Clearing Immigration At US Airports: How It Works

Clearing Immigration At US Airports: How It Works

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If you’re an American and are a frequent international traveler, or if you’ve visited the United States many times before, then by all means skip this post. However, there are also plenty of people who haven’t been to the United States or who aren’t familiar with United States immigration procedures, so I wanted to talk a bit about that in this post.

I figured I’d answer some of the most common questions people have about clearing immigration at airports in the United States. Do you have to clear immigration if just transiting internationally between other countries? What about your checked bags? How long should you leave for your connection?

The United States is pretty consistent when it comes to airport immigration procedures, for better or worse, so let’s cover all the details.

Everyone has to clear immigration at first point of entry

It doesn’t matter whether you’re terminating your travel at that point, connecting domestically, or connecting internationally. All passengers have to clear immigration and customs at their first point of entry in the United States.

The only exception is if you’re flying out of an airport with a US Pre-Clearance facility, in which case you clear before boarding your US-bound flight. Airports with Pre-Clearance facilities include Abu Dhabi, Dublin, Nassau, and Toronto, just to name a few.

The United States is one of the only countries that doesn’t offer sterile international transit, which can be quite frustrating. In other words, even if you’re merely connecting in the United States between two international flights (like flying from Sao Paulo to New York to London) you still have to clear United States immigration, which means you’ll need a visa even for transit.

It’s an annoying policy for sure, and something to be aware of. A large reason for this is the way that US airports are designed. You’d need to create a sterile international transit facility for people to connect without clearing immigration, and that’s not something that has been invested in.

Immigration wait times can vary wildly, and note that the United States doesn’t have priority immigration for first and business class passengers. However, there are programs that can save you time with the immigration process, like Global Entry and Mobile Passport Control.

Some airports have Pre-Clearance immigration facilities

You have to collect checked bags if connecting

When you land in the United States, you’ll first have to clear immigration. Then you’ll have to wait at the baggage claim belt, and once you have all your belongings, you’ll then clear customs. Once you exit the immigration hall there’s almost always going to be a transit counter where you can re-check your bags.

For example, say you’re flying from Paris to Chicago to Los Angeles. When you check your bag in Paris, the bag will typically show as being tagged all the way to Los Angeles. Despite that, you’ll have to collect the bag in Chicago, and then have to check it again in Chicago after you clear immigration. The bag won’t need to be tagged again, since the baggage tag already indicates your final destination.

However, do make sure that your bag is in fact tagged correctly, because in some cases your bag may only be tagged to the intermediate point. This is especially true if your entire itinerary isn’t on a single ticket.

The process of checking the bag at the transit desk should be easy, and the agents there can typically also help you print boarding passes, etc.

You have to collect checked bags upon arrival

You have to clear security after going through immigration

If you have a connecting flight to another destination (whether in the United States or international), you’ll once again have to clear security. Some airports have a special security lane for transit passengers (which may or may not save you time), while others make you go to the main security checkpoint at the terminal to clear again. Keep in mind that typical TSA policies apply regarding liquids, hazardous materials, etc.

You have to clear security before your connecting flight

How long of a connection you need after an international flight

How long of a connection should you plan when coming off an international flight in the United States? There’s no right answer, and it really all depends. Airlines publish minimum connection times, though in my opinion they’re sometimes way too short. There are a lot of factors to consider as to whether or not you’ll make your connection:

  • Will your flight be on-time?
  • Are you a US citizen or not?
  • Do you have Global Entry and/or TSA PreCheck?
  • Are you arriving at an airport during peak times, when immigration lines could be very long?
  • If you are arriving during peak times, will lines also be long for security?

For example, at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, the minimum connection time for an international to domestic connection on American Airlines is 90 minutes.

Do I feel comfortable with that as a US citizen with Global Entry and TSA PreCheck who isn’t checking bags? Absolutely. There’s still risk in the event of a significant delay, but odds are in my favor.

Would I feel comfortable with that as a non-US citizen with checked bags and without TSA PreCheck who is arriving in the late afternoon, when many international flights arrive? No way. Consider that:

  • Your inbound flight could be delayed (generally I’d assume a delay of up to about 30 minutes is pretty “standard”)
  • You could wait in the immigration line for up to an hour
  • You often have to re-check your bag a certain amount of time before your connection to be sure it makes it onboard
  • It can often take some time to get to the terminal or concourse for your connecting flight, especially for large airports
  • It could take you 30 minutes to once again clear security before your connecting flight

I’ve been on many flights where they didn’t let passengers even get off the plane since the immigration facility was so backed up.

So the circumstances vary, but ultimately there’s no sure bet you’ll make a connection even if you’re adhering to the minimum connection time. Hopefully you do, but it’s no guarantee.

If you’re flying a high frequency route, though, keep in mind that if you misconnect you’ll typically be booked on the next available flight. That’s only so helpful, though, with how full flights are nowadays, since there might not be space to accommodate you on a later flight.

If you’re not a frequent traveler to the United States and have checked bags, personally I’d recommend leaving an absolute minimum of two hours. Ideally even three hours, in my opinion, because it’s better not to stress.

Eligible travelers can save time with Global Entry

Bottom line

Airport immigration processes differ around the globe, so the above is hopefully a useful rundown of what you can expect in the United States. All arriving passengers in the United States need to clear immigration prior to connecting, and also need to collect any checked bags.

I’d highly recommend leaving a longer connection than required for these kinds of itineraries, especially with checked bags, and without TSA PreCheck.

What has your experience been with US immigration? Anything I’m missing?

Conversations (48)
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  1. Brian Guest

    It's ridiculous as an American with a connecting flight returning to America to have to handle your luggage and go through security again. It's a crazy policy that causes mass confusion and people miss connecting flights. Go to Miami on a Friday night sometime.

  2. snory New Member

    If you are a citizen of APEC member country, APEC Business Traveller Card is worth considering as it also allow fast track entry for non-US citizen who is not otherwise eligible for Global Entry. APEC Business Traveller Card allows holder to use the Air Crew lane in case of US Immigration.

  3. Roamingredcoat Gold

    https://nordot.app/1154605771910103583?c=445918389795193953

    Delta aiming to remove domestic baggage recheck from Haneda, Incheon, Frankfurt, & Heathrow.

  4. Nicolas Guest

    A few weeks ago I had to connect from an international to a domestic flight in DFW. American’s website warned me that my ticket had a “long connection” (2 h 15 min), which was hilarious because I barely made it.

  5. Khatl Diamond

    I think you missed the biggest issue which is the rescreening process. Immigration/customs and getting/dropping off bags is fairly predictable at all airports and doesn't vary a huge amount, particularly if you have global entry. What varies hugely between US airports is the rescreening time. Even if you have global entry, there's no global entry for rescreening and, at many airports, not a TSA pre-check lane or a priority lane. So you can make it...

    I think you missed the biggest issue which is the rescreening process. Immigration/customs and getting/dropping off bags is fairly predictable at all airports and doesn't vary a huge amount, particularly if you have global entry. What varies hugely between US airports is the rescreening time. Even if you have global entry, there's no global entry for rescreening and, at many airports, not a TSA pre-check lane or a priority lane. So you can make it into the US in 30-40 minutes with your checked bags, but then be stuck in rescreening for anywhere from 15-90 minutes.

    1. Biglaw V10 Partner Guest

      There is quite a bit of unpredictability at immigration and customs. Kiosks are not all the same. Some of them print a receipt. Others tell you to proceed to an officer.

      Some airports have you interact with one officer who handles immigration and customs at the same time. At other airports, you clear immigration with one officer, then get your bags, then clear customs with another officer. The line to clear customs can be much...

      There is quite a bit of unpredictability at immigration and customs. Kiosks are not all the same. Some of them print a receipt. Others tell you to proceed to an officer.

      Some airports have you interact with one officer who handles immigration and customs at the same time. At other airports, you clear immigration with one officer, then get your bags, then clear customs with another officer. The line to clear customs can be much longer, and there might not be a separate line for Global Entry.

      Secondary screening also varies. Sometimes if you declare food, you're sent off to a separate room with agricultural specialists. Sometimes the agricultural specialists come out to the baggage claim area and inspect your bags out in the open.

      CBP forbids phone use at all parts of this process, but enforcement varies. You might be standing in a line where everyone is on their phone. You might be standing in a line where officers are walking up and down to make sure no phones are out. You might all be using your phone one moment, and the next, an officer instructs everybody to put away their phones.

      As to "rescreening" (with TSA?) you can usually just exit the entire airport and re-enter as if you were a domestic departing passenger.

  6. MPC Entry App Guest

    Thank you Aaron… Just downloaded the app… I can hear key and peele saying to you “you done messed up A-A-Ron!”

  7. AaronP Guest

    I use the CBP MPC app, but don't tell anyone. You can find me at Mobile Passport queue along with no one else...

    1. Biglaw V10 Partner Guest

      The queue is empty, but so is the booth. You're stuck standing behind the yellow line until an Officer walks over to staff the booth. By then, the 30th person in the Global Entry line has already cleared.

  8. hbilbao Guest

    @Ben, don't forget the ITI thing, which is extremely confusing as some agents still yell at you and say that you MUST collect your baggage at your first point of entry, and then you just wait and wait and your bag never shows up (because it was successfully handled as ITI).

    It happened to me. I even ended up going to the baggage office thinking that my bag was lost or delayed.

  9. Engel Gold

    I knew a guy 20 years ago that flew to Brazil, only to be refused entry. Seems when he departed Brazil six months before he didn't get an exit stamp in his passport. So his passport made it appears that he had overstayed his last visit. Imagine flying 6,800 miles only to be turned right back around at the airport.

    1. Eskimo Guest

      Funny story, America did a very similar thing in Afghanistan, Iraq, Vietnam, and soon Iran.

  10. William Guest

    For transiting international to domestic this makes probably sense although there are much smarter solutions to it like eg the CIQ process in Thailand.

    For transiting international to international this is a pretty backward process and one is best advised to keep things simple and find alternative flights that avoid going via the US.

    On a positive note, my US immigration experience the last few years has been remarkably better than it used to be.

  11. HkCaGu Guest

    Ben you're a bit outdated in separating "immigration" and "customs". Two decades after the formation of USCBP, immigration and customs primary inspections are now very much combined at airports, just like at land borders. The primary "passport counter" CBP officer, beside deciding admit-or-deport, will also ask for customs declaration and can decide to send you to secondary immediately (for immigration concerns) or after baggage claim (for customs concerns). If they decide you're good to go...

    Ben you're a bit outdated in separating "immigration" and "customs". Two decades after the formation of USCBP, immigration and customs primary inspections are now very much combined at airports, just like at land borders. The primary "passport counter" CBP officer, beside deciding admit-or-deport, will also ask for customs declaration and can decide to send you to secondary immediately (for immigration concerns) or after baggage claim (for customs concerns). If they decide you're good to go after baggage claim and then the carousel dog smells something, you're now in trouble for not declaring to the "immigration" officer...

  12. riku2 Guest

    The baggage forwarding rules for international to international flights are a nightmare. At SOME airports the bags WILL be transferred without rechecking (eg LHR-DFW-Mexico) but there are still signs in the baggage hall at DFW "all bags must be claimed".. which you have to ignore in some circumstances.

    1. infrequentflyer Guest

      so happy I have global entry. even if you only travel once in a blue moon it is worth it. This past week I used the global entry Mobil app for the first time. Landed at SFO, submitted my picture, got my entry # which I gave to the agent and I was waved through, from plane to baggage claim in less than 5min whereas the regular line was a mile long with all the Europe and Asia flights having landed.

  13. derek Guest

    Missing something?

    1. If the flight lands in Bangor for special reasons, like an unruly passenger, they don't have to unload the plane and undergo customs clearance for everyone.

    2. (unsure) If a flight has preclearance, like from Canada, passengers don't have to go through security again if they have a connecting flight.

    1. TravelCat2 Diamond

      Every time I've arrived at CLT on a flight with preclearance, I was deposited airside. So, no need to go through security to connect.

  14. JW Guest

    Benchmark immigrations for all countries is no doubt Singapore, they are just so good and efficient at processing and screening that I never had more than a 15 minutes wait. Also they invested in having machines capable of reading passports from multiple nations through biometric data, cutting the problem immigrations always have which is the officer. CBP has a lot to learn.

    1. derek Guest

      Not quite a benchmark because Singapore commits the crime of not stamping passports. Such act or omission may not be an international crime but it is a crime against travel lovers.

    2. Pram Guest

      Guess what? So does USA and Peru and whole lotta other countries. They dont stamp anymore!

    3. JW Guest

      Half the world commits this crime, so who’s the laggard here.

    4. Baliken Guest

      Even indonesia has electronic gates in some airports allowing travelers to enter without getting a passport stamp!

    5. HkCaGu Guest

      Singapore (like HKG and several other "city states") has no domestic flights. So every flight's arrival (non-connecting) passengers walk into immigration. Flights are spaced out and passengers are spaced out. Not so for the US (with many gateways serving as connecting hubs) which can have banks of international arrivals concentrating around certain time periods. There will surely be certain peak periods for immigration.

    6. simmonad Member

      Agreed. apart from being a fabulous airport, procedures at SIN were a doddle! Next month, I'll compare with KUL.......

  15. KingBob Guest

    At Orlando's new Terminal C, international arrivals pickup their checked baggage first and then get in the queue for a joint Customs & Immigration interview. Sadly, this means dragging all their stuff through the normally lengthy queue.

  16. Ethan Guest

    The first rule is probably if you can avoid international transfer in US, especially I-I transfer, you should.
    Like flying from Asia to South America, you're better off with transferring in middle east.

    1. glenn t Diamond

      Would Canadian airports be a better option for transits?

    2. Frank B Gold

      Not only are Canadian airports a better option for transits, in many cases going through Canadian airports and their immigration transfer to US preclearance is a better option for US connections.

  17. Eskimo Guest

    The United States is one of the only countries that doesn’t offer sterile international transit, A large reason for this is the way that US airports are designed.
    JFK could have easily done that, but why not?

    Maybe the larger but very discreet reason is they want to screen everybody. Always good to capture some prisoners as a political pawn in transit. We fought someone else's war thousands of miles away, do you think...

    The United States is one of the only countries that doesn’t offer sterile international transit, A large reason for this is the way that US airports are designed.
    JFK could have easily done that, but why not?

    Maybe the larger but very discreet reason is they want to screen everybody. Always good to capture some prisoners as a political pawn in transit. We fought someone else's war thousands of miles away, do you think we will mind our own business and miss the opportunity for a prey transiting on US soil?

    1. derek Guest

      Not necessarily true. It is also to prevent illegal Haitian entry by a Haitian ticketed to transit the US and then can fly to the US without a visa. Visas are designed, in part, to weed out people who are not genuine tourist or business travelers, but migrants.

    2. riku2 Guest

      But it's possible to demand visas for transit without forcing everyone to go through immigration - so long as there is a sterile transit area. This happens at LHR. You need a visa to transit. But because there is a sterile transit area there is no need for everyone to spend time going through immigration.

    3. HkCaGu Guest

      And it is also because there's no exit checkpoint or separate departure areas.

    4. Eskimo Guest

      @HkCaGu

      There actually is but the government like to be discreet, as always.

      The airline will pass on your credentials to CBP and will meet you at the gate if needed. They like to surprise unsuspecting people.
      They even call them aliens (funny how the woke still allow them to use inhumane discrimination words) but deny any UFO encounters.

      Just because you don't see a physical fence doesn't mean there isn't one.

  18. yyyy Guest

    Not every gateway has the same process. For example, you collect bags before clearing immigrations at SEA and chances are you don't have to collect bags and recheck them at ATL.

    1. HkCaGu Guest

      Not having to collect bags only works with the ITI tags which are given to AA flights through MIA and DFW, UA flights through IAH, and DL flights through ATL. Marketing agreements may extend the availability of the ITI tags to AF/KL and BA.

    2. riku2 Guest

      My bags have been forwarded at DFW (HEL-LHR-DFW-MTY) with normal bag tags. The check in staff at Helsinki had no idea what an ITI tag was even when I showed a picture i'd found on the internet. My bag turned up in MTY without any problems.

  19. Kiwi Guest

    I’m not sure if there are any other exceptions to the must clear customs rule, however there was one in place for the thru flight from AKL-LAX-LHR on NZ1/2 which was discontinued a few years ago. This still required an immigration check but there was no customs clearance required for thru passengers

  20. Sel, D. Guest

    I recommend entering on foot. Often times you get free connecting air transportation to anywhere you want to go in the country, free hotel stays (talk about a travel hack!), and even free gift cards and loaded credit cards. Surprised more travel bloggers aren't covering this hack.

    1. Eskimo Guest

      Especially aviation enthusiast bloggers. The rare opportunity to fly a Dornier 328JET into Martha's Vineyard. It's as rare as the eclipse flights.

  21. CF Crost Guest

    How about you know mentioning a few tips about clearing immigration!

  22. Eric Schmidt Guest

    I might even guess that it is an intentional policy of the US to not want to allow unmonitored international transit passengers through its borders. Maybe the US has a desire to know who flies on our carriers and sets foot on US soil, and even if our airports had the capability to offer sterile international transit, they would not want to do so. Not saying it's smart or good as a policy, but it may be the motivation.

  23. Creditcrunch Diamond

    Since you last wrote about MPC it has been extended to Visa Waiver countries and in certain airports because of the popularity of GE MPC users are getting through very quickly often faster than GE.

    1. JustinB Member

      Which airports do you typically see MPC is faster?

    2. Sel, D. Guest

      None, it's never faster.

    3. Eskimo Guest

      Most of the time it's not faster but about the same.

      But yes I've seen a few time when there is line for GE and nobody for MPC.

Featured Comments Most helpful comments ( as chosen by the OMAAT community ).

The comments on this page have not been provided, reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any advertiser, and it is not an advertiser's responsibility to ensure posts and/or questions are answered.

Brian Guest

It's ridiculous as an American with a connecting flight returning to America to have to handle your luggage and go through security again. It's a crazy policy that causes mass confusion and people miss connecting flights. Go to Miami on a Friday night sometime.

0
snory New Member

If you are a citizen of APEC member country, APEC Business Traveller Card is worth considering as it also allow fast track entry for non-US citizen who is not otherwise eligible for Global Entry. APEC Business Traveller Card allows holder to use the Air Crew lane in case of US Immigration.

0
Roamingredcoat Gold

https://nordot.app/1154605771910103583?c=445918389795193953 Delta aiming to remove domestic baggage recheck from Haneda, Incheon, Frankfurt, & Heathrow.

0
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