Clearing Immigration At US Airports: How It Works

Clearing Immigration At US Airports: How It Works

53

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.

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.

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 you’re traveling on separate tickets.

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, 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.

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.

Eligible travelers can save time with Global Entry

Bottom line

Airprot 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 (53)
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.
Type your response here.

If you'd like to participate in the discussion, please adhere to our commenting guidelines. Anyone can comment, and your email address will not be published. Register to save your unique username and earn special OMAAT reputation perks!

  1. iamhere Guest

    The most ridiculous part is
    1. If transiting to an international destination you still have to clear immigration and customs. Most places have an international transit area for those not entering the country and do not need to formally enter.
    2. If going on to a domestic destination that there is no way to get from the customs hall to the gate area without going through security again. Many places do have this...

    The most ridiculous part is
    1. If transiting to an international destination you still have to clear immigration and customs. Most places have an international transit area for those not entering the country and do not need to formally enter.
    2. If going on to a domestic destination that there is no way to get from the customs hall to the gate area without going through security again. Many places do have this as well even if you need to re-check bags. HOWEVER, a number of places are now starting to require the security check again especially for flights from the USA because of this issue.

  2. Gray Guest

    Given all of the potential hiccups, the title of this article ("Clearing Immigration At US Airports: How It Works") could perhaps have been summed up in one word: Poorly.

  3. Jon Fonseca Guest

    Huge tip for East Coast-based Australians travelling to the US: minimise this rigmarole by flying Air Canada to Vancouver. Enjoy the relatively mellow transit and pre-clearance immigration arrangements in a pleasant airport, don’t touch or see your in-transit baggage, and arrive at your US destination as a domestic passenger, walking straight out the same way you do in Brisbane, Melbourne or Sydney.

  4. Tom Guest

    At Dublin pre-clear you check you bags at check-in as normal, then go through security and pre-clear, and then land as a domestic flight.

    So at what point is your bag checked for customs compliance, since you don't have it with you during pre-clear?

  5. DTS Guest

    Most of my entries into the US over the last years were through SEA. I have Global Entry. Is this thing were you get your picture taken at a machine, then pick up your luggage, then get in line for a CBP booth the new normal at all airports? It basically renders GE useless.

  6. William L Guest

    What about Clear? Any comments about the program?

    I Just tried it with a discount on the fee offered by United. Worked great for me.

  7. Karim J Guest

    If you are transiting to a third country, sometimes you don't have to pick up your bags as the bags will be tagged ITI and are not subject to US customs clearance. Depends on the airline and you are informed at check in.

  8. ML Guest

    Pet peeve - people who are clearly talking about the immigration/passport control process but refer to it as "clearing customs."

    1. Eskimo Guest

      Maybe your pet peeve renamed a government agency to "US 'Immigration/Passport control process' and Border Protection."

    2. Chris Guest

      Entry into Canada for Canadians has been a breeze compared to that. For international to domestic, we have been seeing our bags only at the final destination. A customs declaration is done at the time of the immigration clearance on arrival in Canada. While the customs service rightly doesn’t disclose procedures, we think sniffer dogs and either x ray or CT happen behind the scenes.

      This country vets passengers electronically even for international to...

      Entry into Canada for Canadians has been a breeze compared to that. For international to domestic, we have been seeing our bags only at the final destination. A customs declaration is done at the time of the immigration clearance on arrival in Canada. While the customs service rightly doesn’t disclose procedures, we think sniffer dogs and either x ray or CT happen behind the scenes.

      This country vets passengers electronically even for international to international connections, but no formal immigration or customs inspections.

      Far simpler, for now.

  9. Justin Guest

    Something new I haven't seen until the new SLC opened - at SLC you collect bags, then clear immigration, then customs. Not sure why it is different as I assumed they kept baggage claim after immigration so you don't have to queue with bags, but maybe since there aren't too many international flights its not a big deal. Maybe this is the new format though, I heard the new terminal at MCO is the same way.

  10. ABDULLAH AL BALUSHI Guest

    I flew to Orlando on 29th October from an international flight and when we arrived we entered a new terminal.

    They have us collect our bag first then go through immigration rather than immigration then baggage and customs. So not sure if this is a new process in the USA

    1. Eskimo Guest

      Was the same thing in SEA new facility.

      Seems like CBP is experimenting on this concept.
      The shortsighted problem, rather than having a long line with 30 min wait. You now have a very long line with lots of checked luggage (boxes not bags) and still a 30 min wait but now taking up triple the space.

  11. Hank Tarn Guest

    They should scrap global entry, everybody should be in line, intercepted and interviewed by an agent when entering the United States about their intentions. For much too long the borders have been weak and soft.

    1. GBOAC Diamond

      Because of course it's really really easy for non-citizens abroad to get Global entry (sarcasm here intended)

    2. Eskimo Guest

      Because of course it's really really expensive for many credit card holders to get Global entry (sarcasm here intended)

    3. hartd8 Member

      It is easier to cross the ario Grande or hop the broken fences!!

  12. XPL Diamond

    To underline a point alluded to in the article, if your journey begins and ends outside the U.S., you can make your trip much nicer by not flying via the U.S. Canada, Mexico, Panama, and more all offer sterile international transit, making your journey much easier. Going via the U.S. is often cheaper, but don't be penny wise and pound foolish.

    One example: A few years ago we flew TGU-PTY-AMS on two different airlines. Our...

    To underline a point alluded to in the article, if your journey begins and ends outside the U.S., you can make your trip much nicer by not flying via the U.S. Canada, Mexico, Panama, and more all offer sterile international transit, making your journey much easier. Going via the U.S. is often cheaper, but don't be penny wise and pound foolish.

    One example: A few years ago we flew TGU-PTY-AMS on two different airlines. Our initial departure was delayed by nearly three hours due to weather so we arrived in PTY with just minutes to spare, yet with no customs or immigration nonsense we made the flight. Try that at any U.S. airport!

    1. Kiwi Guest

      Mexico does not offer sterile transit. It like the USA does not separate international and domestic departures so all international arrivals must clear immigration and customs

    2. Andy 11235 Guest

      Similarly, Canada does not offer sterile transit. They have procedures to try and expedite processing in YYZ, but non US/CDN citizens require an ETA even for transit and will go through immigration screening. I think it is more accurate to say that in North America, sterile transit is just not a "thing." My guess is that int'l-to-int'l transfers just aren't nearly a high enough portion of traffic to justify a reconfiguration of international terminals. (The...

      Similarly, Canada does not offer sterile transit. They have procedures to try and expedite processing in YYZ, but non US/CDN citizens require an ETA even for transit and will go through immigration screening. I think it is more accurate to say that in North America, sterile transit is just not a "thing." My guess is that int'l-to-int'l transfers just aren't nearly a high enough portion of traffic to justify a reconfiguration of international terminals. (The underlying issue, in case anyone is wondering, is that in North American airports you can simply walk out of the airport, even after you clear security and enter the international terminal)

    3. XPL Diamond

      I stand corrected re Mexico and Canada and thank you. What's odd is that I have memories of using sterile transit in both countries, but my memory has played tricks on me before.

  13. VJ Guest

    What most people are not prepared for is the arrogance and sometimes, nasty behaviour of the immigration and Customs officers. And many of them expect a suitable level of subservience to be demonstrated by the visitors. It is as if being polite stops them from doing their job.

    1. BBK Diamond

      Most of us understand that their job is not being nice. I couldn't care less, they are there to protect their country. In spite of that they have treated me very politely many many times.

  14. JinxedK Guest

    Is taking your shoes off still a thing at security if you don't have TSA Precheck?
    Do they take this 'security' measure anywhere else in the world?

    1. GBOAC Diamond

      @JinxedK, Yes I had to take my shoes off in a regular security line at IAH, since they didn't offer TSAPre in this particular facility. I went through security in Peru a couple of times recently I didn't have to take my shoes off.

    2. AGH Guest

      Perhaps the post might address potential issues with carry-on duty-free purchases made abroad — liquids like wine and perfumes — running afoul of US security rules when a passenger transits to a final destination after US arrival on the inbound international flight. If you buy duty-free wine in Paris, even if it’s in sealed, tamper-free packaging, once you arrive in Chicago to board your onward flight to St. Louis, airport security prior to St. Louis...

      Perhaps the post might address potential issues with carry-on duty-free purchases made abroad — liquids like wine and perfumes — running afoul of US security rules when a passenger transits to a final destination after US arrival on the inbound international flight. If you buy duty-free wine in Paris, even if it’s in sealed, tamper-free packaging, once you arrive in Chicago to board your onward flight to St. Louis, airport security prior to St. Louis departure will confiscate the carry-on wine as an impermissible liquid. Maybe the passenger can insert the the wine into checked luggage after baggage claim from the international flight, prior to recheck, but the recheck desk might ask about why the bag is suddenly a few pounds heavier or, worse yet, a poorly packed bottle might shatter, dousing your brand-new haute couture in barrel-aged Chateau Margaux.

  15. Chris Guest

    As a non-US resident, the one thing I still don’t understand is how CBP manages the exit control…like without an exit immigration, what’s stopping a potential overstayer from booking a flight, and not getting on it?

    Something I’ve been wondering for years but have never bothered to ask…

    1. Never In Doubt Guest

      Nothing.

      And nothing will happen to you until you attempt to return to the US, visa needed or not, at which point you’ll probably be told “Sorry”.

      But if you, like many, never plan to leave, then welcome to the underground economy!

    2. Eskimo Guest

      And while you take life for granted.

      These underground economy is what kept stores open because people refuse to work anymore and wait for Uncle Brandon to give free money and forgive loans.

    3. BBK Diamond

      Exactly as Never in Doubt explained. For example in Venezuela you could never get out freely if overstaying (it will get very very nasty). In Panamá you have to pay a fine based on the overstay time, or elect self-deportation and never be able to enter again.

  16. GBOAC Diamond

    Another point to remember about the time it takes to connect. At IAH yesterday, after we dropped our checked bags we went up to security and discovered they did NOT offer TSA-Precheck at this particular facility. That certainly added quite a few minutes to our transit time (more people and more intricate checking process:-(
    Is this common at other airports to require all returning citizens with TSAPre to go through regular security?

    1. MidSouthSkier Community Ambassador

      I've experienced that at IAH as well and found it annoying. It's not my typical re-entry point and I think the others I've used (EWR, ORD, LAX) all routed me back to the ticketing level, which had the regular PreCheck and CLEAR lanes.

  17. GBOAC Diamond

    My hubby and I returned from Peru through IAH yesterday and we encountered yet another variation of Global entry. The kiosk took (and apparently) accepted our picture but we had then to line up show our passport to a live agent. Contrast that to what we experienced at SFO this spring where the kiosk took our photo, asked us a few questions, spit out a form which we handed to an agent on the way out.
    Curious if there are other protocols at other airports?

    1. MidSouthSkier Community Ambassador

      Last month I took my first international flight since 2019 and things had changed at ORD. Previously, like you mentioned, the kiosk took a photo and printed out a ticket. Then I'd show that to a live agent before retrieving my bag. This time the kiosk printed nothing and I showed my passport to an agent standing right near the kiosks (he had a tablet with our names) and he gave me a laminated blue...

      Last month I took my first international flight since 2019 and things had changed at ORD. Previously, like you mentioned, the kiosk took a photo and printed out a ticket. Then I'd show that to a live agent before retrieving my bag. This time the kiosk printed nothing and I showed my passport to an agent standing right near the kiosks (he had a tablet with our names) and he gave me a laminated blue (I think) piece of paper which I then handed in before retrieving my luggage. At that point I took my luggage to the transit desk and exited.

    2. TravelinWilly Diamond

      @GBOAC - This is the new way of doing it, same at IAD.

      Get your photo taken, line up, TSA agent matches your photo on the tablet and you’re off to the races.

  18. Mike Guest

    Can someone help me to clarify this ?:
    Will I be able to use the CapitalOne Lounge at DFW, if I’m arriving at Terminal D (International Flight) and connecting at Terminal B for a domestic flight ? Bit unsure about what happens after Immigration/Customs at Terminal D, before I go through security again at Terminal B ?

    1. MidSouthSkier Community Ambassador

      Just go through security there in Terminal D. The terminals are all connected airside via a train. B & D are beside each other so you could even walk if you wanted.

  19. pstm91 Diamond

    Just flew on Air Tahiti Nui from PPT- LAX. The look on peoples' faces who were continuing on to Paris when they heard the announcement that they had to disembark, clear immigration, and then return to the plane was hysterical.

    1. HkCaGu Guest

      Those must be European French who are surprised? Everybody already needs ESTA to fly between Paris and Tahiti.

    2. iamhere Guest

      why? Tahiti is still French.

  20. NB Guest

    Four trips to SFO in the last twelve months. Wait times were 3.5 hours, 0.5 hours, 2.5 hours and 5 minutes.

  21. bruh Guest

    Can you write more about the pre-clearance facilities please? All my trips to the US have always been through DOH/DXB/LHR and that means clearing immigration at the first port of entry in the USA. How does it work in Abu Dhabi? Does your passport get stamped in Abu Dhabi? What happens if the flight were to divert to a third country and the passengers are to be accommodated in a hotel in that country for...

    Can you write more about the pre-clearance facilities please? All my trips to the US have always been through DOH/DXB/LHR and that means clearing immigration at the first port of entry in the USA. How does it work in Abu Dhabi? Does your passport get stamped in Abu Dhabi? What happens if the flight were to divert to a third country and the passengers are to be accommodated in a hotel in that country for a day, just like what happened in the case of EK209. What would the situation be like if it had been on an Etihad flight from AUH to the US instead.

    1. Luke Guest

      That's a interesting question I'd think this would "invalidate " the US preclearance and would have to redo standard immigration line once arrived in the US but what if one has a single entry US visa that got stamped in AUH or wherever!

      My guess is otherwise landing in a third country under all circumstances such passengers cannot disembark the aircraft

    2. Bgriff Guest

      I don't know about the specific case you mention, but I was once boarded on a pre-cleared flight from Canada to the US when the flight was cancelled due to a mechanical issue, and everyone had to disembark and go back through Canada entry procedures despite not having left the airport yet -- and subsequently had to go back through US preclearance whenever they ended up having their rebooked flight to the US. I'm not...

      I don't know about the specific case you mention, but I was once boarded on a pre-cleared flight from Canada to the US when the flight was cancelled due to a mechanical issue, and everyone had to disembark and go back through Canada entry procedures despite not having left the airport yet -- and subsequently had to go back through US preclearance whenever they ended up having their rebooked flight to the US. I'm not sure how that would have worked if anyone had a visa for either country that limited the number of entries they could make.

    3. GBOAC Diamond

      @BGRIFF. Many years ago I was precleared for the US on a UA YYZ-ORD flight that sat on the tarmac at Pearson for 7 hours before the flight was busted. I expected that we would have to go through Canadian immigration to "undo" the preclearance since we were technically in the US at that point. But much to mu surprise they let us disembark as a domestic flight.

    4. MetsNomad Guest

      If you haven't exceeded the time you're permitted to stay in Canada, Canadian single-entry visas are valid for multiple entries from the USA (and from St. Pierre & Miquelon).

    5. BBK Diamond

      Passports aren't stamped anymore but yeah, your I-94 entry will be registered from Abu Dhabi.

  22. riku2 Guest

    I don't think you always have to connect your bag if transiting in the USA. I flew on AA LHR-DFW-GRU and did not collect my bag in DFW to check it in again. It was really unclear what I had to do because there were signs in the airport saying ALL bags must be claimed and rechecked. This is related to "ITI" checking which is explained below although of course none of the check in...

    I don't think you always have to connect your bag if transiting in the USA. I flew on AA LHR-DFW-GRU and did not collect my bag in DFW to check it in again. It was really unclear what I had to do because there were signs in the airport saying ALL bags must be claimed and rechecked. This is related to "ITI" checking which is explained below although of course none of the check in staff or cabin crew use this term and the baggage tag would anyway have GRU as the final destination regardless if you have to collect it at an intermediate airport in the USA.
    https://www.flyertalk.com/forum/american-airlines-aadvantage/1758714-international-domestic-aa-etc-formalities-baggage-connections.html
    As usual, everything in the USA is different to the rest of the world.

    1. riku2 Guest

      An explanation from American Airlines about not having to claim your bag in DFW if flying international -> international. Making a song and a dance about something which is standard procedure almost everywhere else in the world.
      https://www.americanairlines.it/content/images/jp/ti/pdf/iti_en.pdf

    2. Icarus Guest

      China also restricted international transit

    3. Bgriff Guest

      There are a handful of places where this is available, I believe it is also available on Delta in DTW. Considering it seems to be a rare exception to the rule it's not entirely clear to me if it's actually a good idea, since it probably just creates more confusion.

    4. BBK Diamond

      Once upon a time, one in many US transit flights.. I flew CCS-IAH-FRA (with less than 12 hours in IAH) and in IAH I didn't recheck my bag. And we were directed to an specific immigration (passport control) booth if I recall correctly. It was very odd, sadly I don't remember all the details clearly.

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.

Eskimo Guest

Was the same thing in SEA new facility. Seems like CBP is experimenting on this concept. The shortsighted problem, rather than having a long line with 30 min wait. You now have a very long line with lots of checked luggage (boxes not bags) and still a 30 min wait but now taking up triple the space.

3
Justin Guest

Something new I haven't seen until the new SLC opened - at SLC you collect bags, then clear immigration, then customs. Not sure why it is different as I assumed they kept baggage claim after immigration so you don't have to queue with bags, but maybe since there aren't too many international flights its not a big deal. Maybe this is the new format though, I heard the new terminal at MCO is the same way.

3
Never In Doubt Guest

Nothing. And nothing will happen to you until you attempt to return to the US, visa needed or not, at which point you’ll probably be told “Sorry”. But if you, like many, never plan to leave, then welcome to the underground economy!

3
Meet Ben Schlappig, OMAAT Founder
4,788,713 Miles Traveled

27,627,500 Words Written

32,315 Posts Published

Keep Exploring OMAAT