How Not To Get Secondary Screening At Immigration

Filed Under: Security/TSA

I’m presently taking my dad on a surprise round the world trip to celebrate his “round” birthday. Even now the trip remains a surprise, as he’s just finding out what we’re doing and where we’re going on a day-by-day basis.

Here are the previous posts about the trip:

Two second summary: answer all the immigration officer’s questions, even if he’s being an ass.

On Wednesday my dad and I flew from Sydney to Los Angeles in Qantas first class. My dad has a German passport, while I have both a German and US passport (though of course I use my US passport with Global Entry when entering the US).


As we deplaned I explained to my dad that he’d have to go through separate lines, and that I’d wait for him at the baggage claim belt.

As we entered the immigration hall I saw that there was virtually no queue, so figured he’d be out in no time. Our checked bags arrived (yes, at this point in our trip we were checking bags), though there was still no sign of my dad.

My dad can be pretty clumsy sometimes, so I figured maybe he had exited immigration or something. But I just kept waiting. And waiting. And waiting.

After an hour a Qantas representative came up to me.

“Are you waiting on someone?”
“Yes, my dad. I’m not sure if the immigration queues are really long, or if he accidentally already passed through customs.”
“Your dad actually asked me to tell you he’s in secondary. You can have a seat over there and then you should be able to see him when he comes out.”

I kept waiting and waiting. At this point one other lady joined me — her husband had a Green Card, and they had been out of the country for 14 months. That might explain why he got secondary. But I still didn’t get why my dad got a secondary screening.

After about 90 minutes my dad emerged and explained that the initial immigration officer was a complete ass. Apparently as my dad approached the podium he “threw” his passport on the counter, as a way to express excitement. My dad tends to get pretty excited and was happy to be home, so “threw” the passport down as a way to express enthusiasm, which was apparently accompanied by a chipper greeting to the immigration officer. Of course perception is reality, and I guess that’s not how it was perceived.

My dad said that the conversation went something like this (with the officer supposedly speaking in an aggressive manner):

“Why are you throwing your passport at me?”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to. I’m just off a long flight and excited to be home.”
“Don’t do that again.”

Apparently he then questioned him for 10 minutes.

“So how long were you in the UAE for?”
“Just two or three days.”
“Well which one is it, huh? Two or three days?”
“You can look at the passport stamps and figure it out.”

My dad’s confusion was well founded, given the time flights arrive and depart the UAE. 😉

Anyway, clearly my dad was trying to be friendly when he approached the officer, though that wasn’t interpreted correctly. But (stupidly) once my dad was unhappy with how the officer was questioning him, he made it known.

Now, I don’t know whether the officer was using a behavior detection technique or was just genuinely an ass (either is entirely plausible), but the moral of the story is to just cooperate and answer all questions without being a smartass, no matter how rude the officer is… well, unless you want to keep your son waiting in the arrivals hall for well over an hour. 😉

  1. @Lucky-I am a little baffled why you would leave your elderly parent to go through the lines by himself and you take the GE lane? I have traveled with my family, mother (who is very much the same age as your dad) and would never take the GE if they need to pass through standard inspections. Considering we are the experienced travelers, we can make sure small little issues don’t blow up like this one did.

  2. @ Ray — My dad is hardly “elderly” (at least he’d argue he isn’t 😉 ), and he’s an experienced international traveler. Three A380s all land around the same time, so I figured it made most sense if I already got our bags from baggage claim so that we’re ready to go when he gets through immigration. We’d have to use separate immigration lines anyway — I’d use the US line, while he’d use the permanent resident line.

  3. Always stick to succinct answers. Yes. No. X days. That’s it. Don’t give more information than what is requested.

  4. I agree with Ray, but at the same time I probably would’ve done what lucky did without really thinking there was going to be any trouble.

  5. @ JC — Have lots of domestic travel coming up, but will be late next month before I go anywhere international again (perhaps a good time to get my 10 year Chinese visa).

  6. Well, I like to travel to the US and appreciate the country as a holiday destination.

    but I am always ‘surprised’ about the American mentality, especially at customs/ immigration. I think it showcases what we here in Europe think about Americans, which is quite sad. I think I do not have to explain what the majority of Europeans think about US Americans… which does not apply to each American, but the stereotype is so true to the immigrations officers at American airports.

    I remember one time arriving in Toronto and I explained to a friend of mine, who had travelled to North America for the first time, what the difference between Canadians and Americans is (in Europe, we do think both are the same when it comes to stereotypes.) At first, the Canadians were super welcoming and made us feel really welcome to their country. They asked us questions, but not in a pushy or bossy way. they even answered our questions and gave us some advice.

    Then at Pre-Clearance at the airport, it was the usual story with US customs. Bossy, rude and asking us ‘why we are spending our holidays in the us’. What is that for a question? My friends English is not the best, so the immigration officer punished every language weakness to ask even more difficult questions to answer. And since he was not able to answer the questions as the officer wanted to be answered, he was taken into ‘secondary’ as you might call it. For the usual traveller, this is a very awkward and somehow threatening situation. He was nervous, even though he did not do anything wrong.

    End of the story, this is how he was welcomed to the States…

    Don’t think this is the right way. And I don’t think all Americans are like that. But it surely damages the American image at the very first point of contact.

  7. @DT – Funny, but as an American who goes to YYZ and YUL a lot, I find the opposite to be true. With GE, I pass back into the US with little drama, but until I got Nexus, getting into Canada was a nightmare – being grilled about where I was staying, what I planned to do, boy you sure come here a lot, and often secondary screening if for no other reason than I flew up alone.

    I guess we can all make crass generalizations based on a tiny sample size. Happy Thanksgiving.

  8. I think you should have waited in line with your dad Not cool . Also why would anyone throw a passport at an official and think it is cute or funny ? I hate to say it but you both got what you deserved here. lol 🙂

  9. I second Neil S’ comments. I flew MAD-JFK on 11/26 and the U.S. customs/entry was amazingly quick, easy and dare-I-say friendly.

    As a U.S. citizen entering Canada, my experience has been mostly awful and much worse than entering Spain or Belgium in comparison. Neil, good comment about “crass generalizations.” You always know you’re about to be insulted when a comment begins with, “I’m sure this is not true of all Anericans but….”

  10. @ Johnny — As I said above, there are separate lines for US citizens and permanent residents. We would have been in different lines.

  11. Yeah the way to approach US customs is to treat it like prison, role play, you don’t smile too much you don’t try to be too friendly, i was once asked in Toronto preclearance for my hotel address then when I provided it the asshole asked me how I knew it. I just told him because I take down this sort of information. All of them are assholes… they are not your friends, do not think being nice to them will make your life any easier. It will have an opposite effect, do not make conversation….do not be bitchy or try to be smart too….the faster u r done with them the better… I generally do not get asked too many questions…i have my shit ready and out of the leather cover, I keep the clear ones on.. I turn it to the page i pass it along.. simple

  12. i’m sure the immigration officer probably had a different version of the events … there’s always two side to every story. My advice is not to throw your passport, and refrain from snarky replies.

    i will say as someone who flies into YYZ reguarily from international destinations – candian airport immigration is far worse then the american counterparts. so this idea that the canadian officials are more “welcoming” is a complete joke


    Moving on, unfortunately what your dad went through is par for the course for many people, US residents as well. Many of our immigration staff are condescending idiots. Which is all the more frustrating because if one is going to condescend, shouldn’t the one doing the condescending at least be smarter than the one being condescended to? I guess it’s a power thing? I’m not sure. The mind reels. I’m over-thinking this.

    Anyway, I’m not asking for “nice.” I AM asking for “professional.”

  14. all lines can process US citizens, PR, and visitors…. plus same family members just need to fill out one form regardless of what which country’s passport… should of stood in line with your dad…

  15. The agents at my home airport (LAX) are a special breed. They seem to forget that their job is to protect us, not to persecute us. Actually, I don’t think I should even give them that much credit–they’re just pissed off that they have to be working. I travel a LOT, and it seems like their bad attitude is to be attributed towards having to be out of bed at that given moment. The vast majority of travelers are just trying to get where they’re going, and they/we should be treated that way. I’m sorry your father had to endure that experience, but it’s what I’ve come to expect.

  16. The US Immigration has the same condescending and rude attitude as seems to be the case with many US police officers. No sensitivity or people skills. It seems to be all about escalation. If these officers can trigger an escalation with an individual then it seems they are satisfied. At least their aggressive behavior certainly would indicate that is what they want – escalation and preferably more escalation over trivial issues. At least if they achieve escalating a matter, then they seem to be able to justify their rude and obnoxious behavior to themselves and their superiors and can therefore send you (anybody) to “detention “ or whatever punishment they see fit on some made up BS. PATHETIC. Only in the US.

  17. As an American who travels frequently to YVR for work, I can assure you the Canadians do not role out the red carpet at immigration. Whether transiting or arriving in Canada, be prepared for the grilling of your life.

    I am not excusing the stereotypical ass*ole attitudes of U.S. immigration officers, but please don’t suggest for a second that Canadian immigration officers are any better. Both countries would do well to learn from the likes of Germany (GER immigration is always a pleasure). UK is somehow better than U.S./Canada. AUS/NZ are hit and miss.

  18. Everyone’s mileage will vary. I travel to canada about 10 times a year and I get rudely grilled by their immigration agents nearly every single time. Had a nasty immigration agent at Hong Kong a couple months ago. Have always had the friendliest, coolest agents when I get home to JFK. As is the only hard fast rule with these things, YMMV.

  19. Interesting comments and experience.

    But do you guys (I believe most of you are living in the US or holding a US passport, since you are talking about Nexus and other programs not available to Non Americans or Canadians) think that Canadian customs are rude/ similar to US, or just simply bad due to you guys being from or holding an American passport?

    I travel a lot and I have never been treated worse than at the US customs. As someone said in his comment before, it’s not about protection but prosecution in the US.

    The Canadians seem to be super nice all the time, at least to ‘overseas’ travellers. Same in most countries (not sure about other EU countries since there is no immigration, except in the UK since it is non-Schengen, but still simple, quick, etc.) I have travelled in the past.

    Germany I am not sure. They seem to be nice to tourists, but treating ‘immigrants’, permanent residence and alike like the US treats tourists.

    Not trying to generalise here, but this is what I have experienced in the past on a lot of travels to the US, Canada and elsewhere.

  20. I have traveled to Canada hundreds of times over the years crossing the border at land crossings. I was selected for secondary screening once because we had two weeks of food with us. But once every one in our caravan pulled over they waved us through. We had 17 people and a pickup truck full of food. We were going on a two week fishing trip in northern Ontario Canada.

    With immigration you answer the agents questions as simply as possible. Be courteous with them and hopefully they will be nice back.

  21. Never split up from an infrequent traveler, just take the line for the lowest status person.

    As for US border agents, I found them to be much nicer after I got my greencard than when I was a nonresident alien.

  22. Being a dual CAD/GER citizen, I prepare which passport I will use. With the USA/Canada, always use your US or CAD passport. EU is NOT like N. America and very relaxed. Just a “Good-day” and life goes on. With US or CAD immigration, my only answers are, “yes, sir”, “no, sir”, “2 weeks”, “to see my family” and be clear and kind = no issues. It’s the world we live in where they have all the power and we don’t so just respect and get it done and over with. Many I find don’t travel a lot and can’t understand those of us that are forever flying everywhere.


    You’re asking for it.

    They’re the most visitor unfriendly developed country of them all.

  24. i didn’t mean it like that people @Travellinwilly but seriously in USA police officers, immigration officials and the like are usually not friendly.

    Of course there are exceptions to the rule but in general you should be very serious and get down to business with them to just get your passport stamped and move on. don’t say anything more than needed and just respond to their questions quickly and succinctly to avoid problems or drama (as in this case!)

  25. We travel on Canadian passports with US investor visas and used to almost always find the US immigration people rude and difficult to deal with, however, I have found this year that they have gotten better (the last bad one was coming back to the US last December), to the point where today, the immigration officer filled out our customs slip for us because they had not given us one on our flight and there were none in the immigration hall at MIA. Definitely a first for us to have a US immigration officer be that helpful!

  26. > officer was using a behavior detection technique or was just genuinely an ass

    an ass. i have no doubt. been talked down to and harassed too many times i signed up for Global Entry the moment it was available years ago.

  27. One way for US citizens to avoid customs at the airport is GE. Land crossings are another matter.

    Like the time I went to a casino in Niagara Falls ONT (before they opened up on the US side). The agent asked me where I went (casino), for how long (all day – I took a vacation day), and that it must be “nice” (very sarcastically). Told him that it was very nice and left.

    Or the time entering Canada, when the agent asked if I had any firearms in the car (no). And did I own one? (Did not know it was a requirement).

    Petty bureaucrats who like to flex their muscles.

  28. Folks did none of you read President Eisenhower’s speech as he departed the White House……..Basically beware of the military-industrial complex……….Well shazam move forward 54 years and his concerns are dramatically magnified today……look at the massive prison population and turn next to see the massive and powerful unions that staff them……..then the sudden massive infusion of funds and hiring into Homeland Security……..the problems that President Obama who pledged no war in Iraq has had in “keeping his promises” and look at the growth in our Defense budget…the growth has been so fast that absolute power is so intoxicating that you have these munckins in charge of your safety………….Think again………I tell my kids so take a look around as you get on the plane so when the bad guys try to take it down you know who will help you charge them aka shoe bomber……..if you think Homeland Security is keeping you safe then you are truly delusional……………..beware of the power trip………the Chris Rock video is the way I approach these nitwits………to do so otherwise is just a self inflicted wound………then once I get to my First Class seat I toast them in absentia…………..

  29. @DT: “At first, the Canadians were super welcoming and made us feel really welcome to their country.”

    Try driving into Canada sometime. I’d like to see what you or your friends think of Canadian border agents then.

  30. My general perception towards public employees is that they are under-worked and overpaid who lack accountability and common sense. When the position does not require special skills, education or experience, especially a union job, then the position is mainly filled on the basis of “who you know not what you know” . When we give them a certain power or authority, they tend to become invincible. They do not realize that we, as tax payers, and the tourists contribute to their salary. We had a bad experience with both TSA and customs agents at O’Hara airport and will always boycott that airport. As for LAX, we were detained once for over three hours when we had green visas. I prefer to go through white customs agent for less hassle. More than fifteen years ago, when I traveled to Canada with my three year old daughter, they detained us for over an hour because they profiled child kidnapping cases. And we traveled on Canadian passports. I treat people based on their attitude, behavior and knowledge rather than physical appearance. Many Americans display an arrogant and snobbish attitude abroad that unable them to receive warm and friendly reception.

  31. @JustSaying – hey can you share the link to that Chris Rock vid you were talking about? tried searching for it but couldnt find it. thanks!

  32. every time I come home from international trips I dread American customs and immigration. I am us citizen for 19 years but also have accent and our protectors always make you feel unwelcomed to your own country. their attitude and demeanors” second to none”, Canadian immigration are rude to us citizens only, I guess because we are so “nice” to them and frankly to everybody.

  33. As an Asian American of US passport holder, I always get treated like an alien when flying BACK home to US from international flight. Questions like Is US your home? where did you go and how long? It is not just at airport immigration line, you get treated as 2nd class citizen at the borders when you drive home from Toronto. I was asked why my families have different name, he wasn’t satisfied with my US passport card, showed him my US passport book but still questioned me when and how I first came to US.
    As a naturalized US citizen, I was supposed to have same basic & constitutional right as any other home born Americans except that I can’t run for US presidency .
    I have never been treated like this at other airports outside the US.

  34. Ben, while in line for a CX flight yesterday I saw a lady get chippy with one of the CX attendants while in line waiting to enter gate 4 in HKG ( CX does a lousy job at this by btw). As we approached the entrance, the lady got selected for a “secondary” bag search 🙂

    I also arrived at LAX today and the line at customs and border (immigration) was RIDICULOUS.

    I overheard a lady approach the immigration desk today, and she told the officer she had been gone to see friends, and he immediately asked “where did you meet these friends?”

    I like going to countries like Thailand or the Philippines where they don’t ask you anything upon entrance, they just look at your photo, look at you, then stamp your passport.

  35. Wait: do Americans really interrogate US citizens when they enter their own country?
    As a European this seams really strange to me: I’ve probably went through immigration in several EU countries hundreds of times, both travelling within Europe and coming from overseas, and can’t remember being asked as single question (besides maybe a few courtesy questions, but event that is extremely rare).

  36. Senior Citizens traveling alone are one of the profiles for drug mules. They use the extra money to supplement their retirement.

  37. on a light note lol, it just shows that american immigration officers can be asses just like their international counterparts lol :))))

    I’m usually VERY polite when interacting with immigration officers and police officers to try to make it as quick and painless as possible… (even though it can be a pain sometimes lol)

    like when i lost my laptop in college, and the cop that pulled to take my statement told me, “you know Louisiana has a finder’s keepers law, right, so if you forget your laptop in the laundry room and someone finds it, they can keep it…!!!! – suffice it to say i asked him if he had a college degree, and followed it up with if his wallet fell out of his pocket with his IDs and cash and all, if i could keep it.. :)))) i’d have been in deep s__t if his partner hadn’t intervened and saved my skin lol, but then i figured i had “student immunity” :)). (The cops found my laptop 3 days later when the thief tried pawning it at a pawn shop)

    Or when a cop pulled me over and threatened to give me a ticket because i had a bike rack on my car…. 🙂 (apparently in Louisiana you cant cover in inch of your license plate with a bike rack…). Part of it of course, i ascribe to being black, with an accent…. :)))))))

  38. As an American citizen, I will say that prior to global entry, entering the US was the worst of any country, with the UK a close second. Canada is tough on Americans because they are trying to find a reason to force you to buy a work permit. Australia and NZ want to make sure you’re not bringing in food, and not working without a visa.

    By comparison, Ireland and most of the EU have been the most friendly, and I’ve had zero issues with Asia, even China and India (even with their complex process).

    That said, if you are American and are traveling with your wife and kids, the experience is the complete opposite from traveling alone, with more of a welcome home experience.

  39. As a general rule, US citizens and non-citizens traveling together can always use the same lane at immigration. Depending on the airport, they may direct you to either the citizen or the non-citizen lanes, but you can clear together.

  40. I’m surprised that no one has asked why you haven’t had your dad get Global Entry? Even if he travels once a year, the combo of Pre-Check (which now covers LPRs, even though it did not used to) and GE for international arrivals is stellar.

  41. @ sjs — Yeah, totally agree, I should. He did randomly get Pre-Check on all segments, for what it’s worth.

  42. @Lucky — Just FYI, I (a US citizen) always take my wife (a non-US citizen/resident) with me through the US line whenever we arrive together (I skip GE) and I’ve never had a problem. I don’t know if it’s an actual rule, but it certainly seems to be an unwritten one that a US citizen can bring his non-US family along. If, by some fluke, the foreigners’ line is shorter/faster, I imagine that you can also do the inverse. I would. If I’m really “worried” I’d just preface the conversation with, “Pardon me, do you mind if I join my wife/father?” (or the opposite)

  43. The only airport I ever have issues with in the USA, is MIA.. I get sent to secondary almost every trip. I have tried the short and sweet answers, as a comment above said to last month telling them, it was a mileage run to re qualify for Elite status.. The agent was dumbfounded at that concept ” so your telling me you just fly around for the mileage” I was sent to secondary.. And grilled about who paid for my $400.00 ticket to where I work.. That’s when I start to be rude…By the way, they had people with global entry inside, I heard them ask the agent at the X-ray, to try and get the the front of the line.. I’m sure someone will say avoid MIA, but most of my travel is South America on AA.. Hard to avoid that S**TBOX.. I just make sure I have enough layover that I don’t miss a connection, which has happened before and had to overnight there..

  44. Family members can use the same immigration line. My wife is a permanent resident and we go to the counter together.

  45. agree that a US citizen can accompany a non-citizen (doesn’t have to be a family member – i’ve done it with a friend) through the non-citizen line – this doesn’t seem to be general information though, and i’ve seen several situations where the parties get separated, sometimes causing a big hassle

    also agree that Canadian immigration officials can be asses too (as for that matter can UK ones as well)

  46. @ Lucky — yes, you totally need to convince your dad to get GE! Sign him up for Amex Plat and tell him it’s free 😀

    Anyhow, being nice to agents doesn’t always work if they are in a bad mood or whatever. Last time flying DME-IAH, my mom (who holds a US passport but does have an accent) went through immigration fine but the customs lady didn’t like something about her, pulled her aside, and they went over her luggage with a ridiculous zeal. I was waiting in a cell phone lot and it took such a long time, I got seriously worried.

  47. My husband and I were heading back home and going through ORD airport. After being placed in a room the year before in the Miami Airport, for almost 2 hours without no reason whatsover, we were hoping it wouldn’t happen again, although a person we met there had told us that if it happens once it will always happen. Well it happened again. This time coming back from vacation and entering the ORD airport in Chicago. I’m a US citizen and my husband had a visa, which is just a stamp on the passport. I had a feeling he was going to be detained again because the man already had an attitude with the people ahead of us. A person that was standing in back of us happened to ask us a question just when the officer told us to step up. So he was even more angry when he had to repeat himself. He first yelled at me and told me why I didn’t go into the other lane because I was a US citizen. I responded, big mistake, by saying that since my husband had a visa and we were family, I stood in the visa lane. He just shook his head and then asked my husband for the green card. My husband handed him his expired green card which he took with him just in case. (He is in the process of becoming a citizen and waiting on the letter to be sworn in as a citizen.) I answered,(again:( ) by telling him it was expired, my husband handed it to him and he responded,”See!” and shook his head and didn’t bother looking at it, but placed it under the passport. He told my husband to step to the side and waved over an officer. Then he said something to him in Polish and took my husband to a room with about 50 other people. In this room, they were treating people so rude and talking down to everyone. I always say “What you sow you will reap” or “What comes around, goes around” This man was once an immigrant and seemed to have received his citizenship at one time. So now you think you’re all high and mighty and forget where you came from and how you struggled. (Don’t forget who you were and where you came from when you become a US citizen). My husband commented how this was a job he could never perform because he didn’t have the heart of treating people so miserably. For this man and those who treated these immigrants with disrespect… I say this…. it will come back to you, or the ones you love. This is my satisfaction and should be of all those)or their families) who have been treated unfairly.

  48. I have been on secondary inspection more than 10 times. Every time I travel out of USA, on my return they put me on that room while they do a background check. They treat me as a criminal and when I ask why, the only reason is that I have a common name. I think they should be able to know who is who, they have a SS number and passport number and never have found anything wrong. I don’t even have traffic inflations. Is this a way to discriminate?

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