Coming to America – Obtaining Proof of Lawful Admission at a Port-of-Entry

Jennifer L. Cory, Esq., Partner
N.C. Board Certified Immigration Law Specialist
Jennifer.Cory@garfinkelimmigration.com

After decades of issuing paper cards to document a nonimmigrant's arrival in the U.S., visa classification and required departure date, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the government agency tasked with border management and control, is transitioning to a more automated process for tracking entries and departures. The CBP's goals are to increase efficiency, reduce operating costs and streamline the admission process. As described below, the process is not without flaws, and the burden is on the traveler to ensure that s/he has been admitted correctly.

For over a year, instead of issuing a paper I-94 Arrival/Departure Record at air and sea ports-of-entry, CBP has been providing nonimmigrants with admission stamps on their passports and creating an electronic record of admission as part of the new I-94 Automation process. Because CBP no longer automatically provides a paper I-94 at an air or sea port-of-entry (except in limited circumstances), the traveler will be unable to tell immediately whether or not s/he has been admitted in the correct visa classification for the correct period of time. It is therefore imperative that each traveler visit the CBP's website at www.cbp.gov/I94 and review the electronic record of admission for accuracy. The website was recently upgraded to provide travel history going back five years. Alternatively, the traveler can still request a paper I-94 at the time of admission; however, this entails appearing in secondary inspection and depending on the number of individuals in line, may take considerable extra time causing the traveler to miss a connecting flight.

In the event the traveler is unable to locate his/her record on the CBP website and receives a "Not Found" message, it may be the result of a system error. More frequently though, the record exists but the data is in a different format. In order to access the record, the traveler should try:

1. Entering the name as stated in the passport or visa.
2. Entering the first and middle name in the First Name field.
3. Switching the order of the names.
4. Entering multiple first names or multiple last names without spaces.
5. Checking for multiple passport numbers.
6. Not entering the year if included in the passport number.
7. Checking the classification designated on the visa and comparing it to the classification stated on the admission stamp in the passport, as there might be a slight variation.

If the traveler is still unable to access the record or if the record is located but contains inaccuracies, s/he should call or visit his/her local CBP Deferred Inspection office and explain the problem. A list of offices is available at http://www.cbp.gov/xp/cgov/toolbox/contacts/deferred_inspection/.

Although a traveler is not required to print a copy of the record of admission found at www.cbp.gov/I94, s/he should do so in order to have proof of lawful admission and maintenance of status in the U.S. Many government agencies still require a printed record of admission to obtain ancillary benefits like a driver's license or Social Security Number. U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS) will also request such documentation in connection with requests for extensions of stay or changes of visa status. In connection with the employment verification process, employers should be prepared to see print-outs of electronic records which look different from the paper I-94 Arrival/Departure Record version.

To ensure their departure from the U.S. is recorded properly with CBP, those who were issued a paper I-94 will surrender that document to the commercial carrier or CBP upon departure from the U.S. For those with an automated I-94, CBP records the departure using manifest information obtained from the carrier.

If a traveler who was issued a paper Form I-94 departs at a land border, s/he will turn the Form I-94 in to the Canadian authorities, or if departing to Mexico, to CBP. If s/he arrives by air or sea and departs at a land border, the departure will not be recorded. In such case, the traveler should keep proof of his/her departure when s/he leaves through a land border in order to demonstrate timely departure if needed in connection with future applications for immigration benefits. If in compliance with automatic visa revalidation provisions, the traveler who departs the U.S. to Canada or Mexico and seeks re-admission before the passport admission stamp expiration date, will be re-admitted for the initially authorized period of admission.

At this time, I-94 Automation is only in place at air and sea ports-of-entry because advance information used to create the electronic records is only transmitted for air and sea travelers. It is therefore unclear as to when the process will be implemented at land border ports of entry.