I understand that prior to crossing being admitted to the US the rights I take for granted on US soil do not apply to me. But it isn't clear to me when passing through a US airport where "admission" has occured. Unlike, for example, the UK, where clear signage unambiguously marks an actual border, US airports have a confusing series of stages to pass through.

At what point in passing through these stages have I technically been admitted to the US, and acquired the full legal protections I expect there?

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    Possible duplicate of What is the real legal status of an airport transit area?
    – JonathanReez
    Commented Feb 20, 2017 at 13:24
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    The question is meaningless since there is no special border: you are on US soil at all times
    – JonathanReez
    Commented Feb 20, 2017 at 13:30
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    And the legal status of arriving travelers (which tends to be exaggerated and misunderstood in many descriptions you can find on the net) is not related to being in a particular place with respect to an imaginary "border", but to having been outside the country, now being in its territory, but not yet having been inspected and admitted by the border force. Commented Feb 20, 2017 at 13:37
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    At the point when you cross the US border inside your plane.
    – JonathanReez
    Commented Feb 20, 2017 at 14:19
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    @JonathanReez: Now that's clearly not the case, as noted in the reference and in all of the answers so far.
    – orome
    Commented Feb 20, 2017 at 14:25

4 Answers 4


When you are lawfully stamped and your status written in your passport. (Note that passports aren't always stamped by the officer if using an APC kiosk (which, at most airports, many VWP nationals can), but even then you've been lawfully admitted - you're admitted when the electronic admission record has been created). The term lawfully is very important.

To be clear, wherever you are in the country and however you crossed, you are or at least in theory supposed to be accorded basic and universal human rights. For example if hypothetically before crossing immigration/passport control you get murdered, the USA will prosecute the murderer to the fullest extent of the law.

When it comes to immigration benefits and law however, until you cross immigration/passport control (and are admitted lawfully) you have not been admitted into the USA. For this reason you have very limited legal standing with respect to immigration law and benefits.

See INA §101(a)(13)(A)

(13) 2/ (A) The terms "admission" and "admitted" mean, with respect to an alien, the lawful entry of the alien into the United States after inspection and authorization by an immigration officer.

Thus after you cross (and not just cross but cross lawfully) immigration/passport control, then you have all the immigration rights. To make it even more complex, note that that even fter you cross, if for example it is realized that the immigration officer admitted you by mistake, you are not lawfully admitted. For example if you had previously committed a crime of moral turpitude (which makes you ineligible for a visa) but had mistakenly been awarded a visa by a consular officer based on your lies, and you used that visa to enter the USA through passport control, your entry was void ab initio because you were inadmissible from the very beginning and hence according to the court you were not lawfully admitted.

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    And is it still the case that "wherever you are in the country, you are accorded basic and universal human rights"?
    – orome
    Commented Feb 20, 2017 at 14:23
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    Exactly at the point your passport is stamped. Correct! Commented Feb 20, 2017 at 14:28
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    It might help to mention that in most (all?) US airports, even after clearing immigration and being admitted, you still have to clear customs before you are free to leave the airport. People often confuse immigration with customs. However customs is not really about allowing you to enter the country, but rather your luggage. Commented Feb 20, 2017 at 15:42
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    @NateEldredge You have a point. The truth however is that once the immigration guy has stamped your entry, you have been admitted. Depending on what happens at customs, they may revoke admission. Doesn't change the fact that you were actually admitted once stamped. If you commit crimes in the USA also your admission may be revoked, nevertheless doesn't change the fact that you were admitted at the point you were stamped. Commented Feb 20, 2017 at 15:45
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    "different rights for citizens and visitors": that is true, but not relevant to the special powers of search at the border. These derive from the fact that the person or goods being searched are crossing the border, irrespective of the traveler's nationality. The fact that you've been lawfully admitted for the purpose of immigration law, as @ZachLipton notes, isn't particularly relevant to the rules governing the search.
    – phoog
    Commented Feb 21, 2017 at 1:05

At what point in passing through these stages have I technically been admitted to the US, and acquired the full legal protections I expect there?

Since 1976 you can be as much as a hundred miles from the border and run into a permanent checkpoint and kiss good bye to your legal protections. So I would not try to split hairs over which line in the fine floor mosaic of a US airport you need to walk over before you are in.

  • Unless of course OP is a citizen of the US.
    – JonathanReez
    Commented Feb 20, 2017 at 16:30
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    He mentioned airport very specifically including in his heading. What relevance has your answer to do with airport? Your answer didn't answer his question and the links you posted are irrelevant to his specific question. Your answer is wrong, simply wrong! Commented Feb 20, 2017 at 16:36
  • His question asks "acquired the full legal protections I expect there". That's what I answer: you don't. You never do. Those days are gone.
    – user4188
    Commented Feb 20, 2017 at 17:04
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    @chx Still wrong. The visitor acquires the full legal protection accorded a visitor once he is lawfully admitted. Full stop. The question is not about whether the legal rights of a visitor are the same as that of a citizen. No country accords a visitor exactly the same legal rights as a citizen and that was not the question here. You are answering a nonexistent question. Commented Feb 20, 2017 at 17:26
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    -1: arguing that a question is irrelevant does not answer it. Internal checkpoints have nothing to do with the question of whether you are admitted (at most, they are a place where your admitted status could be checked). And it's a gross exaggeration to say that you "kiss your legal protections goodbye" at such a checkpoint. There are legitimate concerns about internal checkpoints but they aren't some kind of Mad Max zone. Commented Feb 20, 2017 at 19:29

Your rights have absolutely nothing to do with your physical location at any given moment.

They are conferred on you due to your status (citizen, alien, etc. etc.).

People usually confuse this but that is only because your STATUS is not CONFIRMED (and therefore, you do not witness the accompanying expected treatment in its manifestation upon you,) until/unless you cross a certain point.

However, your rights are completely independent of that crossing.
Therefore pretty much everyone is wrong.

The difference is knowing the true legal basis, vs. just summarizing what you witness...big difference, albeit a bit abstract-seeming to some.

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    It's kind of meaningless to claim someone has a right that they can't exercise. They might as well not have that right.
    – user541686
    Commented Feb 20, 2017 at 19:47
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    @Mehrdad but this answer points out a problem in the question: an assumption that admission to the US has an effect on the rights enjoyed by the person being admitted. Whether rights are or are not acquired at the point of admission is an entirely separate question from "at what point am I admitted."
    – phoog
    Commented Feb 21, 2017 at 1:43
  • @phoog my understanding is the courts have ruled that (some of) your Constitutional rights do not apply until and unless you are admitted. Hence why they can legally search you at the border in ways they can't do once you're inside. If you're contesting the popular understanding you should provide details, not just make a claim.
    – user541686
    Commented Feb 21, 2017 at 3:13
  • @Mehrdad the constitution prohibits "unreasonable" search. The courts have ruled that searches at the border may reasonably be conducted without suspicion of a crime. The searches therefore comply with the fourth amendment. It is not the case that the fourth amendment doesn't apply, and a border search could be found unreasonable for some reason and therefore unconstitutional.
    – phoog
    Commented Feb 21, 2017 at 3:49
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    This is not true. One's location at the border triggers the border search exception, which means searches work differently at the border than if you're someplace else. Physical location absolutely matters here. Commented Feb 21, 2017 at 9:02

There is no physical border inside an airport. Some would consider the transit area as some kind of no man's land but it isn't at all. Indeed, the transit area is governed by the country's law.

While arriving, even if you haven't yet passed the passport controls, you are already in the destination country. The passport controls is just there to allow you to get outside of the transit area. But you are already inside the country and the country's law are applicable to you.

On the other side, once the plane doors are closed, the plane is considered as an extension of the company home country territory. But while they aren't yet closed, the police can come into it and arrest someone. This has already happen in several well known cases.

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    Can you source the claim that closing of aircraft doors has legal, territorial consequences? Commented Feb 20, 2017 at 13:41
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    @HenningMakholm Yes, for instance the US claims jurisdiction over offences committed aboard all US-registered aircraft and all US-destined aircraft once the last external door is closed immediately prior to takeoff power being applied, no matter where they are in the world. law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/49/46501 Most other countries apply a similar claim.
    – Calchas
    Commented Feb 20, 2017 at 14:28
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    @Calchas: Empowering your courts to punish acts commited aboard such an aircraft is not the same as declaring the aircraft to be your territory! Commented Feb 20, 2017 at 14:30
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    The US has no "transit area". The departure waiting area is "inside" the US for immigration purposes, and you can just get up and leave without passing any checks.
    – user102008
    Commented Feb 20, 2017 at 17:26
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    "But while [the plane's doors] aren't yet closed, the police can come into it and arrest someone." Well, the police could hardly enter the plane when the doors are closed... Commented Feb 20, 2017 at 22:35

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