You Probably Shouldn't Say That....

by Protima Daryanani

When I hear some of the things foreign nationals say to immigration officers at the border when trying to gain admission to the US, I break out in a cold sweat. If the officer becomes overly “concerned,” or doesn't believe what he/she is hearing, a foreign national may be refused entry. I thought I would share a few examples and explain what might cause concern to an immigration officer.

Travelers who wish to visit the US must apply for a B-1/B-2 visa at the US Embassy/Consulate in their home country. Alternatively, if they are nationals of one of the 38 participating countries, they will not need a visa, but must apply for an ESTA in order to enter the US under the visa waiver program.  

When entering the US, foreign nationals will be questioned by a Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officer. CBP officers will attempt to understand what the foreign national plans to do in the US and whether the foreign national is entering the US with the correct visa. While I don’t intend any of this to be legal advice, nor do I want anyone to lie when they come to the US as visitors, I do hope these examples of what not to say will help clarify what someone can and cannot do in the US on the visitor visa/visa waiver:

1.        I don’t know how long I’m staying

Generally, visitors to the US must be intending to enter the US for a specific amount of time, and no more than the time allotted on their B visa (6 months) or visa waiver (3 months). In addition, the amount of time foreign nationals stay in the US should be consistent with what they plan to do here. For example, if a foreign national is visiting for business meetings, it is unlikely he/she should need more than a month in the US. Of course, there are exceptions to this and foreign nationals should be prepared to explain exactly how long they are staying and why. CBP officers will expect to see that a foreign national who intends to enter as a visitor has a return ticket with a specific date.

2.       I’m planning on looking for a job and moving here since I quit my job

Foreign nationals visiting the US must intend to visit the US. They cannot intend to move here and reside here. They must establish to the immigration officer at the time of their entry that they will return to their home outside the US. In addition they must establish that they have an actual residence outside the US which they do not intend to abandon. Lastly, foreign nationals must show that they have ties outside the US, in their home country, such a job, bank account, family, and home.

3.       I’m enrolled at university but didn’t have time to get the papers sorted

This one raises a couple of concerns. First, foreign nationals are not allowed to enter the US as visitors if they intend to study. Foreign nationals who wish to study in the US must obtain a student visa sponsored by their school or university. Second, if foreign nationals are the beneficiaries of approved work petitions or have been admitted to a US university or school, they must obtain an actual visa stamp from the US Embassy/Consulate in the home country before they enter the US. They cannot enter the US on the visitor visa or visa waiver in lieu of obtaining the appropriate visa stamp in their passport.

4.       I don’t know how I will support myself for the three weeks I’m here

Foreign nationals must have adequate funds to support themselves while they are visiting the US. The assumption is that if they do not have sufficient funds, they are likely to take on work in the US which is not allowed under the visitor visa.

5.       I don’t know where I am staying

As mentioned earlier, foreign nationals must have specific plans for their stay in the US, in addition to explaining how long and for what purpose they are visiting the US, they must be able to articulate where they are staying. They must know the exact address and telephone number for each location at which they are staying.

6.       I’m planning on marrying my US citizen girlfriend/boyfriend/spouse

Since foreign nationals must show they are only temporarily visiting the US, suggesting they intend to marry their US citizen significant other may lead the CBP officer to conclude that they wish to live permanently in the US with their spouse. If foreign nationals livings abroad wish to move to the US to marry their fiancé(e), they can obtain a fiancé(e) visa. If they have married abroad, they can apply at a US Embassy/Consulate for a Green Card.

7.       I’m doing a few gigs with my band

Foreign nationals may not participate in any paid performances under the visitor visa or visa waiver. Additionally, even if the performance is unpaid, a foreign national may not participate in a professional performance before a paying audience. Nonetheless, if the performance is in the studio and part of the process of recording an album, without an audience present, it may be possible under the visitor visa/visa waiver.

8.       I’m a journalist and doing a few interviews for an article I am writing

Journalists and media representatives may not enter the US on the visitor visa if they are engaged in productive work including interviewing subjects. They must obtain the I visa which is for foreign media representatives coming to the US to work in journalistic activities for dissemination primarily outside the US.

9.       I come here all the time… I basically live here

Foreign nationals cannot live in the US on the visitor visa/visa waiver even if they are not working in the US. The visitor visa allows foreign nationals to come to the US for temporary periods. Generally, if foreign nationals expect to spend more than six months in the US, they should consider alternative visa options.

10.   Anything rude

Since admission to the US is at the discretion of the CBP officer, foreign nationals should not say anything rude to the officer regardless of how frustrating the situation may be. In general, officers are courteous and professional; however, in the event that an officer is not, it is best for foreign nationals to exercise patience and calmly explain their situation.


Overall, if foreign nationals are truthful about their plans in the US and are legitimately visiting the US for pleasure or business, they will find the inspection process fast and effortless. The State Department has some good guidance on what you can do in the US as a visitor.