Entering the U.S. Borders as a first-time student

New international students, after receiving their student visa from the U.S. Embassy/Consulate abroad, will present their documents at the U.S. border/port-of-entry to officials of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (USCBP). 

When entering the U.S., students must carry and present the following documentation that may be requested by USCBP officials (do not pack these documents in your checked baggage, please carry them on your person to present at time of entry):

  • Passport
  • Form I-20 (F-1 visa holders) or Form DS-2019 (J-1 visa holders)
  • F-1 or J-1 visa (issued by the U.S. Embassy/Consulate)
  • Form I-901 (SEVIS fee) Receipt
  • Letter of Admission to MIT
  • Documentation of financial support (as indicated on Form I-20 or Form DS-2019; original copies required)
  • Proof of connections to home country (non-immigrant intent — as also presented during visa application at U.S. Embassy/Consulate)

Please be advised that entry into the U.S. is at the sole discretion of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (USCBP) Officer at the U.S. Port-of-Entry. Also, please be aware that since the passage of the Immigration Act of 1996 it has become extremely hard to receive a new U.S. visa in a third country.

Special Cases:

  1. Students who have changed their visa type while in the U.S., if you decide to travel outside of the U.S. after the change of status has been approved, you must apply for a new entry visa at the American Consulate or Embassy in the country you are visiting.
  2. Students who are married to American Citizens or Permanent Residents, and students who have been included in a petition for permanent residency, please make an appointment to talk with one of the International Student Advisors before you finalize plans for your trip.

Inspection / Questioning at the U.S. Port-of-Entry

When entering the U.S. from abroad, every individual (including American Citizens), will be subject to questioning by USCBP officers. Primary Inspection will be where a USCBP Officer will ask you to present your visa documents and ask questions about where you are arriving from and the purpose of your stay in the U.S. The USCBP Officer can ask any question to determine your eligibility to enter the U.S. If the officer cannot determine your eligibility to enter the U.S. from the documentation you present, or requires additional information, you may be directed for additional questioning at USCBP “Secondary Inspection” at the airport or land crossing.
(NOTE: In addition to USCBP checkpoints at U.S. ports-of-entry (airports and land border crossings, USCBP also has Preclearance locations in certain countries so some inspection/questioning may occur prior to boarding your flight to the U.S.)

Secondary Inspection is a separate, guarded room area where you will be asked to wait to speak individually with a more senior level USCBP Officer. Secondary Inspection also has access to additional information, including more details about your visa/SEVIS record. In Secondary Inspection, you may be advised that you are not able to make any phone calls without permission of the USCBP Officer — please follow their directions.

Recent changes in U.S. Department of Homeland Security guidance allows USCBP to ask any question needed to determine your eligibility to enter the U.S., including your past travel history, financial information, information about your family members, previous travel to the U.S., as well as request that you provide access to your electronic devices (laptops, iPads, cellphones), email or social media accounts for review. USDHS guidance indicates that no passwords or other personal information will be retained. While such requests are not always made, we want to be sure students are aware that such requests can be made at the port-of-entry.

Students should be prepared to answer additional questions about intended major/program of study, plans for use of the MIT degree upon return to home country, and employment history.

Please note that wait times at Secondary Inspection can be under one hour or it may take many hours. If you have to wait for an extended period, Secondary Inspection offices have bathrooms/toilets and access to water. If there are any concerns, you will be advised to speak with a Secondary Inspection Officer for assistance. Please note there is no way to expedite (speed up) processing at Secondary Inspection, so it is advised to remain calm.

Being referred to Secondary Inspection does NOT necessarily mean that you have done anything wrong. Similar to your visa interview appointment and visa processing at the U.S. Embassy/Consulate, security procedures must be completed in order to enter the U.S. and can take some time to resolve (based on the type of procedure and number of individuals in Secondary Inspection at the time of your entry to the U.S.). We ask that you be patient. If you are waiting for an extended period of time at Secondary Inspection, you may request from USCBP (which may or may not be granted) the ability to contact anyone who may be waiting for you at the airport. USCBP also has access to contact information for the MIT International Students Office.

After entry to the U.S., please be sure to download a copy of your I-94 record and upload a copy to iMIT.

If any questions arise during or after your time at U.S. Customs and Border Protection Primary or Secondary Inspection, you or USCBP can contact the MIT International Students Office (ISO) directly. During normal business hours (Monday-Friday between 9:00am-4:00pm Eastern Time), please contact the ISO main office by phone (617-253-3795). Outside of business hours, you may reach the ISO directly (617-258-5480) or by calling MIT Police (617-253-2996 or 617-253-1212) and MIT Police will notify ISO Staff to contact you by the phone number you provide.

Travel Within the U.S. (especially near Canada or Mexico Border)

Students traveling within the U.S. (anywhere outside of Cambridge/Boston) are always advised to carry their original passport, Form I-20/DS-2019, I-94 record, and proof of enrollment at MIT as evidence of their valid student visa status in the U.S. This information can be requested by Federal authorities, especially if traveling by airplane, train, or bus. 
U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) will occasionally conduct enforcement activities (transportation checks, traffic stops) near the U.S.-Canada and US-Mexico borders, claiming authority to do such random checks within a 100-mile border zone from Canada or Mexico.  Therefore, it is important to carry your original visa documentation with you when traveling in these areas. 
If any questions arise, please feel free to contact your ISO Advisor.

More Information

Please see our page on Traveling to Canada, Mexico, or Adjacent Islands for different guidelines on travel, if your situation applies. Also, see U.S. Student and Exchange Visitor Program guidelines on Travel Re-entry for F Visa.