I see all kinds of guidance on various travel resources about visa overstays, penalties, forgiveness, excemptions, blah, blah.

However, none of the resources that I have seen ever say how the INS would find out about an overstay. I mean they can make all kinds of threats about penalties, but it is moot if the INS never has any way to find out.

As far as I understand it a record is only created when a traveler ENTERS the United States, not when the traveler leaves. When the traveler leaves, they just get on the plane and leave. There is no customs, no immigration check, no nothing. So if there is no record being created of the departure, it would seem to be impossible for INS to ever know about, much less prove a visa overstay. Am I missing something here?

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    It's not the INS anymore, but USCIS (US Citizenship and Immigration Services). The former Immigration and Nationalization Service was broken up and reorganized around 2003 when the Department of Homeland Security was created. Sep 10, 2021 at 15:01
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    See cbp.gov/travel/travel-industry-personnel/apis2 for example
    – Traveller
    Sep 10, 2021 at 15:11
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    Check your i94 record online. You’ll see they know exactly when you left. Or at least they should.
    – jcaron
    Sep 10, 2021 at 16:52
  • @jcaron unless they left via road into Mexico
    – Midavalo
    Sep 10, 2021 at 20:44
  • Are you asking "how would the government find out that they overstayed previously the next time they apply for a visa or seek entry?" or "how would the government find out they are currently overstaying in the US?"
    – user102008
    Sep 10, 2021 at 23:11

2 Answers 2


Yes you miss something. The airline has to inform the authorities that you are on the plane and leaving.

If you leave via a land border or by boat your departure may also be recorded, if not in all cases.

If there is no record of you leaving, they may assume you are still in the country.

It has happened to many people that they tried to enter the USA or to get a visa or ESTA and were told they had overstayed while they had left but that record got lost.

  • Land border into Canada is definitely notified to the US. Land border to Mexico isn't (at least at none of the land borders I've crossed at).
    – Midavalo
    Sep 10, 2021 at 21:07
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    @Midavalo "Land border into Canada is definitely notified to the US" - that is not a universal experience. Riding the Amtrak train into BC from WA, they only glanced at my passport as they walked through the train: they didn't make a copy or take notes or anything - unless they're in the habit of giving the US vague, non-specific notes.
    – Dai
    Sep 11, 2021 at 2:20
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    @Dai, My guess would be that both countries got advance passenger information from Amtrak, so the US got its exit records the same way they do from the airlines. You could FOIA your travel records to find out for sure what the CBP knew about the trip.
    – user38879
    Sep 11, 2021 at 15:28

As an addition to @Willeke's answer, there's a more generic question of "how do overstayers get caught". And the real answer is that a lot of times they aren't caught. Tens of millions of people around the world are in dubious immigration status and no authority is capable of identifying them all. Even China has illegal immigrants despite their extensive surveillance capacities. In which situations do immigration authorities end up finding overstayers then?

  1. When trying to leave and come back. As mentioned by @Willeke, if they don't have a record of you leaving they might just assume you've overstayed and refuse to let you in. Or in the case of countries with exit immigration, you'll receive an entry ban when departing the country. Living undercover isn't a pleasant experience so most of the time people will just end up going back home eventually.
  2. They eventually legalize their stay. I.e. three million people got their US immigration status sorted out during the 1986 amnesty. In the UK you can apply to regularize your status if you manage to stay illegally for 20 years.
  3. Someone reports them, usually a former friend or partner. You break up with your boyfriend or girlfriend, they get upset at you, and call the immigration services to report you.
  4. Via raids on known locations of visa overstayers. It happens periodically in the US though the vast majority of illegal immigrants will never see one.

And finally... some might never get caught. I'm sure there's millions of people who entered the US (perhaps not even via an official inspection point), stayed there for a few years, went back and CBP is still none the wiser. Just like there's people who got away with theft, tax evasion, sale of illegal narcotics, smuggling of goods, etc. But you'll still be better off if you follow all the immigration rules, even if there's a chance you could get away with it.

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    "In the UK you can become a citizen if you manage to stay for 20 years, no matter your visa status"... no, you can apply for Discretionary Leave to Remain; only if that is granted (which is far from certain) and subsequently upgraded (at least 10 years later) to Indefinite Leave to Remain will residence begin counting towards the minimum periods (currently 5 years if not married to a British Citizen; 3 years otherwise) for a citizenship application. So an overstayer pretty much can't become a British Citizen until at least 33 years after they arrived in the UK.
    – eggyal
    Sep 11, 2021 at 8:39
  • Do countries share visa overstay info amongst themselves. If I overstay a visa in one country, can other countries ever find out? Jan 21, 2022 at 16:43

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