Conversation held between a U.S. Immigration Officer and an incoming passenger, Batman.
Immigration Officer: Your name, please?
Passenger : Batman.
Immigration Officer: What’s your real name?
Passenger: My name is Bat-man.
Immigration Officer: Are you trying to be funny? What’s your surname?
Immigration Officer: So you’re telling me your name is Batman Superman?
Immigration Officer [calling over to Passport Security]: Hey, arrest this guy…
…SEE PICTURE BELOW.
I have yet to verify if this is a true story – but it doesn’t sound improbable.
On a more serious note, here are some thoughts on…
How to get through Airport Immigration Quickly
Airport immigration for many passengers is all about the long lines. In some countries there can be waits of over 2 hours. Immigration officers are trained to spot certain behaviours that may be suspicious. This may lead to further questioning and even for the legitimate traveller, this is a major annoyance.
While the long lines are frustrating, airport immigration officers play an important role in international security. Their job is to verify the identity of everyone passing through their control. For the vast majority of people this is not a problem, but it gives criminals and other unscrupulous individuals something to worry about.
Airport immigration officers, in most countries, receive training on how to sport suspicious individuals. This includes identifying forged documents and passports. However the most common way of identifying suspicious individuals is through less specific means. A great example is body language – signs given off by our bodies about how we are feeling.
Someone who is sweating, has dry lips with their hands in their pocket and is constantly looking over their shoulder is giving off very strong body language. Immigration officers will be very interested in questioning this individual. The person may be completely innocent and just have a lot of worries on their mind. This is irrelevant when it comes to getting through immigration quickly. If you stand out, you can fully expect further questioning.
At check-in, visas are often checked for validity. If you are not allowed entry into a country, it is the financial responsibility of the airline you flew with to take you back to your last destination. Therefore staff are usually quite thorough when checking you have the appropriate Visa.
On the aircraft, paper forms are usually handed out which must be completed before immigration control. These ask for basic information and further information as to the purpose of your visit. The forms are universally poorly designed, often with a lack of space to write down information. Do not worry! Simply write what you can in the space provided.
Common questions include the purpose of your visit. While this may be a simple Business or Pleasure question, there can often be several additional options such as “Visiting Friends” or “Seeking Employment”. Answer honestly and be prepared to back up anything you say – knowing what tourist sites are you visiting or having contact information for your friends is helpful if you get questioned.
Every immigration form will ask for the address where you are staying. If you are staying at multiple places, or don’t have somewhere booked then this can be confusing. The best option is to fill it in with the name of the first hotel you are staying at. If you haven’t got anything booked, enter the name of any hotel that you could potentially stay at – you can always argue, if asked about it, that you intended to stay here but haven’t booked anything.
There are often customs questions which ask you if you are carrying high value goods or have anything to declare. Note that customs is separate from immigration. The immigration officer is less concerned about what you are carrying than who you are. Answer truthfully and if you have something to declare then do so – watch out for duty free limits as these are different in many countries. The USA has a number of questions which asks if you are a terrorist, Nazi, drug trafficker or intend to commit a crime. I don’t suppose too many people answer “Yes” to any of these but be sure to read the question and answer correctly.
When you arrive at your destination airport, make sure all your documents are ready. Double check that entry/landing cards are completed and have them ready with your passport and boarding pass. A good tip is to place these other documents inside your passport at the photo page so this makes it easier and quicker to find for the airport immigration officer.
Follow the arrivals/immigration signs and you will usually end up in a big hall with several desks and potentially a line of people waiting. Note that most countries have two separate lines for citizens and foreigners so make sure you are in the correct queue. If you are a foreigner travelling with a citizen, you will have to queue separately.
First and Business Class passengers often receive priority passes to use special premium immigration lines. These always have smaller waiting times and immigration officers are usually more polite and friendly in these lines. Be sure to read the Frequent Flyer Master guide to get free First and Business Class tickets (and cut down the wait at airport immigration).
Don’t stand out
It sounds obvious, but if you stand out from the crowd then you are more likely to get noticed. This is a bad thing at airport immigration as it increases the level of suspicion you face. If you are on a flight full of holiday makers wearing shorts and you have a black suit and tie on then you stand out. If you have lots of tattoos or piercings then you also stand out.
If you do have an extreme fashion style, then consider toning it down for your flight. Immigration officers are looking for people who stand out to question further. You don’t have to change your appearance but if you look out of place, expect the potential for additional questioning.
Cell phones, cameras and similar devices are generally not allowed in the immigration area so don’t get caught playing with these. Many people do listen to music on portable devices when waiting in line but it advisable to keep the device in your pocket at least.
Remain calm and relax, millions of people go through these checkpoints every day and there is nothing to worry about. Even if you are a little nervous, it is extremely rare to be taken for additional questioning. Be prepared to answer some basic questions about you and your visit.
Questions you may be asked
When you step up to the airport immigration desk, say hello and present your passport and documents to the officer. Then simply wait. The officer will ensure you meet the necessary requirements and will skim over your forms. Often, the officer won’t even say anything and will simply stamp your passport and allow you to proceed.
In most developed countries you will be asked one or two basic questions. The first question is almost always “What is the purpose of your visit?”. Keep you answer short, specific and to the point. You could say “I’m on vacation” or “I’m here for a conference, I work for XYZ Company”. Sometimes a follow-up question will be asked relating to your original question. “How long are you here for?” or “What do you do for XYZ company?” would be common questions. Again, the key is to keep it short and conscience while answering the questions. Do not ramble or start a full conversation, simple answers to simple questions are all that is required here.
If the immigration officer asks you a question such as “What town do you live in?” or “What is your occupation?” then make sure you actually answer the question. Anyone who asks a question back, instead of answering the question, is just inviting further unnecessary scrutiny. You have nothing to hide so answer the question and move on. If you ask the officer why they are asking you the question, it will only delay your entry.
You may be asked about your return flight and if you don’t have one booked then you must have the funds to pay for one. Some countries, such as Indonesia, are very strict about having return flights but for the most part you will rarely be asked about this. Some countries require you to have access to a certain amount of funds. This is particularly common for those staying for longer, for example working holiday visas. Generally, knowing which bank accounts you have money in will be sufficient to satisfy an officer.
Occasionally, immigration officers will ask unusual or completely irrelevant question. This could be anything from “What kind of car do you own?” to “What did you study at College?”. These questions are not relevant and may seem silly, but they are part of a technique to verify your identity. The questions will be followed up with a more detailed question “What size of engine does that car have?” or “What courses did you take in your final year?”. If you were making up a story, you would probably be very hesitant when answering the second question. Simply respond calmly with the answer and be open to any wacky question about you or about your visit.
Immigration officers are looking for one important thing – congruence. Make sure your answers are congruent with the story you tell and you will have no trouble. This is why telling the truth is so important here as you don’t want to be caught off guard. It is easy to pick up when someone is not sure about their story, so tell the truth and not what you think the immigration officer wants to hear.
Automated airport immigration services
Many airports are now using biometric ID information to speed up immigration. Generally this only applies to residents and/or visitors that require no visa. In the USA, all visitors are fingerprinted and have a digital photo taken. This is used for a variety of security purposes.
Some countries are experimenting with getting rid of the immigration officer completely. A good example is the IRIS recognition system in the UK which lets anyone register at the airport on their way out of the country. You only need to register once, but every time you enter the UK you just need to look into a camera and the system can recognise you and will allow you straight through. This saves a lot of time as there are rarely queues for the IRIS scanner.
At Amsterdam airport, the Privium scanners work using biometrics but you must pay to use this service. Similarly, many Asian countries are introducing fingerprint scanners. However, these are usually only open to certain passport holders. It is worth checking to see whether your airport has these or not. They are generally only worthwhile to passengers who regularly travel to a specific country.