What to Expect When You Land at a US Airport

advice for students
campus life
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By Matt Killorin
Last updated on August 10, 2023

Get from the airplane to your dorm room as smoothly as possible.

A female international student in a scarf and thick-rimmed glasses, handing her ticket over to airport staff

Ongoing COVID protocols, immigration office delays, and increased security at US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) checkpoints can make even a seasoned tourist feel like a first-time traveler. But do not let minor airport inconveniences stand in the way of your excitement. With a bit of patience and preparation, your travel experience can be an enjoyable start to your international education. 

Here is an up-to-date list of what you need to know to get from your US arrival airport to campus, safely and smoothly. 

COVID Protocols

Let’s start with the big question: What are the latest COVID protocols at US airports?

The rules governing COVID-19 protocols change rapidly. The important things to remember are to get fully vaccinated and do not travel if:

  • You are sick

  • You’ve tested positive but haven't finished quarantining

  • You have come in contact with a person who has COVID in the past 10 days

  • Or are still waiting for results.

Most importantly, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) tells travelers to stay home until fully vaccinated.

Additional recommendations for travelers to the United States include:

  • Wearing a mask if you choose (the CDC recommends wearing high-quality masks indoors).

  • Getting tested before boarding your flight.

  • Getting fully vaccinated with accepted COVID-19 vaccines.

  • Providing contact information to your airline. This helps keep the public safe by quickly identifying and contacting people at risk for COVID-19 exposure.

Before your trip, be sure to check the CDC and the US Department of Homeland Security sites for the latest COVID-related information and travel requirements.

It’s also important to remember that your university will have separate COVID safety protocols in place and that you will have to prepare to follow those rules as well. Speak to your Shorelight advisor to get the most up-to-date requirements at your campus.

On Campus
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At the Airport - Step 1: Disembark the Plane 

If you have traveled internationally on an airplane before, your port of entry arrival should be familiar. The port of entry is where you officially enter the United States. You will pass through a US immigration checkpoint shortly after you exit the plane. 

Make sure you have all your required papers in order and ready to show to the CBP agent in the airport when the time comes. Remember to pack the documents you need to enter the US in your carry-on luggage for easy access. Take the original versions with you to the US and leave a copy of each at home, just in case you lose something. 

It’s also a good idea to fill out any custom declaration forms or immigration cards the airline provides before your final arrival to reduce delays after you disembark the airplane. 

At the Airport - Step 2: Proceed through the Immigration Checkpoint 

According to Homeland Security, international students need to have their visa, passport, and Form I-20, or Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status. We recommend bringing the following documents in your carry-on luggage as well: 

  • Letter of acceptance from your university

  • Copy of Statement of Fees

  • Tuition and fee payment receipt

  • SEVIS I-901 fee 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

Checking through immigration and customs is a two-part process (make sure you enter the “Visa” line when passing through immigration). Generally speaking, the first step is the immigration checkpoint, where you will show your passport, visa, and I-20. The second part comes when you pass through customs after collecting your checked luggage from the claim carousels in the baggage terminal. 

Note: Your port of entry may not be your final destination. If you are entering the US through a different city from your university and have to catch a connecting flight, you will also be required to follow all the domestic travel protocols. 

While the rules are virtually the same, it’s a good idea to read the CDC’s latest domestic travel update before your flight. 

At the Airport - Step 3: Collect Your Luggage

Finding the baggage terminal for your flight can be tricky in an unfamiliar airport. Look for signage that will lead you to your suitcases and other checked items, or find an airport employee or information booth to help you find where you need to go. 

Most of us have a personal strategy when it comes to collecting luggage at the baggage terminal of an airport. No matter if you prefer to be first to the carousel or if you prefer to track your suitcase with an airline’s mobile baggage tracking application, these tips can help you keep safe and keep moving: 

  1. Make your luggage easy to spot: Add a sticker, ribbon, or brightly colored identifier to distinguish your luggage from a group of similar-looking suitcases. 

  2. Check your tags: Once you locate your bags, confirm the luggage tag stickers are correct. Look for your contact information badge or any other identifying characteristics. (Remember: Add your contact information to the outside and inside of each bag when packing.) 

  3. Have a plan: Bags get lost every day. If your bags do not make it to your final destination, you will have to contact the airline to make delivery arrangements or file a claim. Make sure what’s packed in your carry-on can get you through a few days, and take note of the airline phone number just in case. Before you leave the claim area, be sure to inspect your bags for damage as well. 

At the Airport - Step 4: Pass through Customs 

The customs process may take longer than the immigration checkpoint and include a CBP official interview. The interview is nothing to worry about, but be sure to familiarize yourself with what you are allowed and not allowed to bring into the US

During the interview, be prepared to answer questions about your stay in the US, including where you are attending university, what you plan on studying, and how you plan to pay for your education. Be sure to have your documents available and ready to share with the official, as well. 

By knowing what to expect and following the rules, you will give yourself the best chance of entering the US on an F-1 student visa

At the Airport - Step 5: Get a Ride to Campus

Almost all airports in the United States have bus, taxi, and ride-share vehicles available to take you to campus. However, before you flag down a cab, make sure you have checked in with your advisors and university contacts to see if a school shuttle is available or if your university can arrange for a rideshare to meet you. Remember, Shorelight’s student services include airport transfers for international studies. 

If you have not done so, it is a good idea to have a ride-share app on your mobile phone. Lyft and Uber are the most popular in the US. Airports usually have designated areas for pick-up and drop-off that are well marked. Follow these signs if you plan on grabbing a ride from an app or a taxi. 

Ideally, you will go straight to campus after you arrive, but because of available flight schedules and/or travel budget, many students must catch flights that have them arrive on campus before move-in day. In these cases, you will have to find alternate accommodations until directed otherwise. It’s a good idea to reach out to the university if you know you will be arriving early. The university has experience with these sorts of issues and will be able to give you good advice regarding hotels and other options until your housing is ready.

Learn which arrival assistance services Shorelight provides to international students coming to the US >

From the Airport - Step 6: Arrive on Campus

The hard part is over! Once you arrive on campus, you will be directed to your dorm and/or any welcome activities. Several university representatives will be available to make sure you have the information you need and are headed in the right direction. 

During your first days on campus, you will likely take part in a new student orientation. Your campus team will send you a full schedule and all relevant details in advance (typically a week before you arrive on campus), so you should know exactly what to expect! 

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Get Ready for the Experience of a Lifetime 

After the application and visa process, you should be getting pretty good at facing new challenges and overcoming them. Navigating airports, finding new interests, and starting an international education are all part of the study in the USA experience. But remember: It’s okay to have questions when you arrive at your new home in the US. 

Many universities launch their school year with orientation week, which is a great time to get familiar with the campus, meet new people, and learn tricks and tips for making your international education successful. If you have questions about your new home, this is a great time to ask them. 

Shorelight makes getting to your US university easy