If you’ve traveled to the US many times before then by all means skip this post. I realize that probably covers a vast majority of readers. However, there are also plenty of people who haven’t been to the US or who aren’t familiar with US immigration procedures.
Reader Newbietomiles asked a question in the Ask Lucky forum regarding immigration procedures on an upcoming trip from Dubai to Los Angeles to Seattle. So I figured I’d address that in general terms in this post, since I assume it’s a question many people have. The US is also pretty consistent when it comes to airport immigration procedures.
Everyone has to clear immigration at their first point of entry in the US
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 US.
The US 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 US between two international flights (like flying from Tahiti to Los Angeles to Paris) you still have to clear US immigration, which means you’ll need a US visa even for transit. It’s an annoying policy for sure.
Do you have to collect your checked bags if you’re connecting?
Yes. When you land you’ll first clear immigration, then you’ll have to wait at the baggage belt, and then you’ll have to 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.
Do you have to clear security after going through immigration?
Yes, if you have a connecting flight to another destination you’ll have to clear security again. 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 US policies will apply regarding liquids, carry-on allowances, etc.
How long of a connection do you need after an international flight?
This is a question I get asked by readers on a daily basis, and there’s no right answer. 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 Pre-Check?
- 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 Pre-Check who isn’t checking bags? Absolutely.
Would I feel comfortable with that as a non-US citizen with checked bags and without TSA Pre-Check 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
- 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. However, with how full flights are nowadays, “next available” might not be as soon as you’d hope.
Again, I realize this is obvious to many of you, though at the same time the immigration process can be confusing, so hopefully some of you find this useful. With the exception of airports using US Pre-Clearance facilities (where you clear US immigration before boarding your US-bound flight), the US arrivals process is pretty straightforward, so hopefully the above provides some context.