Customs and Passport Control at New York airports

How is security control at the New York airport? What will they ask me and how long will it take me to pass it?

This is one of the issues that most worries travelers. So that you know what to expect, today we will tell you step by step what customs and security control are like at the New York airport. Have a good trip!

Questions At The Departure Airport

Many people don’t know this, but in reality, security control begins at the departure airport where you take the flight to New York.

At the check-in counter, or before boarding, an airline worker will ask you a series of routine questions. Some of the possible questions are:

  • Who has packed your suitcase?
  • Have you ever lost sight of your luggage, at home or at the airport? Could someone have tampered with it?
  • Are you carrying a gift or an object that you are not sure what it is?
  • What electronic devices do you carry?
  • It is also possible that they ask you more personal questions (what do you do? Is it your first time traveling to New York?) and you have the feeling that they are making conversation, since the workers are usually very friendly. But, in reality, it is also about security control.

Remember that, according to recent regulations, at the security control of the departure airport they may also ask you to turn on your electronic devices, so do not forget to charge the battery before the trip.

ESTA form: If your country has agreements with the United States and you do not need a visa (as in the case of Spain), remember that before traveling you have to fill out the ESTA form and have it approved.

Arrival At New York Airport

When you exit the plane in New York (at JFK airport, LaGuardia airport, or Newark airport ), follow the signs and walk through the corridors until you reach the border control room.

If you get disoriented, follow the people: everyone has to go through there.

Once there, two queues form: one for US citizens and one for international travelers.

Even if you have a visa to study or work in the United States, if you are not a citizen or permanent resident you have to join the queue for international travelers, unless otherwise indicated.

  1. Get in the queue of international travelers.
  2. Make sure you have all the documents on hand.
  3. An airport worker will tell you which machine or window you have to go to.
    Sometimes, first you go through some machines where you fill in your information, take a photo and fingerprints… But sometimes, you go directly to the window and a policeman does that.

Security Check At New York Airport

And the time comes for the dreaded security control, which, in most cases, does not last more than a few minutes.

At each window there is a policeman. Normally, couples and families can spend together, but always follow the instructions they give you at that time, which may be different.

You have to give the passport to the police (and, if they have made you fill in any information in the machines, also the receipt) and he will indicate the next steps.

If you have not previously done so on the machines, it will take a photo and fingerprints for you. In addition, it may ask you a few things, such as:

  • Is it the first time you travel to New York?
  • What is the reason for your trip to New York?
  • Where are you staying? If the address is not a hotel, who will you stay with?
  • What is your job?
  • What does the person you will be staying with do and what is your relationship?
  • How long will you stay in New York?

And what if you don’t speak English?

These questions are usually asked in English, but many of the workers also speak or understand Spanish.

If not, tell them you don’t understand English and they will find someone who can speak Spanish.

It is true that the police officers at New York airports are not usually exuberant of sympathy, and that, after the long flight, it is a bit imposing that they ask you so many questions all at once…

But you don’t have to worry: tell the truth at all times (in the ESTA you have already provided information, so don’t contradict yourself) and you won’t have any problems.

All the cops want to know is that you’re coming to New York for a vacation, not to stay illegally looking for work. Hence this little interrogation.

For example, if you go to New York to study and you said you were going for tourism, you may have problems, and they may even make you return to your country.

So, even if it sounds paranoid, we can’t give you better advice than to do things right and tell the truth, so you’ll avoid one of the most common mistakes when traveling to New York.

Sometimes they have not asked us anything, and other times they have asked us many questions, but we have never had a problem.

How Long Will It Take To Pass The Control?

Many times we are asked: how long will it take from when I land in New York to leaving the airport? It is impossible to say, since it depends on the day and the time of day.

If several flights have arrived at the same time, there are very long queues and it may take 1 hour or more.

If your flight is the only one that just landed, you might get through in less than 30 minutes.

The minimum that we have taken is 10 minutes (we were the only flight), and the maximum, 2:30 pm on a day of bad luck and a lot of fuss.

If you travel to New York with children, it is normal that they let you pass faster.

And If They Separate Me From My Companions?

This is unusual, but sometimes it does happen. If the immigration officers want to confirm any information, they may ask you to wait in a separate room, called Secondary Inspection.

Your relatives or companions will not be able to stay, but will have to keep moving forward.

It is a room with chairs where there are more people waiting their turn (don’t imagine a scene from a horror movie!) and all they do is check the data and ask you more questions.

It is one more procedure, designed so as not to collapse the control windows, but it is good that you discuss it with your companions so that everyone knows and no one is scared.

If this happens, you can meet right in the next room, where the suitcases are collected.


After passing the security control in New York, there is still one step left: pick up the luggage and go through customs to leave the airport.

Customs control is so fast that, in most cases, you won’t even realize you’ve passed it.

They may ask you about what you have in your luggage or they may make you open your suitcase, although this has happened a few times: the usual thing, if you have nothing to declare, is that they let you pass directly.

Declare The Money

If you and your family have less than $10,000 in cash, you do not have to report it.

For higher amounts, you must declare them through the FinCEN 150 form, which you will find at customs.

Bringing Food Into New York

Customs laws are very strict as to what food you can take in your luggage and enter New York.

Some can be passed, while many others are prohibited, but, above all, you have to declare all foods, without exception.

No, they won’t tell you anything about the bag of mini pretzels that they gave you on the plane and you saved for later: we mean taking sausage packages, bottles of oil, wine.

If you don’t declare food and you get caught, not only will it be confiscated and you’ll risk a fine, but you’ll lose time dealing with the airport police that you could have used to visit New York.

Our advice is that, if it is not something essential due to allergies or specific diets, do not carry any food in your luggage.

You can buy almost everything in the city, and what is not, awaits you at home when you return from your trip.

The payoff is that you save yourself a lot of potential trouble.

In any case, if you want to bring any food into New York and declare it, consult the website of the United States Customs and Border Protection Office before traveling. That’s where you’ll find all the up-to-date information.

And The Medicines?

It is another complex issue, since there are as many cases as there are people. But, in general, you will have no problem traveling with a small amount of generic drugs, such as aspirin or Ibuprofen.

You can include them both in your carry-on suitcase and in your checked baggage. Keep in mind that this type of medication is also sold in any New York pharmacy.

If you need to travel with any prescribed medication, take the prescription with you.

If it is liquid and you do not need it during the flight, keep it in checked luggage or carry a doctor’s authorization if you have to carry it with you at all times, yes or yes.

How To Get To New York From The Airport

Whoo! You have passed the security control of the New York airport and you are already in the city !

Ok, the surroundings of the airport are quite (very) ugly, but now you can forget about the paperwork and start thinking about the city of skyscrapers and everything that awaits you there.

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