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Denied Entry to USA From UK?

Denied Entry to USA From UK?

Having been successfully granted a visa waiver or visa to come to the United States, most would be forgiven for thinking that this provides an absolute entitlement to gain entry into the country. Sadly, this is not always the case, as it’s not uncommon for someone travelling to the USA from the UK to still be denied entry on arrival.

The following guide looks at what to do if you are denied entry to the US, and for those planning a stateside trip, we look at ways to reduce the risk of being denied entry at the US border.


Gaining entry to the USA

As a British citizen, you may be eligible to travel to the USA visa-free under the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA), provided your trip is for business or pleasure and for a period of fewer than 90 days. ESTA is an automated screening system used to determine the eligibility of certain foreign nationals, including British nationals, to visit the United States via the Visa Waiver Program (VWP).

As a prospective VWP traveller planning to arrive at a US air or sea port of entry, you must obtain an approved travel authorisation via the ESTA website at least 72 hours before you depart. However, you will not be eligible for visa-free travel if you have a criminal history (including any prior arrests and cautions), have previously been refused admission or deported from the US, have previously overstayed or have a serious communicable illness. You will also not normally be eligible for a visa waiver under the VWP if you have travelled to Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen since 1 March 2011.

If you are ineligible under the VWP, or looking to undertake activities in the US not permitted as a visitor and/or to stay for more than 90 days, you can instead apply for a nonimmigrant visa with your local US consulate or embassy. These are temporary visas designed for various purposes, from tourism and business trips to work and study, although the process to obtain a visa will require an online application, supporting documentation and an in-person interview. They can also take several weeks or months to process.


Reasons for refusing entry to the USA from the UK

Having been screened as eligible under the VWP and provided with approved electronic travel authorisation, or having successfully applied for a nonimmigrant visa, this will allow you to board a carrier bound for the United States. However, issuance of ESTA-approval or even a visa, regardless of the application requirements, does not guarantee entry to the US.

An approved ESTA will allow you to travel to the States and request permission to enter, but all persons arriving at a US port of entry will be subject to inspection by US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials. A CBP officer has the authority to permit or deny you admission to the country. Equally, even if you are in possession of a valid visa, this will simply indicate to CBP officials that a US consular officer at an American embassy or consulate has reviewed your visa application and that officer has determined that you are eligible to enter the country for a specific nonimmigrant purpose.

The CBP officials at the port of entry will still need to determine if you are eligible for admission under US immigration law by conducting an inspection of your documentation, together with a background check, where anyone seeking to lawfully enter the United States must establish their admissibility to the satisfaction of any CBP officer. Unfortunately, there are several common reasons for being denied entry, including:

  • if you have previously been refused entry to the US, regardless of the reason, for example, even for an expired passport or unintentional errors on your documentation
  • if you have previously overstayed a visit to the US or have previously worked illegally
  • if you have been arrested, cautioned or convicted of a criminal offence
  • if you are suspected of having ties to either terrorist and/or criminal organisations, or there are otherwise suspicions of malicious intent on your part
  • if you have a communicable disease, or a physical or mental disorder that may pose a threat to either the safety or welfare of you or others, or you are a drug or alcohol addict (where even carrying prescription drugs can result in a denial of entry).

Other common reasons as to why you could be denied entry to the USA from the UK include any problems with paperwork, such as documentation that contradicts your ESTA-approval or visa status, such as having printed CVs on your person when you are prohibited from undertaking work. Problems may also arise because of a lack of documentation, for example, where you are unable to provide proof of ties to your country of origin, where requested, or proof that you have sufficient funds to support yourself during your stay, again indicative of possible plans to immigrate to the USA illegally.

If you have questionable content on your social media, or mobile phone and devices, and CBP officials gain access to any posts or data, this could also result in a denial of entry.

What should you do if you’re denied entry to the USA?

On arrival at a US port of entry, you will usually have to wait in a long line of other travellers to be screened. During this primary screening process, a CBP officer will inspect your passport, verify your identity and check your name against various databases.

Having established that you have been given permission to travel to the US, and notwithstanding that permission, they will go on to ask you questions designed to elicit any information that may prohibit you from entering. Depending on your responses and/or any information from a background check, this may result in you being sent to a secondary inspection area for a full interview, where your luggage may also be searched.

Even though CBP officials are generally on the lookout for people who may be either a security or health risk, or using a visitor or other nonimmigrant visa to gain entry to the US for illegal purposes or a permanent stay, you may still be denied entry for various other reasons. If an officer during any secondary inspection determines that you are ineligible to enter the USA, you can be refused entry and returned to your home country.

Having travelled from the UK on a long flight, you will understandably feel upset and frustrated if denied entry. However, the most important thing to remember is not to argue with CBP officials. Many foreign travellers, including travellers from the UK, are denied entry to the USA every day for all sorts of different reasons but, by keeping calm, this will provide the best possible basis upon which to find a potential way forward. It will also help to buy some time to contact an immigration attorney to see what, if anything, can be done.

In most cases you will be required to return home and, depending on why you were denied entry, you may need to apply for a waiver of ineligibility, for example, if you have a criminal conviction. However, where you have arrived to the United States on a visa, you have the right to request an exclusion hearing before an immigration judge, as well as an appeal or judicial review, although VWP applicants waive their right to such proceedings.

Even if you have no other option but to return to the UK, a CBP officer may, at their discretion, allow you to withdraw your application for admission. This simply means withdrawing your request to enter the country. If denial is inevitable, this can often be the best option, where a determination of inadmissibility on arrival may have an impact on your future admissibility. For example, if you are denied entry under the VWP, and you subsequently apply for ESTA-approval, your previous denial will almost certainly result in ineligibility under the VWP, where you would need to apply for a visa instead. It is also important to be able to ascertain from the CPB officer why you were refused entry, as this too may affect any future applications and/or decisions at a US port of entry.

Reducing the risk of being refused entry

Even if you are eligible for visa-free travel, but there are possible reasons for you being denied entry to the USA, applying for a visa in advance before you travel, rather than obtaining ESTA-approval, can often help to pre-empt any potential problems.

A visa will not guarantee you entry to the United States, but the fact that you have been able to satisfy an embassy or consular officer that your intentions are consistent with the type of nonimmigrant visa sought, with reference to detailed documentation in support of your application, this will go a long way towards persuading a CBP officer of the same at a port of entry. The individual dealing with your visa application will also enter notes about your travel plans into their database. This means that, provided the CBP officer is able to access these notes, and that any verbal explanation given by you on arrival is consistent with what has been recorded, this will serve as corroboration of legitimate travel plans.

It is also always best, when travelling under either ESTA-approval or even a nonimmigrant visa, to have sufficient documentation in your possession to prove the reasons for your stay. In this way you will be able to provide documentary evidence of your genuine intentions, for example, if you are visiting for a holiday, you could produce a travel itinerary and your hotel booking, together with evidence of day trips and pre-planned excursions.

By the same token, it is important that you do not have on your person, or in your luggage, any documentation which conflicts with the specific purpose for which you have been granted entry. For example, if you are travelling under ESTA-approval or a visitor visa, you must not have anything to suggest a work or housing search during your US stay.


Enrolling under a US Trusted Traveler program

If you are a regular traveller to the United States, you may want to consider registering for US Global Entry. This is a US Trusted Traveler program designed to facilitate expedited clearance for low-risk and pre-approved travellers upon arrival in the US. This does not replace the need for a visa waiver or visa, and you will still need a valid passport. However, travellers must be pre-approved for the Global Entry program, where all applicants will undergo a rigorous background check and in-person interview prior to being enrolled.

You will first need to apply to the UK Home Office at GOV.UK, paying a £42 non-refundable fee if you fail the background checks. However, if you pass the checks, you can go on to apply using the Trusted Traveler Program website. This will cost an additional $100 USD, again non-refundable if your application is turned down. The US CBP Agency will tell you if you have been provisionally accepted for Global Entry within 2 weeks, at which stage you will need to attend an in-person interview before being officially enrolled in Global Entry.

By becoming an approved Global Entry member, this will mean that instead of standing in long passport-control and inspection lines, you will be able to enter the USA using an automatic kiosk located at designated airports. You will be required to present your machine-readable passport, place your fingerprints on the scanner for verification and complete a customs declaration. The kiosk will issue you with a transaction receipt and direct you to baggage claim, in this way ensuring a smoother and speedier admission.

While Global Entry’s goal is to speed up the entry process, you may still be selected for examination when entering the USA. Any violation of the program’s terms and conditions may also result in enforcement action and termination of your membership privileges.


Need assistance?

NNU Immigration are specialists across all classes of US visas and immigration. If you have a query about traveling to the US, or if you are facing an issue with your permission to enter the US, contact our dedicated US immigration attorneys.


Denied entry to USA FAQs

What happens if you are denied entry to the USA?

If you’re denied entry to the USA, you may be returned to your home country. Any determination of inadmissibility on arrival may also impact your future admissibility, so it is important to ascertain the reasons for this.


Why might a person coming to the United States get denied entry?

There are various reasons as to why someone might be denied entry to the US, even with electronic travel authorisation or a valid visa. These could include having been previously denied entry or having been convicted of a criminal offence.


What happens if I am denied entry to a country?

If you are denied entry to a country, you will probably be put on a return flight home or, if you cannot return to that country, on a direct flight to another country that will be able to accept you.


Can I find out why my ESTA was denied?

Due to security/privacy laws, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) cannot tell you the reason why travel authorisation was denied, although further information about ESTA denials is available from the CBP website. If denied, you will need a visa instead.

This article does not constitute direct legal advice and is for informational purposes only.


Founder & Principal Attorney Nita Nicole Upadhye is a recognized leader in the field of US business immigration law (AILA) and trusted adviser to large corporates through to SMEs, providing strategic immigration and global mobility advice to support employers with both US and UK operations to meet their workforce needs through corporate immigration.

Nita successfully acts for corporations and professionals, entrepreneurs, artists, actors, and athletes from across the globe, providing expert guidance on all aspects of US visa and nationality applications, and talent mobility to the USA.

Nita is an active public speaker, thought leader, immigration commentator, and immigration policy contributor and regularly hosts training sessions for employers and HR professionals

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