveling to the U.S. were totally straightforward. In the past, I have found that criticism of things American can be taken as hatred of the U.S. (yes, this word has been used). That is nonsense. I think America is a great country, which is why I want people to travel there and for their experience to be a happy one. Many of the aspects I personally disagree with are probably due to the fact that most Americans don’t travel, so the issues of returning citizens or those of us living abroad are unknown to them.

For example, the U.S. claims broad powers at the border, and even 100 miles inland from the border. That explains those checkpoints you find, say, in Arizona, nowhere near Mexico. My personal belief is that these are completely at odds with the American value of free people moving around without having to show their papers to cops; but my beliefs about borders are not relevant here. Certain things are politically achievable, but whether I stand up for those things at the border depends on whether making my point, or actually traveling, is more important. Take the blue form:

When the first same-sex marriages became legal in Canada, a gay couple identified themselves at U.S. customs and immigration as a family. At the time, the blue form required family members to have the same last name. The U.S. refused to recognize the men as a couple; they’d made their point and left. Years later, the terms of the blue form were quietly changed and now a same-sex couple can, and indeed we are expected to, present ourselves together at U.S. customs and immigration. (Flight crew will still insist on the old criteria; we just ignore them and fill out one form.)

I admire the activism of those first couples, without which we would not have come this far. In the past, the only country’s borders where my non-U.S. partner and I would be separated was the U.S. I would go through the citizens’ line with no idea how long she would take to get in. If there had been a problem I wouldn’t have been there, nor could I have known about it, because you can’t turn your mobile phone on at customs and immigration. It was nerve-wracking, but it wouldn't have occurred to me to mention our relationship to the U.S., because its homophobic laws had made me leave in the first place.

All of this is to say that I understand, and have experienced, the anxiety of someone who is different and especially queer families at the border. Which is why I take the Boy Scout approach: Work to change rules that you disagree with, and obey them in the meantime. But I respect individuals who can afford to take risks, such as U.S. citizens who will not answer questions about why they are coming to the U.S., or where they are going to stay, or what they do abroad. 

Hints for U.S. citizens: 
• If you are a citizen you have the right to enter the U.S. Officials have to let you in; it just depends how prepared you are to be inconvenienced and delayed.

• Once your citizenship is established—that is, unless they think your passport is fake or you are not the person identified in it—then any further questions should only have to do with customs, not immigration. Just because a citizen doesn’t think it’s any of the U.S.’s business doesn’t mean it might not have to do with customs. For instance: Which countries have you traveled to? This could be related to whether you are more likely to be smuggling drugs, cigars, or endangered species. Of course, you are probably not smuggling anything and if you are actually accused of a crime, you have the right to a lawyer, whether you are at the border or not.

Hints for all travelers: 
If you think something about your name, appearance, etc. may raise a flag with the officials, try to breathe through that. Nervousness or hostility in themselves can raise a flag. It took me a lot of years to realize that just being tired from a long flight was okay, and all I had to do was answer questions in the way most likely to get me through most quickly. Honestly, without volunteering information not asked for.

• Perhaps because of the “I’m asking for a friend” cliche, officers all over the world seem suspicious of anyone having a “friend.” You may really be visiting a friend but be prepared to explain who he is and why you are staying with him. I’ve been asked a lot more questions, no matter which country, when a friend was involved, including questions I could legitimately not have known the answer to (“Her boyfriend was there? What does he do?”) If in fact this friendship is a romantic relationship, either be upfront about this, or have a solid reason to spend time in the country legally, that has nothing to do with him or her.

I did this years ago when I went to the U.K. for months at a time. Studying in England, for example, was a legitimate enterprise that I had no trouble explaining to a U.K. official, especially as he was questioning me in the middle of my course, which I was returning to after Christmas break. At the time, I could hardly keep a straight face when he asked me why someone would study at Oxford (there are universities in America). Now, I realize that he was probing for another reason, and I’m glad I wasn’t living with my partner at the time, because if he’d asked I could have answered truthfully. I don’t know what would have happened had the official asked me point blank if I was in a relationship with a British person. At the time, U.K. immigration law didn’t recognize same-sex relationships any more than the U.S. 

Where I am a citizen I shouldn’t even be asked these questions, but I want to get through. I can enter the U.S. whenever I want to, for no reason, and stay forever, and it doesn’t matter where. But there is no point in saying this at a land crossing while holding up an entire busload of passengers. It is not officials’ business that I’m going to my grandfather’s funeral, but it is their job to suspect everyone. It’s better to think like they do and understand why they are asking the questions. Being questioned (or, in the non-citizen’s case, fingerprinted) “like a criminal” is and always will be offensive to me, but I also recognize that it is a far more common outrage against some people who, for instance, have a different skin color from mine—and not just at borders. 

Which brings me to 
Hints for non-U.S. citizens, who (with some exceptions like Canadians) are fingerprinted at the border, and suspected of illegal immigration. It is up to the traveler to convince the official that this is not your intention. What evidence you will need and whether you will be asked to show it depend on the official you get and her impression of you on that day. So give yourself time and be prepared. Your calmness and awareness of the rules will help.

  • If, as we frequently do, you are flying in on a one-way ticket, show up at the airport early. That way, if the airline asks you to prove onward travel from the country you're flying to, you have time. Worst case scenario, you can go online and book a refundable (within 24 hours) ticket out of the country. It might seem wrong to book an onward ticket that you will cancel as soon as you get there, but it’s not the ticket that officials are interested in. It is evidence that you have the intention and the means to leave the country. Nothing proves the means to buy a ticket like buying a ticket.
  • Have evidence of your plans in the country, or at least some ideas (if you don't have a firm itinerary).
  • Have evidence of your finances (again, to prove you have the means to leave) and of ties to your home country: your home, family, business, if you’re going back to a job. And importantly, either print these, or save them as documents or screen shots on your computer or phone. That way, you won't be scrambling for WiFi at the airport, as we have had to do.
Successfully crossing a border is not an exact science. It is an art, and improves with practice. 

So do go to America. Because Americans are friendly! On a recent program about Prince Harry and his bride, Meghan Markle, the narrator said, “She just walks up to people and says, ‘Hi, I’m Meghan.’”

Of course she does, I said. She’s American.

Flags at Phnom Penh riverfront, Cambodia


Devlyn said...

Thanks for your advice, I will be sure to remember this in a few weeks when I go to America. Well the American state of Hawaii, for a holiday.

Anonymous said...

You show wisdom here and the fruits of much experience traveling and crossing borders of all sorts. And we're delighted you are now back in the U.S.A.; we look forward to seeing you soon! G & P