Arriving in the United States

Image of a student departing an airportTravelling to a new and unknown destination can be daunting. Fortunately, academic institutions and other organizations offer great resources to help students adjust to life in the US more easily. Proactive research and planning can help students settle into their home, and have a safe and rewarding study experience. Here are a few tips and a checklist to make sure students are prepared before they board their flight to the US.

Please note that the following information are general guidelines. For the most accurate information, please visit the US Government website.

Student Checklist

  • Valid passport and Visa: Bring all visa documentation along with a valid passport. Passport must be valid for at least 6 months prior to the entry date in the US. We also recommend keeping multiple copies of the passport and visa documentation.
  • Student Enrollment and Orientation Documents: Students should bring their I-20 or DS-2019 forms and the student information pack, which they would have received from the institution.
  • Luggage: Pack according to the weather and permitted baggage allowance, and avoid all the restricted items
  • Voltage Converter and Travel Adaptor: Students may need a voltage converter if their appliances do no not work on the same mains voltage as the US (120V 60Hz). A power adapter is needed if appliances have a different plug than the ones used in the US wall socket.
  • Flights/Airfare: Book flight in time to arrive for orientation, and keep a record of the flight booking and bring it along to the airport.
  • Transportation for the Airport: Obtain ground transportation from the airport to accommodation. Some colleges and universities offer free pickup so be sure to check.
  • Accommodations: Plan out the accommodations (secure a place to live), and keep the address, phone number, and lease agreement/payment confirmation with you. Learn more about how to secure your accommodations in the Living in the US section of this guide. 
  • Contact Details: Create an emergency contact list, as well as your embassy, accommodation and institution details.
  • Medication and Toiletries: Learn how to travel with medication and what documentation the student needs to bring with them.
  • American Currency: Consider bringing a small amount of cash (~US$500) with you. Monetary instruments, including cash and traveller’s cheques, valuing at or more US$10,000 (or its foreign equivalent) must be declared at customs. Learn more.

What to Bring

Before packing, an incoming student should:

  • Verify luggage restrictions with their airline.
  • Pack for the weather -we recommend researching the weather in the city of stay to pack accordingly.
  • Check which items the US Customs and Border Protection does not permit through customs (eg. pets, plants, fresh fruits and vegetables, meat products, etc.)

Carry-On Items

Upon arrival, students will be asked to show their travel documents to the officers in immigration clearance before then can exit the airport. Students must keep these items, and any other related study documentation, in their carry-on luggage. Checked luggage is collected after the student passes the immigration clearance.

We recommend keeping the following items in the carry-on:

  • A valid passport
  • A valid study visa
  • SEVIS Form I-20 or DS-2019 forms
  • Confirmation of Enrolment, and any other institution documentation student received
  • Original or certified copies of your academic transcripts and qualifications
  • Other personal identification documents, e.g. birth certificate, ID card, driver’s licence
  • Medical records and/or prescriptions
  • Evidence of financial resources
  • Name and contact information for your Designated School Official (DSO), including a 24-hour emergency contact number at your chosen institution.
  • Important telephone numbers and addresses in home country and in the US
  • Details of accommodations, including proof of payment (if payment was made)

Arrival at the Airport

When coming to the US, students are required to do the following things:

  • Before landing in the US, complete a Customs Declaration Card—cards are distributed on the airplane prior to landing
  • Upon arrival, follow the signs for “Immigration and Customs Clearance”
  • Enter the line for non-American passport holders
  • When called by Immigration Officer, present them with the passport, visa documents and the Incoming Passenger card
  • Have your SEVIS Form I-20 or DS-2019 forms and accommodation details with you as the officer may ask for them

Common Questions Asked at Arrivals

Below is a list of commonly asked questions that students may be asked when they arrive at the airport by Immigration Officers:

  • What is your name?
  • Where are you from? What is your home address?
  • What is your mother’s and father’s name?
  • What is your date and place of birth?
  • What school are you going to attend in the US?
  • What program are you going to study and how long is the program?
  • What are your plans after completing the program?
  • Who packed your bag(s)?
  • Do you know what’s inside the bags?
  • How much cash are you carrying with you?
  • How are you paying for your education?
  • Do you have relatives/friends/family in the US? If yes, where do they live? If no, where will you stay?
  • Is someone coming to pick you up at the airport?

Students should respond to all the questions asked by the Immigration Officer with simple and clear answers, and ask for clarification if they do not understand the question clearly.

Navigating the Airport

Many airports have arrival guides on their websites. We highly recommend students research the airport they will be landing in to get themselves familiar. The 10 most frequently accessed airports in the US are:

Airport Pick-Up and Transportation

Many institutions offer students a free pick-up service from the airport. Students should check with their institution, and arrange pick up if possible. Students can also arrange their own transportation from the airport to their accommodation.

Available Transportation Options

  • Taxi: Students can arrange a local taxi to pick you up. Simply search for local companies on Google. Most airports also have a designated area where visitors can get a taxi; no prior booking required.
  • Uber, Lift, Juno, Curb, and Wingz: Ridesharing applications are widely used in the US. However, there are some limitations on where one can be picked up at the airport. View ride availability by searching within the apps.
  • Private/Rental Car: Students can rent a car at the airport provided that they have a valid driver’s license. Many car rental companies, such as Avis, Enterprise, Europcar, Hertz and Budget have offices at the airport. Students should make a reservation prior to their arrival to ensure a car that fits their needs and budget will be available. Note that some car rental companies do not rent cars to those under 21 so be sure to check ahead before booking the car.


Students can pay for their transportation at the end of the ride using a debit or credit card that works in the US, or in cash with USD. If the transportation was pre-booked, students can often also pay through the transportation provider’s website or through their smartphone app.