Do I Have to Go Through Customs for a Connecting Flight?

When traveling internationally and having a connecting flight, it can be confusing to know whether you have to go through customs. The answer is usually yes, but it is not so black and white. It depends on a few factors, such as the country’s regulations where you are traveling through. In some cases, you may need to go through customs and immigration; in others, you can go straight to your next flight with less screening, such as only Transit Security, which is different from Customs.

If you're flying to the United States, you'll typically need to clear customs and immigration at your first point of entry. This means that if you have a connecting flight within the US, you won't need to go through customs again. However, if you're flying from an international destination and connecting through the US to another country, you'll need to go through customs and immigration before catching your connecting flight. Depending on agreements, a foreigner in transit in the USA may need a Transit Visa also.  It is necessary to research this ahead of time.

Understanding Customs and Immigration

Immigration and customs, though sometimes combined, have different purposes. Customs deals with the goods that visitors bring into a nation, whereas immigration is concerned with the visitors themselves and their right to enter, remain, or depart. Passport control (immigration), baggage reclaim, and then customs control are the typical order of business at airports. These processes guarantee both national security and legal observance.

Domestic vs. International Transits 

Whether you face customs and immigration procedures during transit largely hinges on the nature of your journey. Domestic transits, i.e., flights that connect within the same country, typically do not require passengers to undergo these procedures. However, international transits—where you travel from one country to another, often involves customs and immigration checks.

Connecting Flights

If you're planning a trip that involves a connecting flight, you might ask yourself, “ Do I Have to Go Through Customs for a Connecting Flight?” during your layover. The answer to this question depends on a few factors, including your final destination, the countries you're traveling through, and your nationality.

Definition of a Connecting Flight

A connecting flight is a flight that requires a passenger to change planes at an intermediate point to reach their final destination. This means that you will need to disembark from one plane and board another to continue your journey.

Customs Requirements for Connecting Flights

If you're connecting to an international flight, you will need to clear customs and immigration at your first point of entry into the country. This means that if you're flying from Bogota to Tokyo with a layover in Los Angeles, you will need to clear customs and immigration in Los Angeles before continuing on to Tokyo.

Sometimes to enter a country, depending on your nationality and the agreement between countries, you may need a visa even for the country where you will have the layover or connecting flight.  Make sure you are able to stop in the connecting country before booking the flight.  If not, when departing at the airport at the check-in counter, you may not be able to board as airlines nowadays require you to show all documents needed to enter into a country, such as a visa and / or a return ticket.  

In the airlines' systems for check-in, all the documents have to be entered, or you won't be able to fly until you resolve the issues, such as having the needed documents to enter the country and showing your return ticket out of the country during the time that your visa is allowed.  If you have a residence or work visa in the country where you are going, this can be overridden.

Domestic Flights

However, if you're connecting to a domestic flight, you generally won't need to clear customs and immigration. For example, suppose you're flying from New York to San Francisco with a layover in Chicago. In that case, you won't need to clear customs and immigration in Chicago because both New York and San Francisco are in the United States.

Customs and Immigration Procedures on International Connections 

For international connections, the general rule is that you must clear customs and immigration at your first port of entry into the country, even when it is a connecting flight.

However, there are exceptions, such as Transit Without Visa (TWOV) and International-to-International (ITI) transit. TWOV allows passengers from certain countries to transit through another country without a visa, while ITI permits transit passengers to remain in the international transit area of the airport without having to clear customs and immigration.

TWOV and ITI can simplify transit procedures for passengers. Countries like Canada, the Netherlands, and Germany, among others, have TWOV policies in place for passengers from specific countries. Similarly, ITI transit is applicable in many countries where international transit areas exist. However, these provisions are subject to the traveler's nationality, the specific airports, and the airlines involved.

Schengen Zone

When arriving in a Schengen country (like France or Germany), you will need to go through customs if you are coming from anywhere other than one (like the United States).

However, if you are traveling between the 27 Schengen nations, you won't have to go through customs once you have entered the Schengen Area.  For more information about the Schengen Area, visit their website.

Plan Ahead

Since the pandemic, travel seems to be a little more chaotic, with delays and cancellations for many reasons, such as the weather and lack of staffing in the airlines.   Years ago, I could plan my trip and was not too concerned about my layover time.  But the last three times I have traveled this year, I have had delayed flights and even missed some connections. The lesson learned is to try to be flexible and give yourself more time with connections, if possible.   

Navigating Customs: Tips and Tricks

After years of navigating airports around the globe, I've picked up a few tips that can make the customs process a little less daunting and less stressful.

Nonstop flights:  When possible, getting a direct flight can make things a lot easier.  There is less stress of trying to connect to ongoing flights when there are delays or changes to your flight when you have a direct flight.

Visa Requirements:  Make sure everything is in order before you go and check on your layover and destination countries' websites to confirm.   

Travel documents:  Have all the documents you need ready and easily accessible.  This includes your passport, boarding passes (also the second boarding pass), and anything else, such as during the pandemic, Covid-19 tests were required.

Single Ticket:  Buy one ticket instead of breaking it up into parts with separate tickets.  While you may look for ways to save money, in the end, it can cost you a lot more as you don't have the full support from one airline from your departure city to your destination city.

Global Entry:  By far one of the best investments I have made.  I am able to clear security quickly and be on my way.  I can avoid long lines and pass security screening very quickly.  

Global Entry is a program through U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) that allows expedited clearance for pre-approved, low-risk travelers upon arrival in the United States. Members can enter the United States through automatic kiosks at select airports.  Here is their website for more information.

Long Layover:  When you have a longer layover, your stress can be reduced.  If your first flight is delayed, you can still make the second flight since you have plenty of time.  If you are looking for what to do during your layover, there are lounges that you can sometimes access with certain credit cards or passes.

Research the airport ahead of time:  If you are flying domestic and then will catch an international flight, look at the airport map to see where the international terminal is, as it could be different from the domestic terminal.  Or if you are flying with international layovers, look ahead to the airport maps also.  Usually with an international connection, if you are flying the same airline, your gates could be in the same terminal, but it depends on the airport or if you are flying with partner airlines.  

At connecting airport:  Since this may be the first time you are traveling through an airport on your layover, it is a good idea for international travelers to go right to the next gate departure area.  You may think it is too much time to go so early, but it is best to know where you need to be and make it your base in case of gate changes or any information about your onward flight.  

Take Care of yourself:  Plan ahead for your long flights and use your time at the layover airport to move a bit, eat healthily and drink lots of water.  Although you may have a lot of time between flights, you can be productive in planning accordingly.

Baggage Reclaim and Customs

After immigration, passengers typically reclaim checked luggage from the baggage claim before customs inspection. However, if your journey involves changing airlines, you may need to re-check your luggage before the connecting flight. Otherwise, if you are on the same airline or depending on your ticket, right after customs, you can forward your luggage to a specified area to its destination. Different airlines have varying policies, so confirming with your airline is advisable.

Customs Declaration Form

Upon arriving in a new country, travelers used to fill out a customs declaration form. This document, provided by the cabin crew during your flight, requires passengers to list items they bring into the country to ensure they comply with customs regulations.  Nowadays, many countries require you to do this online, such as in Colombia, where you must fill out the CheckMig online before entry.

Restricted or Prohibited Items 

Most countries have strict rules about what travelers can bring in, and these include restrictions on food, plants, and certain medications. Before traveling, check the customs regulations of your destination country to avoid complications.  

Impact of Customs and Immigration on Layover Time 

Customs and immigration procedures can significantly impact layover times. Always consider these procedures when planning your trip to avoid missing your connecting flight.

Tips for a Smooth Customs and Immigration Experience 

To facilitate a smooth experience, have all necessary documents ready, understand the entry requirements of your transit country, and observe customs rules.

Where to Look

For accurate and updated information on customs and immigration procedures, it's best to check with the following resources:

Official Airline Websites: Every airline has a detailed website providing information about their procedures for connecting flights, baggage policies, and other relevant details.  

For example

Airport Websites: Airports also have official websites that provide guidance on customs and immigration, including estimated processing times and details about facilities like International-to-International transit.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection: If you're flying into or out of the United States, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection has detailed information on all customs procedures, including the preclearance process.

Government Websites: For information specific to a particular country, the official government websites provide updated information about customs and immigration. Look for the foreign affairs, immigration, or tourism department.

Embassies or Consulates: Embassies and consulates can provide detailed and accurate information on customs and immigration procedures and are especially useful if you're traveling on a passport that may have specific entry requirements or exceptions.

Travel Forums: Websites like TripAdvisor, Lonely Planet, and FlyerTalk have very active forums where travelers share their experiences and provide advice. They can be a good source of practical information and tips.  Remember to verify all information from forums with official resources to ensure it's accurate and up-to-date.

When you are traveling on an international flight, you may need to allow enough time for customs and immigration. The minimum connection time is the amount of time you need to allow between flights to ensure that you have enough time to go through customs and immigration. This time varies depending on the airport and the country you are connecting through.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q1: Can I leave the airport during a layover without going through customs?

A1: No, you cannot. If you wish to leave the airport during a layover, you'll need to go through customs and immigration.

Q2: What happens if I miss my connecting flight due to customs delays?

A2: Most airlines will rebook you on the next available flight if you miss a connection due to customs delays. However, policies vary, so checking with your airline is best.

Q3: Do I have to go through customs for a connecting flight if I don't have any checked luggage?

A3: Even without checked luggage, you may have to go through customs, especially if you're transiting through the US.

Q4: How much time should I allow for customs during a layover?

A4: A safe bet is to allow at least two hours. However, it can vary depending on the airport and the time of travel.

Q5: How can I speed up the customs process?

A5: Programs like Global Entry in the US, and NEXUS in Canada can speed up the customs process.

Q6: Do I have to go through customs for a connecting flight if I am an international student?

A6: Yes, international students will have to go through customs just like other passengers.

Whether or not you'll pass through customs and immigration during transit depends on multiple factors. Be sure to check the specific rules of the countries you'll be transiting through, as these can change and differ significantly. Happy traveling!