Arriving in a foreign country

All countries have official entry points into their country. These consist of certain international airports, land border crossings and sea ports. It is important to ensure that you are attempting to enter the country at one of these authorized points of entry. If you are flying into an airport on a commercial flight, you can be assured that the airport is an authorized point of entry. The following are the normal steps that a visitor will go through when arriving in a foreign country. For the most part, the overall process is very straight-forward. The physical layout of the arrival area and the signage will guide you from start to finish.

Arrival forms

Arrival/Departure card (also called a Disembarkation/Embarkation Card) –

Many countries will require you to complete an arrival/departure card prior to entering their country. They want to know a little more about you than the information on your passport. If arriving by air, the airline usually provides the card on the plane so you can complete it prior to landing. If arriving at a land border, the card will be available at the border crossing station. If arriving by sea, you might be able to obtain one on the ship or you can obtain one at the port of entry. Remember to carry a pen with you for these type situations. The card will be submitted to the immigration officer at the Passport Control/Immigration checkpoint.

Customs Declaration Form –

Sometimes, you are required to complete a second card. Many times, this will be a Customs form that states if you are bringing anything into the country that must be declared. This form is normally submitted at the Customs Clearance Area, which is located after Passport Control. If this form is required, it will be distributed on the plane in addition to the Arrival/Departure Card.

Health Declaration Form –

Occasionally, you will be required to complete a health declaration form indicating the state of your health. Normally, this is dropped off at a health kiosk as you go through the arrival process. Again, this card should be provided to you on the plane.

Passport Control

Upon exiting the plane, you will be guided through signage, to an area where you will provide your passport, visa (if required) and any arrival forms in order to officially enter the country. This area will be signed as “passport control” or “immigration” or something similar. There will normally be a number of lines each one leading to a booth (or a kiosk) where an immigration officer is verifying documents for each visitor. In addition, there will normally be two sets of lines – one for citizens of that country as they return home and one for visitors to the country. You will enter one of the lines that are for visitors.

The Passport Control process verifies several things

  • To determine the visitor’s identity and whether they have the necessary documentation to enter the country
  • To record the visitor’s entry into the country
  • To document the date of entry
  • To indicate, if not already stated on the visa if one was required, the duration of stay

When it is your turn, approach the booth (or kiosk) and provide the immigration officer the appropriate travel documents. This will normally include the following

  • Valid passport (with visa attached if required)
  • A completed and signed Arrival/Departure Card (most countries have some type of document required here). Many cards have two sections that are perforated. One is the arrival portion of the card and is retained by the immigration officer upon arrival. The other is the departure portion of the card and is usually returned to the visitor. The departure card will probably have to be surrendered when exiting the country. Sometimes the immigration officer will staple it in the passport or sometimes return it loose to the visitor. Make sure to retain this departure card!!!
  • The immigration officer will normally stamp one of the blank visa pages identifying the date you entered the country. In cases where the duration of stay is not stated elsewhere, such as on a visa, the duration of stay or the “must exit by” date will probably be included on the stamp. For countries where the immigration officer determines the duration of stay, request upfront the number of days you would like to remain in the country. Verify the number of days granted (e.g. the exit date) prior to leaving the immigration officer. Prior to traveling, it’s a good idea to know the maximum duration of stay permitted and the process for obtaining an extension just in case you might need it.
  • The process may include taking fingerprints and facial photos.

Most countries indicate that the Immigration Officer, the person who handles the passport control process, is the determining factor whether you are allowed into the country or not (even if you have an approved visa). In many instances, the officer has discretion to your length of stay up to the maximum amount permitted by the country’s laws. It is very important to have professional behavior when interacting with this person.

Normally, the Passport Control process should take no more than 10 to 15 minutes depending upon how long the queue line is. The actual time with the immigration officer should be no more than 1 – 2 minutes.

Obtain Luggage

If arriving by air, you will most likely proceed to the baggage carousel, at this point, to retrieve your luggage. Many times, depending upon the time to get through Passport Control, the bags will already be on the carousel when you arrive to retrieve them.


All countries have a list of items that must be declared upon arrival and a list of items that are prohibited from being brought into the country. Some items

  • Might just need to be declared (e.g. currency over a certain amount or valuable jewelry) for temporary admission
  • Might require a duty be paid because they exceed the duty-free limit (e.g. liquor)
  • Might be controlled and require a permit
  • Might be prohibited. Do not bring any of these items into the country.
  • The items that must be declared are usually stated on the Customs Declaration Form (if there is one) or on signage at the Customs Clearance area. If you think you are traveling with anything that might have to be declared, review the Customs information for the country you are visiting prior to traveling. Google “customs clearance procedure for XXX” where XXX is the name of the country.

There are different customs arrival processes. One process that many countries employ is a Green Channel and Red Channel process.

  • Green Channel – proceed through this lane if you have nothing to declare to the customs officials. Normally, there will not be a line. You will walk through this lane and only stop if the customs official requests that you stop. If there is a separate Customs Declaration Form, you will drop this in the box provided or hand it to the customs official.
  • Red Channel – proceed through this lane if you have something to declare. Stop at the customs official and present the Customs Declaration Form indicating the item you are declaring and the paperwork (e.g. permit), if necessary, for the items being declared. In some cases, you will need to pay a duty at a separate location and then present the receipt to the customs official. If you have questions, ask the customs official. When in doubt – declare or ask questions!

Normally, the signage is in English and is fairly easy to follow.