What is the etiquette? What do the passport control officers expect? I’m asking from the point of politeness and efficiency.

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    Conventions in such official interactions depends on the culture. Passport officials tend to see people from many different cultures, so I doubt they really care. That said, better to err on the side of being extra polite (albeit not too chatty). – dbkk Oct 6 at 15:50
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    Especially if it's not busy, I'll make small talk with Canadian and US border officers, and UK ones seem willing to make a little small talk too (although I've never seen one that wasn't super busy). On the other hand, when I've seen border officers in Germany, Switzerland and France, none of them ever said even a word to me. – Jim MacKenzie Oct 8 at 14:26
  • Avoid muttering under your breath and saying words like bomb :) – David Oct 8 at 23:18
  • I've noticed that immigration officials tend to ask certain questions and expect certain answers (or maybe more accurately, certain kinds of answers) depending on the background the traveler is claiming to have. They even read body language and other signs that are typical of some groups. It's really interesting to see. – ouflak Oct 10 at 8:49
up vote 34 down vote accepted

Saying hello indicates you speak at least some English, which avoids the need for the immigration officer to ask. They may be interested in your accent - if you have a characteristic accent from some part of the country you're visiting, but have not lived in that country, they may be suspicious. The same could apply if you try to speak a little of the local language that is not normally learned by tourists. In the pre-Schengen days, a German friend who had taught himself some Danish was treated with suspicion at the Danish border as they suspected him of living there without being documented.

As a Scot, I find it useful to exaggerate my Scottish accent at US immigration.

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    I am curious about the last sentence. Why is that so? – phoog Oct 8 at 14:36
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    I have had some great conversations with US passport control agents when they read my last name (it's Irish) and we talk about Irish heritage. It's a nice change to the typical "confrontational" atmosphere you can sometimes get from them. e.g. passport controller: "Oh, my grandfather was Irish too!" - taps badge, it says "O'Neill". – vikingsteve Oct 9 at 9:31
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    I'm not sure the OP is asking necessarily about saying "hello" in an English-speaking country (there's no mention of a country in the question), so I think this answer would benefit from being generalized to greeting in the language(s) of the destination question. – Azor Ahai Oct 9 at 16:45
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    +1 for the exaggerated accent – boatcoder Oct 9 at 21:47
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    " if you have a characteristic accent from some part of the country you're visiting, but have not lived in that country" - that covers just about everyone I ever worked with in Holland or Scandinavia. There's something weird about a Norwegian with a fluent Brummie or Mancunian accent :-) – Mawg Oct 10 at 7:42

I’m a former Immigration Officer myself (in the UK).

Saying “hello” (or “good morning/evening” etc) is entirely appropriate, just like any other encounter in the English-speaking world. It distinguishes us from machines, acknowledging the human interaction. In other words, if you did not greet the officer then you may as well be using one of the automated passport gates.

You will frequently find the officer initiating the contact anyway. If the officer greets you, make sure to greet them back - otherwise you will appear rude. It’s just like any other human encounter.

I agree with what others have said though: beyond the initial greeting, don’t bother to engage in small talk (“how are you today?”), when the queue is long. Just say hello while handing over your passport, and thereafter answer any questions.

We also appreciate it if the passport is passed already open at the bio-data (photo) page for EEA/Swiss nationals; or if you’re a visa national, with the relevant visa page already open.

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    Coke - while I appreciate your edit, it's not quite right. Non-visa nationals do not belong in that EEA/Swiss list, because the EEA/Swiss documents will (usually) only have their bio-data pages examined, and the queue is fast-moving, so officers just want to examine the relevant pages without delay. On the other hand, non-visa nationals' passports require examination of the whole document in all cases, and the queue is a lot slower moving. The couple of seconds gained by having the bio-data page open is slightly appreciated, but practically neither here nor there :) – Chris Melville Oct 7 at 11:36
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    The fact that the non-visa national passports are stamped, necessarily means that the officer is accessing the other pages of the document beyond just the bio-data page. For low-risk travellers, not every page will be scrutinised in detail - but the whole document will be riffled through in any case: just sufficient for the officer to get a picture of the travel history. They will also need to find a place to put the stamp :) – Chris Melville Oct 8 at 0:04
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    What I've seen in many cases is them only browsing to find an available space for the endorsement after doing their checks. Anyways, fair enough, I've undone the edit – Crazydre Oct 8 at 7:25
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    As edited, we Canadians don't fit either of those two categories. We need no visa (normally), nor are we EU/Swiss nationals. – Jim MacKenzie Oct 8 at 14:24
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    +1. I think that should be the accepted answer since it comes from an authoritative figure. I always say a simple "hello" because I am polite and they are human beings. I extend this to any staff in the airport I came close to and make eye contact. I let passport control officers initiate small talk if they want/need it. I got variable reactions: officers in Guam were very friendly, while officers in Hong Kong and Macau just ignored me and checked my passport without any word. But greetings were never frowned upon. – Taladris Oct 10 at 2:07

There's no strict rule.

If they say hello (good morning / good evening / etc.) when you walk up, say hello back.
If they say "Hi, how are you today?" then answer them.
If they just say "passport please", just hand over your passport. If they don't say anything, just quietly hand over your passport.
I usually say thank you when they hand everything back at the end but I'm sure if you don't they won't be particularly put out by it.

From the point of view of efficiency, make sure you know what documentation they will require at that particular point and have anything they might need to see from you to hand. It may just be passport, it may also be a landing card that you have to fill out before you get to the desk, they may want to know your flight number, details of your return itinerary, or ask about where you are staying.

You don't need to offer any of this documentation until it is asked for, but if you have all your travel related documentation in one easily-accessible location in your hand luggage, you will save yourself and them time if they need to ask you for anything else. From the point of view of somebody who is sitting there for however many hours one of their shifts is, I'm sure what they mainly want is for you to hand them what they need with minimal fuss and go on your way once they've ticked whatever boxes need ticking.

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    What they want is a short queue of people, which keeps the general level of stress and aggravation low. Small talk wastes time and increases the queue length - unless there happens to be no queue when you arrive at the control point. But even then, the officer doesn't know if the "customer" (i.e. you!) is in a hurry to get to some place else, so he/she is unlikely to take up your time on small talk - unless there is a problem with your documentation, and he/she is waiting for someone else to come but doesn't want to tell you there is a problem yet. – alephzero Oct 6 at 11:30
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    For most of the world, yes. For US passport control though, be prepared for what sounds like like small talk but is actually power tripping. Exact conversation: "What's the purpose for your visit?" "I've got business meetings at Ford." "How long for?" "We should be finished by Friday, but it might go into next week." "WHY DON'T YOU KNOW!?" – Graham Oct 6 at 14:48
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    @Graham. Agreed. For my colleague it went like this: “ Why are you here?”, “I’m here to do some installation work for BT.” “BT? Like British Telecom? This is America, there ain’t no British Telecom here son.” Tossers. – Darren Oct 6 at 15:33
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    @Graham Well, I'd say experiences vary. In my experience the US passport control officers have generally been either very direct and businesslike, or friendly and engaging (in a way that gets them the information they need to collect). I've never encountered one who was rude or pushy. Of course, I am a US citizen; I'm not sure if things are more likely to be otherwise for non-citizens. – David Z Oct 6 at 20:36
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    When I arrive in the US I have the feeling they suspect I am here illegally and have no other wish than to remain. I need a way to convey that I'm sure it's very nice here but actually when my business is done I can't wait to go home to civilisation. – RedSonja Oct 8 at 12:14

I personally (nearly) always say hello (just hello) while handing over my passport, even if they don't say anything. I'll often try to use the local version if I know it. Once finished, usually a thank you and/or goodbye. Beyond that, it's up to them.

I wouldn't go into any "how are you today" or anything like that unless they initiate it. They see hundreds or thousands of people, they're often not really in the mood for a chat, though this depends a bit on the culture, a bit like when you're greeted in a store: in the US for instance, you will annoyingly be asked how you are today by every single person within 10 feet, and some (but not all) US CBP officers will do the same. In most other places it won't go further than hello (if that) unless they have questions.

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    For those unfamiliar with US culture it should also be noted that the response to being asked how you are in a professional context, or by a stranger, is usually "fine, thanks," regardless of how you actually are. – phoog Oct 7 at 13:57
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    For the record that's true in the UK, too, though you won't be asked as often or as enthusiastically. – Lightness Races in Orbit Oct 8 at 10:25
  • this depends on bit on the culture -> this depends a bit on the culture. (I don't have enough rep to edit, and the edit is less than 6 chars.) – Faheem Mitha Oct 8 at 13:23
  • @FaheemMitha Fixed, thanks! – jcaron Oct 8 at 13:42

There's no particular etiquette. I usually say "Hello" or "Hi" when when I hand over my passport: it's a friendly thing to do and, in non-English-speaking countries, it hints that I'd like them to speak English to me. (Though they'd probably guess that from my British passport.)

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    The language negotiating hint is a very good point. (I do much the same thing, but make a point of saying "Good morning/afternoon", because just "Hello" is phonetically close to its equivalent in German, French, and probably more.) – Ulrich Schwarz Oct 8 at 12:17
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    @UlrichSchwarz Though one hardly uses "Allô" in French other than on the phone xD – Crazydre Oct 9 at 8:33
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    My most frequent border crossings are between US and Québec. Lots of anglophones and francophones going in each direction. The Canadian border officer usually initiates with a bilingual “Bonjour/hello.” The one you give back is the language they will proceed in. – Matthew Leingang Oct 10 at 18:37

Depends on the country. In the UK and US, for example, the officers greet me (and/or me them) whereas in former Yugoslavia, Albania, Moldova, Turkey and Georgia, they never say a word to me. The same is true IME when entering/exiting Singapore at Woodlands.

In the Schengen Area it varies.

(for what it's worth, I'm on a Swedish passport/ID card)

The last time I faced a passport control officer was at Barajas Airport (Madrid/Spain). It was my second time there and I felt SO happy that my smile was covering my whole face as I got off the plane and walked thru the customs hall.

When the agent noded me to walk five steps towards him and present him my passport I greet him smiling and he smiled me back with sympathy as he asked me the purpose of my trip.

We are all human. They have an awful job: looking for delinquent and terrorist among tons of happy tourists or angry business travelers. I can understand that they do not smile a lot at work, but you can show them a nice smile and say "Hi, good morning". It will not harm anyone. ;)

I believe it is hard for officers to say hi and bye to people in the row. Imagine! You are going to say it all through the working shift—non-stop!

If you say any greeting to the officer, it means you are somehow expecting or forcing him/her to reply the greeting, which is inconvenient!

I recommend to just smile instead of “hi” and move your head as bye with a little bit squeeze on your lips (something like a close smile). This means you care and appreciate but you do not expect a reply!

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    When I buy groceries, the person at the checkout has no difficulty in saying hello to each customer, all through the working shift, non-stop. Why would it be any different for immigration officers? – David Richerby Oct 7 at 21:32
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    @DavidRicherby the person helping you at the grocery store sees a few dozen customers an hour, not a few hundred. Small difference, but significant. – jwenting Oct 9 at 11:20
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    @jwenting A few hundred people an hour is a person every ten seconds (interperting "a few" as "three"). I'm pretty sure they don't see more than, say, 100 an hour in the home passports line, and probably not more than, say, 20 an hour in the foreign passports. So, OK, more than the grocery store for home passports, but not much more. – David Richerby Oct 9 at 13:44
  • @DavidRicherby I don’t know if you travel alot or not. But if you do, I would like to ask: Do you usually get response from visa officers? – Zich Oct 9 at 16:07
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    @Zich I travel internationall a couplefew times a year. In the UK and US, they usually say hello back; in other countries they usually at least acknowledge/smile/nod; some places they barely seem to react at all. (Actually, last time I went to Spain, the border guard was too busy talking to his pal about football to even look at me.) But I've never had anything happen that made me think saying hello was in any way bad. – David Richerby Oct 9 at 18:49

Simple cordiality is polite, but don't start spilling your guts or recounting your biography. These people are not your friend. They can send you to prison or to your death. Their notes may follow you around for life.

They are no more interested in being your friend than bar staff. They will also be trained to detect attempts at misdirection, and they may misunderstand a colloquialism as profanity or blasphemy, whichever is worse.

..and the longer the queue is held up, the more likely someone behind you will cause trouble. I went through T5 at Heathrow from Amsterdam late December last year, a three hour queue. Some idiot abused an officer and the officer walked off the job, leaving three officers for a thousand odd passengers. Some of which had problems with their entry cards, very trying for these people. Be nice, it's their workplace, but don't waste their time. They may have a KPI (key performance indicator) or SLA(Service Level Agreement) to meet.

  • The question didn't ask "should I tell the officer my whole life story, it asked about saying "hello." In what countries can a border control officer send you to your death? Also, I'm not sure about the relevance of your last paragraph ... why do I care about their KPI or SLA? – Azor Ahai Oct 10 at 17:08
  • Singapore, Indonesia, Myanmar, Malaysia, and any number of other countries still have the death penalty and do exercise it. You care about their KPI or SLA because you may be a "secret shopper" and be expecting a 6 hour interview to result from your contact. These people are watching you, and someone is watching them. Check the wrong box, say the wrong word, not understand the "take" protocols, and you could become very inconvenienced. – mckenzm Oct 10 at 21:14
  • Yeah, sure, so does the US. Does Singapore execute people that lie at the border or something? But I'm not a "secret shopper," and this question isn't about being a "secret shopper," it's about being a regular traveler. Why should I, as a tourist or business visitor care about a KPI or SLA? – Azor Ahai Oct 10 at 21:17

protected by JonathanReez Oct 9 at 22:45

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