How to Handle an Emergency While Traveling to the US

advice for students
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By Matt Killorin
Last updated on September 15, 2023

Planning ahead can make all the difference when something unexpected happens.

An international student in a hat and travel backpack facing away in an empty train station

This year, the odds are higher than usual that delays, interruptions, and cancellations will be part of your international travel experience. While these situations could cause an emergency you are not prepared for, having a simple plan in place will save you a lot of trouble. From navigating missed flight connections to following updated US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) protocol due to COVID-19, we will show you how to prepare for and, if necessary, handle an emergency while traveling to your university in the United States. 

How to Pack Your Carry-On

Preparation starts with your carry-on bag — it should have the essentials you need if something comes up during your journey. A well-packed bag can make all the difference between a smooth trip and extra headaches.

You do not want to be forced to stow your carry-on bag just because it is too big or too long. Even more, you certainly do not want to pack any illegal or prohibited items unintentionally. The most important things to remember when packing your carry-on bag are to:

Documents to Bring On-board in Your Carry-on Bag

In addition to your visa, passport, and I-20 form, plan to pack additional proof documenting your study plans in your carry-on. This could include a copy of your letter of acceptance at your university and bank records showing how you plan to finance your education, as both can help facilitate your immigration interview process. 

We recommend including copies of the following documents in your carry-on luggage: 

  • Emergency contact information in the US and at home 

  • COVID testing and vaccination information

  • Letter of acceptance from your university

  • SEVIS I-901 fee receipt

  • Copy of your Statement of Fees

  • Tuition and fee payment receipt

  • Sealed and certified academic transcripts

  • English proficiency and other entrance exam scores

  • Bank statements proving sufficient funds to finance your time living in the US 

  • If applicable, any customs letters or G-28 documentation included in your university acceptance packet

Learn how to navigate US airports before you land in the United States

Pack a Contingency Plan

Once you have your paperwork packed, you should start to think about what you might like to have to pass the time, stay hydrated, and keep your hunger at bay. You never know what the airline will supply on-board your flight. It’s a good idea to purchase a small snack and bottle of water at the airport after you pass through security and before you board your plane, as long as it is permitted by your airline. 

It is also a good idea to have a change of clothes and sample-sized approved toiletries in your carry-on, just in case of an overnight interruption. And don’t forget a few changes of masks. Face masks are required in airports and most other indoor public spaces in the United States.

Have a Plan if Something Goes Wrong 

With today’s long lines and extended wait times at the airport, many travelers underestimate how long it will take to get to a connecting flight boarding gate or through airport security. In addition, airline staffing issues and supply bottlenecks are causing last-minute flight delays and cancellations. COVID-related issues aren’t the only possibility, either. Other potential issues may arise, like a lost or stolen wallet or bag, or a stomach bug or other illness. 

What If I Miss My Flight? 

Unless you have purchased travelers’ insurance or the option to change your itinerary, the airline is not legally obligated to reimburse you or put you on another flight, in most cases. That said, many airlines will put you on the next available flight if you were held up getting through security or had car trouble or other transportation issues on the way to the airport. The reason you miss your flight is important, and you may end up paying out of pocket if you simply overslept or missed your flight out of carelessness. 

To give yourself the best chance at getting rerouted to the next available flight, make sure you: 

  • Contact the airline as soon as you know you will miss the flight. Often, airlines are more amenable to rescheduling your missed flight for no charge if you give them the opportunity to resell your seat. 

  • Have a good reason and be polite! Hopefully, you didn’t miss your flight to your US university because you didn’t set your alarm. Accidents happen, and a genuine reason for missing your flight is important to the airline. Remember, getting angry and yelling at the airline staff will not get you anywhere. Stay calm and be courteous for the best chances of minimizing the time and cost of a missed flight. 

Don’t forget to check in with your advisor and university representative if you are expected on campus by a specific time or date and will not be able to make it. 

What if I Lose Something or Something Is Stolen from Me? 

If you suspect something has been stolen from your luggage, make sure you contact airport security at both your departure and arrival airports. If you were in a US airport, you should also contact the US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and file a claim.  

If you suspect something has been stolen from your carry-on luggage or while in an airport, make sure to contact airport security. They will help you check the Lost and Found and file a claim. You should also make sure to file a claim with your airline if you forgot, lost, or had something stolen while on-board the airplane. 

What if I Get Sick? 

If you are sick with COVID-19, awaiting the results of a COVID test, or if you have tested positive and have not finished quarantining, do not travel. Review the CDC Guidelines for international travel before you leave home to ensure you comply with all vaccination and mask requirements. 

If you feel sick on the airplane or in the airport, be sure to contact an airline representative for assistance. Most US airports have medical staff on location to help with emergencies. 

What if I Have Issues with Immigration or Customs? 

Generally, when entering the United States, you will pass through a primary inspection point where a CBP officer will check your documentation, ask a few questions about your stay, take your digital fingerprint, and then clear you to move forward. Next, you will collect your remaining luggage and pass through the final customs security checkpoint. 

However, a secondary inspection may be required if the CBP officer finds an issue with your visa, passport, or other documents, or if you pose a security risk or perceived risk. 

Your secondary inspection will be a more extended and in-depth interview. Some questions the officers may ask you in your primary or secondary interview include: 

  • Why are you visiting the United States?  

  • Where will you be staying?  

  • Who will you be visiting? 

  • How long will you be staying?  

  • How much money do you have available for this trip? 

  • Who is paying for your trip?  

  • Have you visited the United States before, and if so, how long did you stay? 

  • How often do you come to the United States?  

If you are detained by Customs or required to answer extra questions as part of a secondary inspection, do not panic. You are entering the country legally, and you have done your homework and know what you can and what you cannot bring into the United States. The law allows CBP, Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers access to your luggage, your electronics (as non-US citizens), and can also mandate a medical screening. 

Know Your Rights

Make sure you know what is expected of you and what rights you have as you pass through different countries. Have your Form G-28 filled out and ready. Your G-28 authorizes eligibility for representation, such as a lawyer, in an immigration matter with the US Department of Homeland Security. Having this form filled out ahead of time can help if there is an issue. 

You’ve Got This

With a bit of forethought and research, your travel experience to the United States will go smoothly. Make sure you follow the rules when packing your luggage, include all of your emergency contact and university documentation in your carry-on, and don’t forget to add whatever you may need for an unscheduled overnight stay. 

Before you know it, you will be exploring the campus at your university in the United States! 

Shorelight works with you for a smooth transition to your US university >