Can Americans Transit European Airports?

Filed Under: Travel

International travel is really complicated right now, and in this post I wanted to address one aspect of planning transatlantic flights that seems to be causing quite a bit of confusion.

Many Americans are planning travel to Europe

With all American adults now having access to vaccines, understandably a lot of people are looking to plan an international summer trip. We’ve seen CroatiaGreece, and Iceland open to Americans, and the European Union also eventually plans to open to vaccinated Americans, though who knows about the timeline for that (personally I wouldn’t be planning any travel for this summer to countries not already open).

Many people seem to think “I’m vaccinated, so planning travel to countries open to Americans will be easy.” Unfortunately that’s largely not the case. The reality is that figuring out international travel restrictions nowadays is extremely difficult (and I say this as someone who is usually good at this stuff):

  • Some countries don’t allow you to transit, even if you’re connecting to another country
  • Even if your destination doesn’t have a coronavirus testing requirement, you may need to get tested to fly certain airlines or connect at certain airports
  • International transit restrictions are constantly changing
  • It can be tough to figure out what a country’s actual immigration and transit restrictions are; there are endless articles published online, most of which are outdated, and often countries don’t even publish rules in an easy to digest way
  • Even if you understand the policy correctly, it’s possible an airline check-in agent won’t, and could deny you boarding incorrectly

In the past few days I’ve seen several posts online about people being denied boarding when traveling for a variety of reasons, and I’m not surprised, because this sure is complicated.

Can Americans transit Switzerland?

Let me give an example of how complicated this can be. Say you want to travel from the United States to Greece, you go to search for flights, and you see options on SWISS through Zurich (the airline usually has plenty of award availability, and has a good business class product).

Even though the airline will (understandably) gladly sell you that itinerary, note that Americans wouldn’t be allowed to transit Switzerland enroute to Greece, at least according to the official website of the US Embassy in Switzerland:

“Currently the Swiss Immigration Office does not allow individuals traveling from the United States or other high risk countries to transit Switzerland to another Schengen country, unless all entry requirements for Switzerland have been met.”

That policy doesn’t make a whole lot of sense:

  • You could fly from New York to Zurich to Dubai, but not from New York to Zurich to Athens
  • I get how this policy made sense in the past (when the Schengen zone had consistent immigration policies)
  • Since Greece has its own immigration policies, logically this transit shouldn’t be an issue

Well, some report that this policy is no longer in place, because the Federal Office of Public Health in Switzerland no longer lists the US as a high risk country.

Then others report that this information is incorrect as well, so who actually knows what the rules are, when government websites have conflicting information, and when there’s not much logic to these rules to begin with.

One thing is for sure — this isn’t a risk I’d want to take, since being allowed to board depends on a check-in agent’s interpretation of the rules.

Who knows if Americans can transit Switzerland enroute to other countries

A good resource for European transit restrictions

If you’re trying to navigate transit restrictions in Europe, reader Ryan linked to a fantastic resource for this in a recent post. Go to the website, which is an official website of the European Union.

Scroll down a bit until you see the map. In the “Measures in place” section, select a country. For this example I’ll select Germany.

If you want to see travel restrictions, click the third button along the top that looks like a map.

Then you can click the fourth button underneath that to see transit restrictions.

This is a remarkably useful resource, as it very clearly spells out transit restrictions. For example, this makes it clear that third country nationals are allowed to transit Germany enroute to another Schengen country, even if they’re not allowed to enter Germany:

Third-country nationals may enter Germany to travel to another EU member state, another Schengen member state or the United Kingdom as their country of final destination if the following conditions are met:

  1. the traveller remains in Germany (as country of transit) only as long as absolutely necessary to travel directly to the country of destination or another transit country;
  2. the traveller is permitted to enter the country of destination or another transit country (in accordance with Annex I or II of the Council Recommendation of 30 June 2020 or with individual confirmation of permission to enter issued by the country of destination).

Note that this won’t necessarily list testing requirements, but each page should have a link to the individual country’s travel page, which hopefully spells it out.

Americans can transit Germany enroute to other Schengen countries

Bottom line

Traveling internationally is really complicated at the moment, and that will likely continue to be the case as more countries reopen. Not only do you have to be worried about the entry requirements at your destination, but you also have to be worried about transit and testing requirements.

At least the above resource is useful if transiting Europe, so hopefully others find it as valuable as I do.

  1. ah thanks for this resource!

    i noticed it doesn’t have all the information for transiting, though, e.g., in Germany. there’s no mention of the testing requirement on the reopen page itself so you have to go to the link at the bottom, for example, to see “From 30 March 2021, all persons travelling to Germany by air must present a negative COVID‑19 test result before embarking on their journey. This applies regardless of the country from where the individual has travelled and also to passengers only traversing Germany (i.e. for international transit). …The tests must be done at the relevant test centres abroad no more than 48 hours before entering Germany (time of the swab).”

    (and the timing requirements for this test might differ from your destination, so you have to make sure your test will cover both. i remember UA was very strict about this timeframe [down to the hour] going DEN-FRA-BEG a couple weeks ago)

  2. I transited ZRH last week and saw two people denied trying to transit. I also saw what an absolute nightmare it is to fly to the UK – the LHR bound LX flights had their own passport control line which were insanely long and slow as they checked everyone’s paperwork very thoroughly.

    Transiting is indeed confusing as it’s so different everywhere, so thank you for this immensely helpful source.

  3. Second jon’s point. While there may be consistent COVID testing requirements for transit and destination, the timing requirements can vary which impacts when and where you might seek testing. Germany’s 48 hour negative test requirement for transit is the strictest (in terms of elapsed time) that I’ve seen so generally it would be your limiting factor on a trip (as any countries requiring a test within 72 hours would be covered) but highlights the importance of checking connections in a very detailed way and not just relying on compliance with the destination.

  4. Thank goodness connecting via Zurich to Dubai was a cinch when I went… even tho I basically know the whole Terminal B layout now and 2 hours was plenty, plenty of time there…

  5. @Peter – UK is pushing the airlines hard to ensure that their passengers arrive with their paperwork in order (and it’s quite a bit – pre-travel test, PLF form, purchase 2+8 day tests) + LX will be handling some “red list” transit so they also need to have a quarantine hotel booked.

    Based on the number of fines issued to airlines + the long queues at Heathrow it seems like many people are managing to board at outstations without meeting all these requirements

    I assume the problem with these transits are non-schengen to schengen when you don’t have the right to enter the transit country is how to control it. From memory at Frankfurt you pass the immigration there and then walk out of the airport on arrival like a domestic passenger (I went to Milan for example) so this gets tricky to manage – especially if there is a way to exit the schengen terminal as it opens up a loophole

    One solution for Greece might be to operate them as non-schengen instead and have Greece do a passport control for everyone. Though the noises are today there will be a consistent European approach so hopefully this becomes a non-issue soon enough

  6. This simply isn’t the time to take extra connections simply to save a few $$$ or get a slightly better business class. It’s already complicated doing any international itinerary these days for all of the reasons Ben mentions. Adding a third country to the mix will unnecessarily has the potential to add lots of complexity and unintended consequences.

    One risk I didn’t see listed: the possibility of getting stuck overnight or in transit (due to late/cancelled flights, an unexpected COVID test, etc.) in a place where you’re not allowed to enter the country or leave the secure area of an airport.

  7. One data point: I was able to enter Germany (i.e. leave the airport terminal) using the transit exception a couple of days ago while connecting from an international flight onto a train bound for the Netherlands. The border officials only asked to see my connecting train ticket.

    However, more generally I would steer clear of transiting in third countries for the foreseeable future. In addition to the risks already mentioned above, I’d also mention that if you miss your connecting flight due to long lines at immigration checkpoints, your COVID test may no longer be valid for the flight you’re rebooked onto. You may then face having to obtain a new test, while potentially you’d not be able to enter the country your transiting.

  8. Great post! Hits the nail on the head for a lot of vaccinated Americans trying to make it to Greece or Croatia. I am going end of May and have been reading conflicting viewpoints but the re-open EU website is super helpful.

  9. You are right that the advice is confusing and needs expertise to navigate. However your example about Switzerland is wrong. Switzerland has taken the US off the list off high risk countries – the “official government website” which you cite is American not Swiss, so it is just reporting another country’s rules. And it is out of date. The Swiss current guidelines are below.

  10. I need to do an overnight layover and looks like Frankfurt is best option with airside hotel (but it’s expensive!)

  11. @JT, actually that is not correct. Switzerland is very confusing as it has TWO high-risk lists. One is from the Health department (the one you linked to) and there is another one from the SEM (migration department). If you scroll further down in the link you provided, you will see that they mention that the SEM has another list. The Health department list countries which qualify for quarantine on arrival. The US has been taken off that list as its incidence of new cases is now below the threshold for Switzerland; this only applies to Americans who are allowed to enter Switzerland in the first place and it means they no longer have to quarantine. On the SEM side (migration), the US is still on the high-risk list which means that Americans are still not allowed to enter Switzerland for non-essential purposes (unless they have Swiss citizenship or residence etc).

  12. @Alec:

    Try AMS Schiphol. Two hotels (Yotel and Mercure), neither are going to run you as much as FRA’s airside hotel.

  13. @Todd. Thank you. It’s totally confusing. I am waiting to go to Switzerland (where I own a home) but figured I couldn’t because the U.K. doesn’t allow it, not because Switzerland still has a ban. Swiss friends had said that travel is now open. But you are right – you need a valid reason (who knows what that list looks like) before you can travel, but won’t be required to quarantine if you do.

  14. It makes a lot of sense. When the connecting flight departs from the Schengen Zone and the incoming flight is Non-Schengen then you can’t transit. Very simple. The airports and airlines won’t reclassify all their flights as non-schengen just to satisfy travelers from the U.S.

  15. Germany is tough with the 48 hour requirement, but looks like antigen/rapid would be okay. No PCR requirement. So, stop at a Walgreens before you head out for a free test and shouldn’t be a problem.

  16. I feel like a good value add for the people who support your livelihood of flying around the world would be to make a call and find out what’s actually allowed, instead of saying “so who actually knows what the rules are.”

  17. I’ve been traveling to Serbia recently to close a contract and it is a challenge. I have been transiting through DOH, which has the benefit of QSuites and not needing to where a mask when in the Suite, but QR does not fly to BEG daily, so it is sub optimal. I might have to do TK through IST for my next trip as they have better connections and it is a more direct route. Air Serbia is an option from JFK, but not my preference.

    One issue that I’ve struggled with is checked luggage. For many reasons, traveling with only carry-ons is not an option, so unless my bag can be checked through, it would mean entering the transit country. The issue with Serbia is that not many airlines (and no Oneworld airline other than QR) flies there. So if I wanted to fly AA or BA, I would need to connect in LHR, CDG or FRA and connect to Air Serbia. But I cannot find any information on which airlines have a baggage interline agreement with Air Serbia. Does such a resource exist?

  18. I can’t wait to get back to Europe but think I’ll hold out a little longer due to the ever-changing restrictions regarding transit and testing. Croatia so over-touristed that I’ll gladly wait a little longer until confirmed that I can fly to an EU country with just proof of vaccination and no testing for transit. Similarly, it’s risky to deal with the testing on the way home. The excitement about flights to Greece and Croatia is great – but what happens if someone gets a positive test the day before flying home. I wouldn’t trust Balkan infrastructure if being forced to self-isolate and get everything delivered. Uber Eats isn’t really an option on a random Aegean island.

  19. The Swiss policy does make sense. Otherwise you could clear passport control and walk out of the airport to enter Switzerland. And I’m not sure the exit passport control would catch it.

  20. @Caleb I’m headed to Croatia in the next few weeks for about a month. Taking Turkish which doesn’t require a negative test to fly with them, Turkey doesn’t require a test for transit. I plan on seeing Zagreb for a week then go around to other parts of the country. Then I plan on spending 5 days back in Zagreb, get my test 2 days before departure that way if there are any issues I can make plans to deal with it in a major city and not some small island.

  21. @Sam – Right, I didn’t think about Turkish! Good call to visit Croatia this time of year. I once visited in the summer and will never make the mistake again as the entire coast was overpriced and over crowded. Zagreb is nice – but I couldn’t imagine spending two weeks there. I personally found Belgrade to be much more interesting and authentic.

  22. Heads up… Turkey just imposed a three week lockdown… Not sure how this will affect transit at IST but some thing worth looking into

  23. @Sam while TK doesn’t require a test to fly them, your final destination of Croatia does (or proof of vaccination). TK may ask you for your test or vaccination card and can prevent you from boarding at their discretion if you do not have it, so I would absolutely still show up with a negative test or your vaccination proof (which you should have since you’ll need it for Croatia anyway). Would rather play it safe than sorry. You’ll also need to show your accommodation confirmation and that you pre-paid in full to enter Croatia.

  24. So in reply to an earlier comment about transiting Turkey. I just looked at the US Embassy press release about the lockdown in turkey and oddly it seems that if one is a tourist, one is exempt from the curfew. It also makes it sound like you can still transit through any of turkeys main hubs such as IST or Ankara

  25. @Caleb I have some work in Zagreb so it’s not like I’m there fully as a tourist. Still, I’ll take in whatever the city has to offer while I’m there not working. I went to Belgrade in 2019 and enjoyed it very much.

    @Peter Yeah, since I am fully vaccinated and that’s all that is required to enter Croatia that is what I will have with me. I already contacted Turkish to make sure their agents know about this and will accept and they said yes, all US agents are aware of the CDC card and know about Croatia entry requirements. Have my accommodation payment sheet printed to show when I enter.

    @Andy Correct. The curfew and flight restrictions only apply to Turkish residents and citizens. Tourists can still go out and even take flights inside Turkey with no restrictions.

  26. I am flying to cdg Paris. I have daughter graduating high-school. I don’t really check a box on the required travel form but on all the government sites it states “family reunification ” as a compelling reason for travel. Wish me luck…does anyone have any experience with this?

  27. Just to be clear from the beginning: I’m against any unilateral travel restrictions which are not based on different epidemiological status. Therefore, yes, both the US and the Schengen countries (including Switzerland) should open for travel, reciprocally.

    However, given that this has not yet taken place, I clearly object that prohibiting Americans to transit at ZRH to ATH is “not logical”. Anyone flying from ZRH to ATH is in the Schengen zone and leaving the airport from the Schengen zone does not involve any immigration controls – it’s like flying domestic in the US. With the same argument you could argue that anyone should be able to transit the US without passing immigration.

  28. JT I quote: “JT says:
    April 28, 2021 at 10:37 am
    You are right that the advice is confusing and needs expertise to navigate. However your example about Switzerland is wrong. Switzerland has taken the US off the list off high risk countries – the “official government website” which you cite is American not Swiss, so it is just reporting another country’s rules. And it is out of date. The Swiss current guidelines are below.”

    You are falling into the same trap that I did last year (I transitted Zurich twice). There are *two* lists.

    Go here and you will see the situation and this was advised to me by both the Swiss Embassy in Athens and in Canada

  29. @Kyle – have you used the Walgreens/CVS tests to enter the US? Is that PDF enough? IS Germany really gonna accept them (They mention approved labs only).

  30. Pre-COVID, I would travel from Hawaii to Poland via FRA or AMS. These days, I’m enduring a 36-hour JFK layover to avoid the complexities and fly directly into the country from the U.S.

  31. All non-EU citizens should be banned from entering the EU region until each country can ensure zero Covid cases.

  32. Why are we allowing Americans to enter European airspace at all? So we really trust the entire to be covid free? I think we should restrict Americans from boarding flights to Europe until the end of the year at least. We should scrutinise even Europeans flying back from the U.S. to ensure dual citizens don’t take advantage.

  33. @Ben: In fact there are not so few passengers stranded in the transit area of Frankfurt airport right now. There is a documentary series about the airport which gives some insight. Google „mittendrin“ and Frankfurt airport. It very interesting to watch not only for avgeeks.

  34. My parents just flew SRQ – EWR – ZRH – BEG and had no difficulties with their Sarasota County issued COVID test.

    EWR – ZRH – BEG was operated by Swiss.

    So, I think you can transit without problems.

  35. The US state department placed the U.K. on a do not travel list claiming a very high level of Covid ? Are they serious ????
    The death rate is 23 x higher in the US and new cases almost 18 x more in the US. New cases US 0.016% versus UK 0.0037%

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