Crossing the Border

The terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, set into motion stricter border crossing requirements for entering the United States. U.S. citizens, foreign nationals and citizens of other countries must now present a valid passport and sometimes other documentation to officials at border crossings. Along with more rigid screening of all airline passengers into and out of the U.S., officials implemented a program to conduct in-depth reviews of visa applications from applicants residing in countries considered high-risk. These measures were considered necessary for the safety of everyone coming to or leaving the U.S.

Border Crossing into the United States

There are two governmental bodies overseeing non-citizen presence on U.S. soil: the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). The DHS manages the paperwork for those foreign citizens who want to come legally to the U.S. for an extended period of time either temporarily or permanently. The CBP is the organization that secures the 328 ports of entry throughout the United States and can provide information on U.S. border crossings.

Requirements to Enter the U.S.

There are different requirements for entering the country depending upon a person's immigration status or their country of origin. Some of these requirements are detailed below:

  1. Lawful permanent residents of the United States (green card holders) must present their passports for entry into the U.S. by air but only have to present their permanent resident card for land and sea border crossings.
  2. Canadian citizens generally need only their passports to cross into the U.S. However, border crossings between the countries are monitored, and presentation of further documentation may be necessary if the Canadian citizen visits the U.S. often, such as when the Canadian works in the United States.
  3. Mexican citizens must present their passport and non-immigrant visa or a pre-approved border crossing card at the nearest port of entry in the U.S. Mexican citizens crossing borders to work in the U.S. must also present their NAFTA documentation.
  4. Citizens of any other countries must present their passports when entering. Certain countries not included in the Visa Waiver Program must check with the CBP for the requirements pertaining to their country of origin.
  5. Those holding visas that permit them to be in the U.S. for an extended period of time should review the border crossing requirements on the CBP website.

Trusted Traveler Programs

With more people entering the United States every day, the CBP has instituted a Trusted Traveler Program to help expedite crossing borders. There are dedicated kiosks at many ports of entry for those pre-approved by the CBP. An extensive background and interview process is required for an individual to qualify for these programs, and company credentials as well as the individual requirements are necessary for those using the Free and Secure Trade for Commercial Vehicles program. Those pre-authorized through the Trusted Traveler Programs receive a border crossing card to speed up their customs processing.

The border crossing card is not to be confused with the U.S. Passport Card or the Enhanced Driver’s License (EDL). A passport card can be used similarly to a passport for land and sea crossings only and is a cheaper alternative to a full passport for travelers going to Mexico, Canada, Bermuda or the Caribbean. The EDL is a state-issued driver’s license that allows drivers residing in certain states to cross the land or sea border without a passport.

Clearing CBP

Travelers into the United States, regardless of their citizenship, must complete a declaration form (6059B). This form tells the customs agents who you are, who you are with and what items you are bringing into the country with you. It is prohibited to bring agricultural products from other countries into the U.S., and any items, agricultural or otherwise, are required to be included on the declaration form. A separate form must be completed for currency totaling $10,000 or more per party.

Additional Border Entry Info

The CBP also alerts travelers as to any safety advisories and the wait times they may encounter at airports and both northern and southern borders. These wait times can be reduced by having all your documents in order before departing for the U.S.

Leaving the U.S. or Its Territories

U.S. citizens traveling to foreign countries should review the entry and exit requirements of the destination country. The most relevant information can be found on the CBP website, but updated and country-specific information can be found on the Department of State’s website.

If you are planning a US border crossing but think you will need more documentation than what is generally required, you should contact an immigration attorney for assistance.

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