Chicago Airport is strict on immigration

Entry into the USA: You have to know and pay attention to that!

Since the attacks of September 11th at the latest, the USA has been one of the countries with the strictest entry and visa guidelines in the world. In addition to a valid passport (a provisional passport is not enough!), As a German citizen you need a visa or must be able to show a so-called ESTA.

This article describes the situation for travelers with German citizenship. However, the rules are likely to be quite similar for most Central Europeans.

ESTA or Visa?

German Tourists and business travelers can usually be so called Visa Waver Program (German: Visa waiver program) and do not need a classic visa that is stuck in the passport. To on Visa Waver Program To be able to participate, you have to get yourself an electronic entry permit, the so-called ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization):

In certain cases or after visiting certain countries, however, a proper visa may also be necessary:

Procedure before and on the outbound flight

Safety is a top priority on USA flights. Therefore, the airlines not only check whether they have a visa /ESTA for the USA, but are also obliged to transfer certain data about you to the American border protection agency CBP. Among other things, it will be checked whether you are on a no-fly list.

APIS: The airline has to know that about you

When booking - or at the latest when checking in at the airport, the airlines are obliged to provide additional information (APIS = Advanced Passenger Information System) to collect from you, which it must submit to the American authorities. Sure, passport number, expiry date and date of birth are collected by most airlines anyway. In addition, the airlines want to know from you when you check-in or during the booking process:

  • Are you traveling with a visa or ESTA?
  • Do you have a permanent residence permit (Greed Card?)
  • What's your address in the USA?

In fact, nobody cares which US address you give to the airlines. Nevertheless, you should book at least one hotel night before your trip, because the immigration officer can ask you where you live at the latest when you arrive. If you cannot show a hotel booking confirmation or the like, in the worst case scenario it says: "No address, no states!

Security survey at the airport

For some time now, airlines have been requested by the US government to conduct a safety survey on travelers on flights to the US. While US airlines such as United, Delta and American take this requirement very seriously, most European airlines more or less dispense with a survey.

At US airlines the survey usually takes place in front of the check-in counter. If you check in online and skip the check-in counter, you will be called at the gate via loudspeaker announcement and asked to do a security questionnaire. If you have successfully completed the survey, you will usually receive a small sticker on your passport.

You fly with me Lufthansa from Frankfurt or Munich, there is another separate control shortly before the USA gates. Your passport and boarding pass will be checked briefly and the computer will check whether you really have a visa or ESTA have. I've never been asked anything other than “Travel up ESTA or visa? "

Typical security questions are:

  • Did you pack your suitcase yourself?
  • Has your luggage been with you the whole time?
  • Which electronic devices are in the luggage?
  • Travel on ESTA or visa?
  • Why are you traveling to the USA?
  • Have you had your luggage in view the entire time you packed it?
  • Did you buy anything else at the airport? (If you answer yes to this question, you will usually be subjected to an additional security check - those, too SSSS-Passengers need to go through. More on this below.)

SSSS: Additional security check at the airport

It can happen that the four letters SSSS printed on your boarding pass. This means that you have been selected (more or less randomly) for a tightened security check. SSSS means Secondary Security Screening Selection and is only available on flights to, from, and the United States.

Even if it is found at or in front of the gate that you have bought something at the airport, you will be happy to go to the SSSS-Security check sent so that the products can be X-rayed.

On flights to the USA there is usually an additional, separate security checkpoint near the USA gates, which you can use as a SSSS-Candidate must pass. The check in Germany is similar to the normal security check and actually quite harmless. In the USA the procedure can take longer. All information about SSSS can be found in this article:

Fill out the customs declaration on the plane

Once you have finally passed all the checks and controls at the airport, you can take a seat on the plane. But bureaucracy is waiting for you here: Getting on the plane blue customs declarations that you must truthfully fill out. Here's an example:

But: Have you been by at least once since 2008 ESTA Having entered the USA, filling out the customs declaration is in many cases overdue. You can use the so-called APC kiosks use. These are machines on which you fill out the customs declaration via touchscreen. If you're not sure if the APC kiosks may be used, it is better to have the flight attendants give you a customs declaration - it does not harm or cost. More about the kiosks below.

Entry procedure

Welcome to the United States! You are almost there - you are already on American soil, but you still have to pass the entry counter. This is also a bit more complicated in the USA than in Germany. Not infrequently does it happen Waiting times of over 1½ hours. In addition, the use of cell phones and cameras around passport control - even in the waiting area - is taboo. However, this ban is applied differently from airport to airport. While in San Francisco nobody says anything if you check the news briefly on your cell phone, in Charlotte you will be yelled at in a military tone as soon as you touch your phone. It should be clear: take photos from passport control - that is not possible.

There is a principle for entry four different options, which I would like to explain to you in detail here:

Regular pass counter

These are completely normal entry counters, as we know them from Austria, Germany or Switzerland, for example. The difference: The officers ask a lot of questions - and that can be pretty uncomfortable. You have to be prepared for these questions:

  • Why are you traveling to the USA? (Holiday, Business meeting, Road trip, Conference Etc.)
  • How long are you staying in the USA?
  • What are your travel plans?
  • Have you already booked your hotel / rental car? Where do you live in the USA?
  • When was the last time you were in the states?
  • Are you traveling alone
  • How much cash do you have with you? (if little or none, you can say that you have one or more credit cards with you)
  • Do you have a credit card?
  • What is your job?
  • Who paid for the trip?
  • Do you have family / friends in the US?

In some cases, some questions are (deliberately!) Asked twice. Here it is logically important that you give the same answer both times.

Experience has shown that most questions are asked of young tourists, as the authorities fear that they could take up a job illegally in the USA. When I travel to the States on business, however, I rarely get asked questions. Depending on the situation, the survey lasts between 15 seconds and 5 minutes. After and / or during the survey:

  • your passport will be checked
  • a photo will be taken of you
  • fingerprints are taken (mostly 4 fingers, sometimes 2 x 4 fingers + thumb).
  • the passport and immigration card are stamped

You keep the card (at least at most airports) until you reach customs and hand it in there. If the officer thinks you are suspicious or there are other complications, it can happen that you go to a back room Secondary sent to a detailed interview. More on this below.

Entry via APC machines

As a foreigner who by ESTA enters, it is entirely possible that APC-To use machines that are now available at all major US airports.

Requirement: Since 2008 you have to send at least one ESTA Have been in the States - sometimes it works (unofficially) even on first US entry. Try and Error is the motto.

The APC kioskscan officially be found anywhere ESTA-Entry can be used, but it can happen (e.g. in Charlotte) that one claims that the APC-Automatic machines are only intended for Americans. A security guard there even wanted to have me arrested because I just sent them to the APC-I left the machine and initially refused to queue at a regular counter.

After you have inserted your passport, the machine asks for all the important information that must also be given on the immigration card - just not in great detail. It is no longer necessary to fill out the customs declaration (which you will receive on the plane). Then a photo is taken of you and you have to have your fingerprints scanned, which sometimes works a little poorly. When you are done, a printout (with a photo and all your data) comes from the machine, which replaces the customs declaration and passport:

  • Expression contains a capital "X": Something is wrong (e.g. you could not be assigned a flight number, fingerprints were not scanned correctly) and you will be sent to a special queue (with entry counters at the end) after you have left the machine area. Don't worry about that! I had an X on the "receipt" almost every second entry.
  • Expression contains a capital "O": You have indicated that you have to declare something or are importing something (e.g. groceries) that customs should take a closer look at.
  • Expression does not contain "X" or "O": Everything is fine - after leaving the machine area, you can use the Not-X-snake choose. At the end of the queue there is an officer who usually asks a few questions and quickly stamps the passport.

But keep your printout even after the immigration counter; you have to show it to customs again!

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Entry with Global Entry

The most comfortable option is to enter Global Entry: This is a paid membership that you can sign up for with the US Border Protection Agency CBP can apply. For $ 100 you can enjoy Global Entry and TSA Precheck for five years after a detailed security check and questioning.

Entry also works via machines, which in principle work very similarly to the APC kiosks. Only the software seems to be a bit more user-friendly, the fingerprint sensors react faster and the portrait photo obviously doesn't have to be beautiful (= biometric etc.), as this photo shows:

After you have received your printout, you can pass immigration without waiting, usually no questions are asked. In some airports (e.g. Chicago), it is not even necessary to stop at the entrance. The meaning behind it: The printout is checked again at customs anyway, so it is ensured that you cannot enter illegally.

Entry as a diplomat / crew

For travelers with a A- (Diplomats) or D visa (Flight attendants / pilots) there is usually a separate counter available. This is a completely regular entry counter, which can also be used by wheelchair users, etc. in part. If your name is not Angela Merkel, you have to be prepared to be asked the same questions as in point Regular pass counter.

Customs in the USA

If you have survived the entry and questioning, the baggage carousels usually await you behind the counters and machines. There are always a few customs officers (with dogs) around here and they are also happy to ask questions about luggage. If you have your luggage, you can go to the exit, where an officer will "evaluate" you and your luggage:

  • Either he collects your customs declaration (or the machine printout) and you can leave
  • Or: you become one Secondary inspection asked and your luggage will be x-rayed
  • Or: You state yourself that you have to declare something and then you have to go to one Secondary inspection

Tip: Also indicate on the customs declarations or at the machine if you have food with you - even if it's just an apple, a chocolate bar or something similar. If you do not do this, you can be exposed during the inspection and permanently gamble away your entry privileges such as global entry!

Have you survived customs, you've really made it. You are officially in the USA and nothing and nobody can stop you;)!

Special case: transit through the USA

After an international flight to the USA you always have to enter the states (there are no transit areas at US airports!) And through customs.

Regardless of whether you are in international or USA transit: you have to enter the country after your arrival, then take your luggage off the conveyor belt and go through customs. Even if, according to the baggage label, your luggage has already been checked through to the final destination airport. After the customs area there is usually a luggage belt on which you can put your suitcase back on yourself. If you don't have a baggage label for the onward flight, there are transit / check-in counters in the immediate vicinity where you can get them.

No rule without exception: Some airlines have recently started to actually check baggage on international transits (= third country-USA-third country). Delta does this, for example, with some routings via Atlanta. However, this is a special case and you will definitely be informed of this at check-in.

If you are traveling within the USA or out of the USA, your luggage will usually be checked and you no longer have to worry about it.

Special case: Extended security survey upon entry - Immigration Secondary

If something is wrong with your documents, yours ESTA is invalid or you have somehow made yourself suspicious, the immigration counter will send you to a back room. I experienced this myself when I entered via Turkey and would like to briefly describe my experiences to you:

The immigration officer informed me that he could not process this and that I would Secondary must. I was picked up by an officer and taken to a back room where several people were already waiting to be questioned. It took about 1.5 hours before my turn. The officer wasn't particularly friendly. He asked questions like “Are you a Muslim?” Or “Why did you go to Egypt? This is a terror country! ”And looked at all the travel documents and - particularly uncomfortable - photos on my cell phone. The survey itself lasted about 30 minutes.

Departure from the USA

In short, it doesn't exist in the United States. After check-in you can go directly to the security check. There, the TSA transport security authority will first check your boarding pass and your passport. who TSA pre-check-Members (= Global Entry) can use the preferred security check, do not have to take off shoes or belts and can leave laptops and liquids in their luggage. More information:

International and domestic departure areas are not necessarily separate in the USA, it is possible that the gate for the flight to Detroit is right next to the gate to Frankfurt.


Actually radio editor by profession. For a few years now regularly in the air and on the rails. Since then, I've been scouring the web every day for the best travel deals. One of my specialties: rail travel. I have been part of the Travel-Dealz team since June 2017. I look forward to emails to [email protected]

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