What US Airport Immigration Taught Me About Being Assertive

christina canters airport immigration

You know what it’s like when you arrive in a new country.

You’re tired, delirious and confused, and then you gotta line up and shuffle your way through passport control, where an immigrations officer stares you down and questions you over the length and intention of your stay.

Sometimes it’s easy and you scoot through without any worries, sometimes they ask for more details, and occasionally, if they’re really suspicious, they take you away for a lengthy private grilling.

I’ve never experienced the latter, but I’ve heard it happening to other Aussie travellers entering the USA, even when their intentions were completely above board (ie not trying to sneak in for an extended, cash-job stay).

So why do some people get interrogated and others don’t?

I believe it comes down to being assertive. 

You see, the immigrations officers are trained to detect lies. If they ask how long you’re staying for and you say “Oh, umm, two months or so?” your hesitation and vagueness makes you sound suspicious. Not to mention the Antipodean tendency to upwardly inflect the end of every sentence (“I’m here for two months?” “I’m staying in Manhattan?”) makes you sound like even you are questioning everything you say.

I’ve discovered that if you want to cruise through immigration without a hitch, know what they’re going to ask you, be prepared with your answers, and deliver those answers without hesitation and with assertiveness.

This is how my conversation with the immigrations officer went when I first arrived at LAX:

Him: “How long is your stay?”
Me: “88 days.”
Him: “What’s the purpose of your trip?”
Me: “Vacation.”
Him: “Where are you staying?”
Me: “Manhattan.”
Him (with raised eyebrows): “For the whole time? Who are you staying with?”
Me: “My uncle has an apartment there. I’m house sitting for him.”
Pause. I keep breathing. 
Him: “Ok. Enjoy your stay, Miss Canters. Next!”

The fact that my stay was quite long made me immediately suspect. If I hadn’t had my story sorted and had been flaky with my answers, I could have found myself taken in for a grilling.

This lesson doesn’t just apply at passport control. It applies in any situation where the outcome is important. 

Say you’re in a job interview. Being assertive and sure of yourself could mean the difference between getting hired or not. Or maybe you’re taking questions from a potential client – you want to assure them you know what you’re talking about. Or maybe you’re in a performance review – you’ll need to be assertive if you want to convince your boss that you deserve that promotion.

The best way to become good at being assertive is to practice it in your everyday conversations. (New Yorkers are great at this. I wrote about it in my How To Be A New Yorker post here.)

Practice with your taxi driver, with your hair dresser, or when ordering coffee or lunch. For example, instead of a flaky “Umm, can I get a..uh…strong latte, with, uh, one sugar?” say “I’d like a strong latte with one sugar, please!”

Say these two sentences out loud. Hear the difference?

Know what you want, and say it well. You’ll be much more likely to get what you want in life. 

And less time being strip-searched.




  1. Definitely! Looking and acting like you belong where you are and can be the difference.

  2. It might make sense to try “SIR!” at the end of every answer, as in
    Him: “How long is your stay?”
    You: “88 days – SIR!!!”

  3. Americans have adopted the uplifting inflection at the end of a sentence as well. It’s actually a big problem because it affects (if you can say that) mostly young, middle-class, women who instantly appear uncertain, shy, or otherwise not-up-to-the-job when they seem to be second-guessing themselves and their responses. We definitely need to train that out, not just for use in airports but everywhere.

  4. expert at everything as well says:

    I’ve not heard of any ‘Aussies’ have a problem with US passport control…….unless they were actually hiding something.

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