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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
2 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.
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.
Greg – This post is just what I needed – thank you so much! Have you used the Mobile Passport Control app? It seems like it could save some time. I haven’t traveled internationally in years. When we return to the US, we will fly from Amsterdam to ATL and then home to South Carolina. Mobile Passport Control is available in ATL.
Thanks for reading! I’m really happy this post was helpful for you. I personally have not used the MPC app because I have Global Entry. However, I do know that it is a great tool that I absolutely recommend using. While getting things set up on the front end does take a little bit of time, you’ll probably be able to use a dedicated Mobile Passport Control line when you land in ATL. Since ATL is such a busy airport, the regular lines can definitely get very long…I’ve seen them there plenty of times! I hope you have a great trip and get home safely!
Thank you for your great article, answered every question I had regarding travel from Italy to the US. Curious if could tell me how it works traveling from Venice to the Us with a layover in Amsterdam, one ticket, traveling with carryon only. Will I need to go through customs in Amsterdam or just catch the next flight. I am flying Delta/KLM and have a 1hr 45min layover in Amsterdam on the way back to the US. Is this long enough? I still have time to change my ticket if not.
I would love to know what to expect when landing in Amsterdam, please advise and thank you!
Thank you for your kind words! I’m so happy that my post was helpful for you. Regarding your question, I can answer with 100% confidence, because I just flew into the US with a layover in Amsterdam on Delta/KLM two months ago!
When you land in Amsterdam, you will have to go through a security check, but that is all. In my experience, it was one of the most laid-back, casual, fast security checks. We didn’t have to take things out of our bags, there wasn’t much of a line, and we were through within 10 minutes. We travel with a ton of electronic equipment, and they didn’t flag a single one of our backpacks or carry-ons. 1hr45 is absolutely enough time for your connection.
Once you get through the quick security check, you will be right in Amsterdam’s big, beautiful terminal. Great restaurants and shopping, not too much walking to the gates, and very straightforward navigation. The airport technically has three different terminals, but they are all housed in the same building and there is no need to exit and take a bus, for example.
Have an AWESOME trip!