US airports: (Not) a humiliating experience

Published: December 19, 2010

Total time it took me to get through immigration at a US airport: 40 minutes

Earlier this year, Javed Chaudhry wrote a column titled “A humiliating experience” for The Express Tribune. He details a bad experience at the hands of immigration officials upon arrival at a US airport.

Unlike Chaudhry, my recent experiences of applying for visas and then traveling to North America as a Pakistani on a Pakistani passport was extremely pleasant. I applied for a visit visa to the US from the UAE. At the interview, the officer looked intimidating. However, his tone of questioning was very humble. The officer kept addressing my wife and I using the terms “ma’am” or “sir” respectively. The questions were only related to my plans during my visit and line of work.

I was out of the consulate by 9:15am. At the end I was given a reference number to check after 10 days. When I called, I was informed that my application had been accepted and that stamps were now required on the passports. My family’s passports arrived within two days of submission. Upon a closer look at my visa, I could see the approval date as one day after my interview. I experienced a similar but longer application, interview and stamping process followed to obtain a Canadian visa.

The arrival in Toronto was very simple with no questions asked by any immigration officer. “It can’t be this easy,” I thought to myself. “There is probably another immigration step.”

After spending a week in Canada’s largest city, it was time to see how humiliating my experience could be. I started my journey to the US.

After reading Mr Chaudhry’s column, I was fearing the worst regarding questioning at “Immigration and Customs” at the Toronto airport. Of course, being a Pakistani and living in an Arab country with a few visa stamps in Arabic on my passport, I had good reason to be afraid. My wife and kid were cleared and allowed entry while I was asked to stay back. An expressionless officer performed a secondary check. I was asked to be seated. The immigration officer had asked a few general questions along with what I was going to do during my stay in the US with a special emphasis on my return date.

I was asked to fill another form and after some more index finger scans, I was allowed admission to the US.

Total time taken: 40 minutes.

The officer’s last advice was to register at the time of departure from the US so that the process may be even easier in the future. Throughout the process my wife and I were referred to as “ma’am” and “Mr Siddiqui” respectively.

Throughout my experience of dealing with US authorities for visa and immigration purposes, I appreciated the rationale behind the approximate time suggested and the need to follow the rules. For the visa application, I expected to spend around four and a half hours at the consulate- I was through within two hours. For my flight I gave myself two and a half hours for the immigration and check-in but I was through within half the time. On both occasions, the US authorities exceeded my expectations.

Why are we all US bashing?

The fairly tight immigration rules and border control have for sure given the US a bad name- especially amongst Pakistanis and other Muslim countries. But one needs to appreciate that since 9/11, there has not been one major act of terror on US soil. All this strict and stringent security has so far delivered on what it was set up for: ensuring homeland security.

I also learned that providing the needed documentation, being polite and answering questions go a long way to ensure a smooth and relatively speedy process.

As far as US bashing is concerned, it will not help anyone. We as Pakistanis need to realise that the US is an important player in the global scheme of things. If the US is dependent on Pakistan in pursuing its war on terror, then Pakistan is also dependent on US in a number of areas like trade, aid and investment.

I can only hope that the war on terror concludes soon after achieving its objectives, which are a necessity more for Pakistan’s prosperity and survival than the United States’.


Ali Wahab

A UAE based investment banker who is a regular contributor to The Express Tribune’s business pages

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Yousaf

    You are happy and writing this because you are granted US Visa..? :o)…..If you were rejected then what would be your blog?

    However, I am happy that you had a pleasant journey and fairly good treatment by the immigration and customs as well as US Embassy. I believe it is the right of every country to check upon you and as per their legal provisions, we should not bother with that or we should not visit them again.

    I bet Javed Chaudhary will go again and again…. for, holidays…and he will be frisked each time..:o)Recommend

  • Asad

    Want to experience humiliation.. ??? Meet up with Saudi Customs (in particular Dammam Airport)… the meaning will become much clearer..!!Recommend

  • Piano

    Hopefully you will get a US sponsored trip when you travel next time. American people care their FRIENDS. Recommend

  • Shemrez Nauman Afzal

    This is indeed a good thing, and I for one am glad that you didn’t face the humiliation that even US citizens face (or say they face) due to body searches by the TSA.
    Another good thing I would take away from your article is how diligently, efficiently and respectfully US personnel carried out their duties in keeping their people and their airport installations safe. That leaf could be taken out of their book by the policemen and soldiers guarding us at the checkpost or naaka that exists in every fourth lane.
    However, an anecdote is most likely an exception to the rule and not the rule itself.
    You haven’t mentioned whether this was the first time you had applied to the US for a visa or not. You also don’t mention – even in your later section – how students with scholarships to US institutions should not engage in US-bashing even after their visas were rejected. Or maybe that’s another thing Pakistan and its Fulbright scholars are dependent on the US for, in addition to trade, aid and investment…
    Finally, I do hope to see more people share your experience, so that there really is less US-bashing in Pakistan.Recommend

  • Shaheen Awan

    very nicely described. People usually talk about their bad experiences but never about pleasant ones. Hopefully people will be honest about them. Recommend

  • Syed Nadir El-Edroos

    When a headline has “America” and “humiliation” in the same sentence, then obviously everyone from the janitor upwards in the US bureacracy is trying to conspire against Pakistan, and especially our disciplined military officers who happen to shout out “this will be you last mission” to some minimum wage air stewardess. As Asad says above, go through any Middle Eastern airport..the rich and savy may get through with all smiles, but for the vast majority of Pakistani citizens that pass through such airports, mostly migrant workers, the experience is far more humiliating. For example, being told not to sit near “other” (Read: Rich and mostly white passengers) in the waiting lounge. Recommend

  • Raqib Ali

    Javed Chaudhry is a story teller and there is always Massala in his stories. I have never found 100% truth in any of his columns. I requested ET to keep his columns to Urdu press only, but no one listened to me. Now the whole world can read him and laugh at us!!Recommend

  • @Raqib Ali

    Are only English language readers entitled to the truth?Recommend

  • Amna Mela

    Thanks, it was a good read.

    It’s so true what you said about always being called “sir” and “m’am”. I really appreciate how in America, people more often than not follow social customs which require them to be polite to everyone, regardless of the circumstances.

    I also read the article which you’re referring to and it was ridiculous. The only thing that man had to complain about was that he had to wait so long and it was inconvenient. Sometimes people in Pakistan are used to using their connections to get through airports and lines and when they don’t receive VIP treatment abroad, they feel insulted. SMH.

    Also, we shouldn’t forget how 9/11 hasn’t just inconvenienced Pakistani/Muslim travelers. Americans themselves are fed up with airport security, esp with total body scanners these days. It’s not like they get handed a cupcake while we end up get hassled; they’re bearing with this khuari as well. Recommend

  • Mawali

    Look security is part and parcel of travel nowadays. If you are travelling and you did not go through a structured detailed security check then you ought to be worried. Security checks are a “peace of mind”. With the US authorities the method is quite simple follow directions and do not expect to be treated any different. If you do so your experience likewise would be time consuming but pleasant and safe for sure.

    I had a situation at Karachi airport while in line for a baggage scan this gentlemen appeared out of nowhere and lifted my bags and determined I did not need to have my luggage scanned. That ought to worry anyone! Recommend

  • Ambreen Haider

    you know as well as i do its different because you applied from the UAE

    but i have to admit. i witnessed the change when i landed last night. i wasnt taken to secondary unlike the last 3 visits where i was. the visa applicationn is more humble nnow indeed

    but. UAE has its advantages. Recommend

  • @raqib Ali

    javed chudhary is one of the best columnist in Pakistan…he always point out where we are lacking.I have read his articles in urdu and english as well.And dear don’t you think when whole world will read it,surely they will laugh at us !!!
    @ali wahab: good for you but don’t you think a student who want to do his/her electives or an education course in USA should have gotten a visa to USA.Probably it would have been more fruitful for the went on a holiday,took some snaps and then planning to upload them on facebook thats it.. Sorry to say but people from khyber-pakhtunkhwa and quetta are not granted Visa that easily… I mean my friend didn’t get Visa because his last name was Khan and he was from peshawar. Its a small world after-all :)Recommend

  • Raqib Ali

    @ @Raqib Ali

    No. Urdu readers are aware of this exaggeration and they never trust speeches of Politicians.

    English readers don’t believe in unnecessary ‘Sayapa’ (wailing) and prefer to take things on their face value. Recommend

  • Afzal

    According to my informations hundreds and thousands of visitors reach and depart from different US airports every day, Homeland Security and others posted there are extremely helpful, polite, humble and co-operative.

    They do not cause problems to tired visitors who land at US soil leaving behind their homes
    thousands miles behind. However, some people (Like a Pakistani journalist from “Urdu” Media) who try to be smart upon reaching US and beat about the bush in broken english language.

    I appreciate and endorse co-operation of Immigration Staff at the US aiprorts who are ever ready to help genuine visitors with smiling face and at the same time they are the “double-edge” swords for fake travelers and the Terrorists. Obviously, they are also bound to secure and protect their own Homeland Securoty.


  • tat

    It is totally wrong… in my and many of my experience of going through Miami and some times JFK (which is now a days very frequent) my time taken and other Pakistanis collougues time take is about 2.5 to 3 hours while, my other Baijan collougues are waiting for us outside for hours as they say they have been out for 30 to 40 minutes….
    Look its just a co incidence that u have been faced this time otherwise most of doesnt matter how much frequent they are with it is a same seperate treatment for Pakis… while for Middle east too it is same…. Recommend

  • Ali Hassan

    Completely agree. Recommend

  • Shahbaz

    Good to see that at least to a common person treated well as respectively Sir & Ma’am or might be on your turn the security officer would be soft hearted. Recommend

  • Humanity

    The people in the US are by and large, good folks. Not so long ago, maybe 20 years back, one could cross the remote US/Canada border crossing unchecked. The sign post at the check point simple asked to honk the horn. One would simply walk through to the gate, and board the plane simply after handing the boarding pass at the gate. Gone are the days of trust.

    Now a days, many people in Pakistan have canine units, 24/7 alarm systems, and guards armed with automatic weapons at private residences. US, at least, has the right to throughly check who enters the country and way. People should understand that the paradigm is bound to shift when trust is eroded. Yet the experience at the US border is far better than one faces at the Pakistani/Arab ports of entry.Recommend

  • Hammad Siddiqui

    In 2008, I visited US after a gap of 10 years. I remembered immigration taking 30 seconds in 1998!

    In 2008, immigration process was a bit lengthy (due to arrival registration), but it was smooth. My experience this year was great. It took me 2 minutes to get arrival stamp.

    However during domestic travel from Madison to Chicago, TSA officer was a bit fussy and she scanned my passport for about 5 minutes.

    You can br in wrong hands and a wrong time!Recommend

  • Musheer Ahmed

    Good experiences must be highlighted. At the end of the day the author had an easy going and hence he wrote it with honesty. It would have been dishonest, had he written bad things even if the experience wasnt so bad. Recommend

  • Deen Sheikh

    To the writer, you can not relate to the hell many have experenced in the visa process, because you personally have not experienced, ud be surprised to hear about some of the mistreatment some people experience right here in Islamabad at the US embassy. After my last experience, i for one am not heading back.Recommend

  • Maama Productions

    I dont read much articles but this one was quite fun to read.
    Good Job ;)Recommend

  • http://none Bangash

    I dont find Javed Chaudhry credible, he is an Urdu columnist after all, with their low standards.

    I recently flew JFK-AUH-ISB and back, and did not experience any of the horrors that Pakistanis have been talking about.

    Yet more proof that Urdu-medium media in Pakistan is mostly trash.Recommend