Question:  I-94 Submission

"I am back in Ireland after a trip to the U.S. that lasted several weeks. I was not asked at the airport to surrender my I-94W departure card that was stamped into my passport when I first arrived by an immigration officer. Is this a problem? Will I have a problem getting back into the U.S. in the future? I heard that the I-94W is very important for allowing for future travel to the U.S.”

The I-94 arrival/departure card has to be filled out by every non-immigrant traveler to the U.S., and submitted to a U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) agent at the point of entry. (The I-94W card is completed by travelers to the U.S. using the visa waiver program).

The CBP agent stamps the I-94 with a date of entry and retains this portion of the form. The other part of the form, with a required date of departure, is given back to the traveler, who must surrender it when departing the U.S. If the traveler is departing by air the form should be given to the airline staff when checking in.

As you’ve discovered – and as other travelers can readily attest to – airline staff does not always collect the departure portion of the I-94. Travelers, including those who have “lost” the I-94 – i.e., those who have perhaps overstayed their departure dates – can easily depart the U.S. without submitting the form, but as you ask, what happens then? Is future travel to the U.S. affected because the form wasn’t turned in?

There’s no definitive answer to that question for those who overstay, although if the traveler left in accordance with the visa or waiver terms, there won’t be a problem. 

A couple of weeks ago, The New York Times ran an extensive piece on the problems the Department of Homeland Security is experiencing while trying to implement a reliable exit tracking system for foreigners.

The U.S.-VISIT system currently in place provides solid information on the entry of non-citizens through the collection of biometric data (fingerprints and a photo) when they arrive. 

As the Times reported, though, no such system really exists to track departures from the U.S., except for the handing in of the I-94W card. And efforts to efficiently track exits have proven costly and problematic.

We asked John Saleh, the CBP liaison officer for New York, about how the agency tracks those who leave the U.S. He said that in addition to the submission of the I-94, airlines also obtain electronic information on departures from the airlines.

“Pursuant to the Aviation and Transportation Security Act of 2001 (ATSA) and the Enhanced Border Security and Visa Reform Act of 2002 (EBSA), the collection of the traveler’s passport data is mandatory for law enforcement and national security purposes,” he said.

“The purpose of the collection is to screen passengers and crew members arriving from foreign travel points and departing the U.S. to identify those passengers who may pose a risk to border, aviation or public security, may be a terrorist or suspected terrorist, inadmissible, or may otherwise be engaged in activity in violation of U.S. law. APIS also allows CBP to facilitate effectively and efficiently the entry and departure of legitimate travelers into and from the U.S.”

(APIS, or Advance Passenger Information System, is an electronic mechanism created by CBP for airlines to provide immediate passenger information to the agency.)

If you did not overstay your visa waiver you should not have a problem returning to the U.S. And, it has to be said, overstays have also returned because of the aforementioned lack of a virtually foolproof system to record departure information.

CBP allows for those who did not submit the I-94 when leaving to do so via mail if they choose. Because of space restrictions we’ll explain more about this process next week.