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4 Easy Tips for Filling out Immigration Arrival Forms Correctly

When you go to enter a country it is common for you to have to fill out a little form in advance to give to the immigration inspector along with your passport. This form just collects some of the basic information about you, as well as a few details about how you arrived to the [...]

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When you go to enter a country it is common for you to have to fill out a little form in advance to give to the immigration inspector along with your passport. This form just collects some of the basic information about you, as well as a few details about how you arrived to the country, where you plan to stay, and your purpose of visiting.

Always fill in immigration forms accurately, completely, and with the best responses possible. This is not a recommendation, it’s a rule of travel. It’s folly to think of immigration officials as mentally supple human beings who are going to understand/ be empathetic/ give a shit about your special and unique situation. Generally speaking, their job is to be robots. Input comes in, it’s checked to see if it all lines up, output goes out. You give the inspector your passport and arrival card, he or she checks your details and visa, and, if all goes well, stamps you in. Leaving an empty space on the immigration form, not filling it in accurately, and giving too much of the wrong type of information will short circuit this process, and sometimes lead to problems.

What follows are four essential tips to prepare your arrival papers in a way that will get you through immigration as easily as possible.

1. Fill the form in correctly

It’s very important to make absolute sure that what you enter onto this card matches what is printed on your passport and, if need be, your visa. In large part, an immigration official’s job is to look for inconsistencies in the documents that you hand over. If you watch them work you’ll see that they look back and forth from your passport to your entry card to what comes up on their computer screen after swiping your passport. All three information sets have to match perfectly. Arrival forms often ask for the same exact information that’s already printed on your passport, which seems redundant, but I assume the ruse here is that if someone is traveling on false credentials they may “slip up” on the entry card. Perhaps.

Whatever is the case, make sure that your entry card is absolutely consistent with what’s printed in your passport. If you have three names on your passport, make sure you enter them all on the form; if you have five names, enter all five. Be sure to copy down your passport number correctly, as well as its place of issue. Also be sure that you record your birthday right.

Some years back I went through Chinese exit immigration on my way to Mongolia, and, after a long day and night of traveling, I can’t say I was in my best form. I accidentally wrote the current year in for my birthday rather than the one I was actually born in. This set the immigration inspector’s warning lights off. Clearly, she knew that I was a lot older than two weeks old and had just made an error, but common sense does not always apply when dealing with immigration: I short circuited the process and would need to be inspected more closely. The situation just amounted to having to answer a few extra questions — no big deal — but the fact remains that making even a benign error on an immigration form can get you signaled out for further examination: exactly what you don’t want.

Immigration arrival form

Immigration arrival form

2. Fill in all the blanks

The blanks on an immigration form are meant to be filled in, so do it. Regardless if it’s absolutely applicable or not every question must be answered. Leaving a blank blank is another way to short circuit the immigration procedure.

Now, most of the fields on an arrival form are pretty straight forward, and there’s little reason to leave them blank. One exception to this is the one that asks for your prospective address in the country. If you’re a traveler you often don’t have an address, but you can’t tell immigration this. You need to fill in this blank with the name and address of a hotel or hostel, and it’s my experience that just about any will do. If you don’t know where you’re planning on staying, again, keep this to yourself and just give some random hotel address. If you don’t have a booking made pretend you do when going through immigration, and have a hotel address prepared in advance — for the most part it’s impertinent whether you actually stay there or not.

One problem with immigration forms is when they ask for information that truly does not match your situation. One common one is the blank that says something like, “bus/ vessel/ flight number.” If you’re walking or biking across a border you’re not going to have one of these. I try to fill in the blank anyway, and will write something like “on foot,” or “on bicycle.”

3. Be consistent with your visa type

Be aware that inconsistencies is one of the the things that immigration officials tend to hone in on. Be sure that everything that you submit to them lines up flush and normal. You want to be just another sheep when going through immigration. One of the main ways to be selected out of the herd is if you don’t fill out the “purpose of visit” and “proposed itinerary” fields on the arrival form in a way that’s consistent with your visa type.

For example, if you’re planning on volunteering but you’re entering as a tourist, don’t mention this: your purpose of visit is tourism.

If you’re a tourist but you’re planning to stay with friends, leave this fact out when you’re going through immigration. Looking like a run of the mill tourist with no local connections is always best.

If you’re entering a country as a tourist be sure to give an itinerary that looks like it: don’t go filling these immigration forms with “off the beaten track” destinations.

If you’re entering a country on a work permit don’t list your address as a place far from where your job is.

In point, don’t make immigration confusing, appear to be what your visa type says you should be. When it comes to crossing borders, consistency is key. Remember, there is the real world and the paper world. The real world is all shades of grey, but the paper world is all black and white. Realize that immigration is perpetually stuck in the paper world.

4. Be sure to have and use a pen

Program yourself to correlate crossing borders with carrying a pen. Immigration forms need, at the very least, to be signed in pen. Don’t take it for granted that the country you’re flying into is going to provide you with a pen or that you can borrow one from another traveler. Though this is an easy situation to find a way out of, if you carry a pen with you that’s one less hurdle that you’ll need to face.

I blotched this tip a week or so ago when I was entering Macau. I found myself standing in an incredibly long line and I nonchalantly waited to fill out my immigration form until I was near the front. I looked for a pen in my bags and couldn’t find one. I asked the people in line around me and they didn’t have one that I could borrow. So I filled out the form in pencil. I handed it over to the inspector and she took one look at it, huffed, and shot it back at me. Luckily, she also gave me a new form and a pen. I seriously could have been sent all the way to the back of the line.


All this being said, it is not very common for travelers to be denied entry to a country based on small errors made on arrival forms — any mistakes can usually be fixed quickly. But filling out an immigration form improperly could ruffle the flow of the smooth input/ output chain of border inspections, and this is exactly what you do not want to have happen.


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Filed under: Border Crossing, Travel Tips, Visas

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3719 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

2 comments… add one

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  • alf December 21, 2012, 1:30 pm

    Good advice.

    Even when I am not the average traveler (volunteering, couchsurfing, or simply entering a country not knowing where I will sleep or how long will I stay), I always try to look like the average. I have the address of one of the most popular hostels in the biggest city even if I don’t intend to stay there, but I know the officials probably see this hostel’s address daily in the forms (they will not call the hostel to verify the reservation, trust me), my stated purpose is always tourism, and where the visa is something like ‘up to 90 day visa free’ I say I am staying 5-6 days, it is indifferent for me and for the officials if I end up staying 2 days or 2 months; everywhere in Europe, from Iceland to Armenia, I have never had the slightest problem with this strategy, even if I am grossly generalizing, or even simply lying every time. I just try to make their job and my entering easy, and I know they are simply looking for typical cases, things that don’t pop up for them.

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    • Wade Shepard December 27, 2012, 12:39 pm

      This is a good strategy. It’s true that they don’t usually check up on the information you give them on the entry card. It’s always best to be a round peg in a round hole when it comes to immigration.

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