Immigration & Naturalization Law
Crossing the U.S. Border
The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, resulted in stricter requirements for crossing the border and entering the United States.
U.S. citizens and foreigners must now present a valid passport and sometimes other documentation. In addition to tighter control of who enters and leaves the U.S., there is a program to analyze the visa applications of those who reside in countries considered high risk. This has resulted in travel restrictions for several people.
These measures are considered necessary for the safety of all persons entering and leaving the United States.
Two government agencies oversee the presence on U.S. soil of non-citizens:
- The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) handles paperwork for foreign nationals who wish to legally enter the U.S.
- U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) secures all 328 ports of entry throughout the United States and provides border crossing information.
There are different requirements to enter the country depending on your immigration status and country of origin.
Some of them are detailed below:
- Permanent residents of the United States (green card holders) must present their passports to enter the U.S. by air, but they only have to show their legal resident cards to cross the border by land or sea.
- Canadian citizens generally only need a passport to cross into the U.S. However, additional documentation may be required if you are a Canadian citizen visiting the U.S. frequently, like for work.
- Mexican citizens must present a passport and non-immigrant visa or a pre-approved border crossing card. Mexican citizens crossing the border to work in the U.S. must also present NAFTA documentation.
- Citizens of other countries must show a passport upon entry. Certain countries not included in the Visa Waiver Program should check with CBP about the requirements applicable to their country of origin.
- People with visas to reside in the U.S. for an extended time should refer to the requirements to cross the border on the CBP website.
You can cross the U.S. border by land from both Mexico and Canada. Although the length of the border with Canada is greater, attention is usually focused on the crossings from the Mexican border. You can cross from Mexico by land into California, Arizona, New Mexico, or Texas.
Since many undocumented immigrants cross the southern border by land, border patrol agents often monitor the areas near the crossings.
In these cases, there is usually control on both sides of the border. In other words, if you are traveling from Canada, you will encounter Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) agents when leaving and U.S. agents when entering.
CBP instituted the Trusted Traveler Program to expedite border crossings. At many ports of entry, there are dedicated counters for those who have CBP pre-approved entry. Those pre-authorized through this program receive a border crossing card to speed up the customs process.
Do not confuse a border crossing card with a U.S. passport card. U.S. citizens can use passport cards as a passport to cross by sea or land. It is a cheaper alternative to the full passport needed to travel by air to Mexico, Canada, Bermuda, or the Caribbean.
Travelers entering the United States must complete a declaration form (6059B). This form tells the customs agent who you are, who you are with, and what items you are bringing into the country.
It is prohibited to bring agricultural products, and anything you bring must be included in the declaration form. You must complete a separate form if you are bringing money or goods worth more than $10,000.
CBP advises travelers about security advisories and wait times at airports and land borders. Waiting times can be reduced by having all documentation in order before leaving for the U.S.
U.S. citizens traveling to foreign countries should check the entry and exit requirements of the destination country. The most relevant information can be found on the CBP website. Up-to-date, country-specific information can be found on the Department of State website.
If you are planning to cross the border and have questions, contact an immigration attorney for assistance.
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