When you fly on an international flight, you always need to pass through a passport control security checkpoint at some point during your journey. While this is true for all destinations, some countries and zones operate a little bit differently than you might naturally assume. The United States is one of these places.
Many travelers are unsure of how customs and immigration work when flying into the United States, and this confusion gets even worse when they hear things like “you will need to recheck all of your luggage during your layover.” To be honest, I was nervous the first time I was flying back to the U.S. on a flight with a connection because I had no idea how it was supposed to work. Experiences like that are what drive me to write posts like this to help fellow travelers!
This post is going to break down everything you need to know about customs and passport control on international flights to the United States with a connecting flight before the final destination. If you are asking the question “Do I have to go through customs for a connecting flight?” this post was written exclusively for you, and you will probably be able to breathe much more easily by the time you get to the end!
How Does Customs Work on International Flights to the United States?
Any country that you fly into requires you to pass through customs and immigration. These two areas are part of every country’s protocols, and there is no way to get around them, even if you are a citizen of the destination country. The main flight attendant on your original flight will likely provide some instructions over the airplane’s speaker system before you land, but this is not always the case.
Customs When Arriving on a Direct Flight
If you have a direct flight, things are very simple. You will land at your final destination, get off the plane, wait in the passport control line, pick up your bags at the baggage claim, and pass through the appropriate customs tunnel.
For most people, there is nothing to declare to customs, and you will almost never have to wait in line. The immigration line is usually the long one. Once you have your baggage and clear customs, you can leave the airport and continue with your trip.
Customs When Arriving on a Flight with at Least One Domestic Connection
If you don’t have a direct flight, things might be a tad trickier. When you fly into the United States, the rule is that you must pass through customs and immigration at your first point of entry in the United States. Therefore, if you fly from Paris to Chicago with a layover in New York, you will need to pass through customs and passport control in New York, not in Chicago.
Your flight from New York to Chicago is technically a domestic flight, and it would land at a domestic terminal in Chicago. As a result, there would be no chance to pass through customs and immigration in Chicago. To ensure that all passengers immigrate properly, immigration is always done immediately upon landing at the first airport, and everything after that is considered domestic travel.
Customs Pre-Clearance at an International Airport
The United States has customs and immigration pre-clearance systems in place in several international airports around the world. These advanced checkpoints allow passengers to clear immigration and customs before their flight, rather than upon arrival. This frontloads the bottleneck of security checks to the beginning of your trip, which makes for a very smooth and stress-free arrival!
Despite what you may assume, almost none of these checkpoints are in Europe’s Schengen Area. The vast majority are in Canadian cities, like Toronto, Vancouver, and Calgary. Beyond Canada, there are preclearance capabilities at select airports in Bermuda, the Bahamas, Aruba, Ireland, and the United Arab Emirates.
Do You Have to Recheck Baggage on Connecting International Flights to the United States?
Nonstop Flights to the United States
If you have a direct flight to the United States, you will simply complete the immigration process with your passport and boarding passes, pick up your baggage at the baggage claim upon arrival and then pass through the US Customs inspection. There is no need to do anything else. Usually, by the time you get through the long lines of the passport check area, your bags will be awaiting you in the baggage claim area.
Flights to the United States with at Least One Domestic Connection
If your flight to the United States includes a layover somewhere else in the United States, and you pass through customs and immigration anywhere other than your final destination, you will need to recheck all of your luggage at that point. Essentially, once you land at your first point of entry in the United States, and you pass through passport control, you will need to wheel your bags through customs, recheck them at an expedited counter designated for connections from international flights, and continue on to your next gate.
The check-in desks at this point are usually entirely separate from the ones at the entrance to the airport. These desks are normally exclusively for passengers arriving from a foreign country and connecting to another city in the United States. As such, there is not usually much of a line, and you will likely not need to pass through security again before heading to the gate for your next flight.
International Connecting Flights Before Arriving to the United States
In the vast majority of cases, you will not need to recheck your bags until you arrive in the United States. If your connection is in Europe, for example, your bags will not need to be rechecked. While customs procedures vary by country and region, very few places require you to recheck your bags if you are just connecting through to a different country and remaining in the transit area.
I’ve done this multiple times this year alone. Coming home from India, we had a layover in Amsterdam before continuing to Washington DC. We did not need to recheck any baggage in Amsterdam, and we received it upon landing in DC.
Coming home from Egypt, we had layovers in both Rome and New York City. We did not have to recheck any baggage in Rome, but we did have to recheck our baggage in New York before continuing on to Pittsburgh.
The exception to this is if your itinerary is on separate tickets. If your flights are booked on multiple itineraries, the connecting procedure will be very different. This is because there is no way for the baggage system to know you are boarding a different flight once you land.
Do You Have to Go Through Customs for a Layover in Europe?
Europe functions uniquely to most places in the world, due to the immigration-free travel throughout most of the continent. If your origin, layover airport, and destination are all a part of the Schengen zone, you will not need to clear customs or immigration at all. Your passport or other travel document might be checked, but it will not be stamped upon arrival on your transit flight or at your final destination.
What if you are coming from somewhere outside of Europe, passing through on a layover in Europe, and landing somewhere else? This was the case on my recent trip from Egypt to the United States, which had a layover in Rome. In cases like this, you will not pass through any form of customs and immigration screening during your layover.
If you plan on leaving the airport, you will need to pass through immigration and customs. However, since your luggage will remain in the airport, customs officers won’t usually give you a hard time, as long as you have a valid transit visa or passport that allows visa-free travel to your international destination.
Security Checks During Layovers in Europe
When you have an international connection in Europe connecting you to and from countries that aren’t a part of the Schengen zone, you will not need to pass through customs. But you will need to go through a brief airport security check!
This check is much more relaxed than a regular airport security check. There are usually no wait times, and you may not have to remove electronics from your bag or dispose of liquids. In my experience, the average wait time to get through transit security in major European airports is between 2 and 7 minutes.
How Much Time Do You Need to Clear Customs and Immigration on a Flight to the US?
Airlines and airports recognize that transit passengers often have very short connection times. The airport does all it can to ensure that the customs declaration, security screening, border control, and baggage rechecking processes move as swiftly as possible for passengers with flight connections, and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) works tirelessly to safely and efficiently help passengers clear security and arrive to their gates with plenty of time remaining.
With that being said, you need to put yourself in a good position, too. You never want to pick the flight itinerary with the minimum connection time between your first flight and second flight, as it is your job to make sure you have enough time to complete all of these steps. International connections in the United States have a lot of moving pieces, and it is not uncommon to experience a long wait in immigration and customs lines during peak periods.
Leave Several Hours of Time to Pass Through Customs
I recommend leaving yourself several hours of time, if possible. While the time you will need varies greatly depending on the airport, the time of day, and the time of year, it is always better to give yourself a little too much time than to give yourself too little time.
Long layovers are often frowned upon by travelers, but I am a big fan of 4-hour layovers on long-haul flights. The departure area and gate areas always have plenty of options for places to eat, and you won’t even need to haul around any checked luggage during this time.
While nonstop flights are usually best, having a nice meal or work session at your connecting airport is always a great plan, too. While the international terminal at an airport is usually the nicest one, you can still usually expect plenty of great food options in domestic terminals when waiting for your connecting flight.
4 Tips for Passing Through US Customs and Immigration Quickly to Get to a Connecting Flight
During our time living in Mexico, we took a lot of flights from Mexico City to various places in the United States, and we learned pretty well how to have a hassle-free experience. Here are a few of our top tips, based on lessons that we learned.
3. Take Advantage of Mobile Passport Control
If you don’t want to pay to sign up for Global Entry, you can take advantage of Mobile Passport Control. This new feature recently was rolled out by the American government, and it allows travelers to pre-clear customs and immigration via their phones. The feature is available via mobile app on both iOS and Android.
Mobile Passport Control can save you a massive amount of time by permitting you to fill out your customs declaration form and conduct your passport screening in advance. It is especially beneficial for a transit passenger with no checked baggage, as you can breeze through immigration and head straight to the border. The immigration and customs line can be over an hour long in the worst cases, and Mobile Passport Control can turn that wait into less than ten minutes.
4. Make Sure You Book a Long Enough Layover
At the end of the day, there is only so much you can do to get through customs and immigration faster. It is crucial that you book a long enough layover time in the event that things do not go to plan. If there is a long customs line, or if your first flight is delayed, you don’t want to feel rushed trying to make your connection.
If the delay is your airline’s fault, they will put you on the next available flight. However, if something else causes the delay, like long customs lines or a need to switch terminals, the airline isn’t liable.
It’s a good idea to err on the side of a longer layover. I always book layovers that are at least two hours long when connecting through the United States and one and a half hours long when connecting through Europe. I’d rather sip on a glass of wine in an airport lounge than break into a nervous sweat waiting for my bags before heading to the transfer service desk!
Thanks for reading my post about passing through customs on an international flight to the United States with a connection. Hopefully, this post answered any questions you have about passing through customs when flying to the United States, including how to recheck your baggage.
If you have any questions or thoughts, drop a comment below.