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I'm planning to visit the USA this December for tourism reasons (staying less than 3 months), and I've successfully applied for ESTA and been approved for it. I am aware of the Covid-19 restriction situation — this is not about that. Rather, I was talking to a friend about my visit there and he claims that as I am a first-time US visitor, I will have to go through some sort of "on-arrival visa interview" (yes, he's aware that I'm using ESTA and not Visa) as this is my first time in the USA. Is this true? If it is true, where can I read more about it? If not, might he be mistaking it for something else that I will have to do at the airport?

For what it's worth, I will be entering the USA through the Chicago O’Hare International Airport (ORD) on a Saturday at 12:30 PM.

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  • @NeanDerThal Absolutely. However, my concern is more whether the time I'm staying at O'Hare will be enough to get through the queue lines.
    – Newbyte
    Oct 6 '21 at 6:22
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    The time you spend waiting in line will be far longer than the time required for the "interview". I'd say that 2.5 hours between flights is a bit tight, but you should be OK.
    – bubba
    Oct 6 '21 at 8:05
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    2.5 hours may be pretty tight at O'Hare if you're going from one terminal to another - at least be prepared and make sure you know EXACTLY how to get where you're going after arrival. O'Hare is a very large and busy airport!
    – Joe
    Oct 6 '21 at 15:57
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Historically everyone entering the US - even US citizens - was processed by an immigration officer. This officer is able to ask any number of questions about you, your visit to the US, etc, in an attempt to confirm that you are a bona fide visitor to the US.

Several years ago the US started using automated machines to process visitors on arrival, which allowed some travelers to be processed by immigration without having to deal with a human. Initially these were available only for US citizens, however over time they have been expanded at most airports to include visitors entering on ESTA/VWP - however not on their FIRST entry to the US, only for subsequent visits.

Most likely what your friend is referring to is the fact that on your first visit to the US under the Visa Waiver Program (ESTA), you will need to speak to an immigration agent. This is no different to most every other country in the world, where the immigration staff will likely ask you a few questions regarding your visit to the US, stamp your passport, and send you on you way. In most cases this 'interview' will probably take no more than about 30-60 seconds.

On subsequent visits to the US under ESTA/VWP you can normally avoid this 'interview' by using the automated kiosks - however as mentioned above these can not be used on an initial entry.

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    On my first time, they also scanned in the palm prints of both hands. Oct 5 '21 at 17:44
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Willeke
    Oct 8 '21 at 4:13
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If it's your first time visiting the US, regardless of ESTA/visa, you should definitely expect the CBP officer who processes you to spend longer questioning you about your circumstances, trip, etc., and for there to be a greater chance that you'll be pulled aside for secondary screening (though that's still unlikely overall). It isn't a matter of a separate "visa interview", though, just a higher degree of scrutiny during the process all visitors undergo during every visit.

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  • Could you elaborate on when this CBP officer processing happens exactly, and if it has a name?
    – Newbyte
    Oct 5 '21 at 14:58
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    It happens exactly at 12:44 PM, its technical name is "clearance" or "entry processing" or "inspection" or "screening", and while it's not something you need to research ahead of time, if you are determined to feed your future-tripping you can take a look at e.g. cbp.gov/newsroom/video-gallery/2015/01/youve-arrived
    – Sneftel
    Oct 5 '21 at 15:29
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    I didn't mean time in that sense, but rather what part of the process. Apologies if that wasn't clear. Thanks for the elaboration. My main concern is whether the time I have between my two flights (about two and a half hours, second flight is domestic) is enough to queue for this and find my next flight.
    – Newbyte
    Oct 5 '21 at 15:29
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    I mean, in the normal case we're talking 60 seconds of questioning rather than 30 seconds of questioning. There's always the potential to end up in a multi-hour bureaucratic nightmare, but that's not really something you can plan around.
    – Sneftel
    Oct 5 '21 at 15:39
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    Incidentally, CBP tracks wait times and publishes them at awt.cbp.gov .
    – Sneftel
    Oct 5 '21 at 15:42
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In addition to the other answers, I wanted to point out the main questions you're likely to be asked, which are:

  • What is your purpose of visiting? (Be straightforward: "Visiting a friend", "Visiting Chicago as a tourist")
  • Where are you staying? (Have an address ready.)

Sometimes you get asked questions which they can't possibly verify, just trying to see if you look evasive, I guess.

I don't think I've ever managed to enter the US without an "interview" (same as every country), even though the last three times have been with the ESTA. Over the last couple of decades, the interview processes seem to have gotten friendlier, while the queueing process has become a complete shambles. (At LAX anyway).

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  • "same as every country" For which other countries have you needed to do an interview at the border? I have never experienced this in any other country?
    – jkej
    Oct 6 '21 at 9:20
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    I think you're being thrown by the word "interview". I have crossed an awful lot of borders, and virtually always the procedure is the same: show them your passport, answer any questions they have. It's true I guess that customs agents in other countries don't tend to ask me any, but it happens. The basic procedure is the same though. Oct 6 '21 at 10:04
  • I don't think it was the word interview that I objected to. We seem to agree that interviews (or questions if you will) are the rule at US borders and an exception at other countries' borders. To me this is a fundamental difference in "basic procedure". Your answer still seems to imply that all countries have mandatory questioning at the border.
    – jkej
    Oct 6 '21 at 10:32
  • The fundamental procedure is the same, it's just that some border guards have more questions than others. The US and UK ask a lot of questions, Japan puts more emphasis on the written declaration, Schengen varies country-by-country but I've gotten a lot of questions in Finland and not so much in France or Italy or Spain, where the interview is mostly reading the documents (and when I have been verbally questioned the word "tourism" has been enough). The only place where I am not routinely interviewed by a border guard is in Australia where I use the automated gates.
    – Lll
    Oct 6 '21 at 12:26
  • @jkej most countries have you talk to a border control agent. It's never once not been the case for me. You must do most your travel between Schengen countries
    – eps
    Oct 6 '21 at 12:50
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Apparently the experience can vary greatly, depending on airport and possibly from were you are from.
I suppose the passport scan (if you are a potential risk-category passenger) triggers a flag to the officer that causes him/her to ask more questions.
And I wouldn't be surprised if the immigration officers have a great deal of leeway to ask more questions on their own initiative, if they don't like the look of you.

It is possible you don't get an interview at all (or it is so short you don't recognize it as an interview).

My personal experience going to the USA 11 times in total on ESTA between 2005 and 2018. 7 times for work, 4 times for holiday:

I never got any real interview. Purpose of visit was asked 8 times and 3 times not even that.

First time was on holiday in 2005. Arrived at LAX (direct flight from Europe). At immigration the officer just asked me "tourist or work?", I replied tourist, passport was stamped and I was through.

I was asked for my staying address only twice. Both at JFK, New York, on a business trip.

In Chicago (O'Hare, been there 3 times for work) I once was picked to have my carry-on luggage examined immidiately on getting out of the plane (before immigration and getting my suitcase from the conveyor). They did that on about 15 passengers from that flight. All men between 30-60 years and traveling alone. They must have been looking for something very specific.
But I didn't get any additional scrutiny at immigration (except for the usual "purpose of visit" question, that I also got on my 2 previous visits to Chicago).

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