The Arrivals, Customs & Immigration Guide

The Arrivals, Customs & Immigration Guide

This is Part 3 in my 3-part series on Surviving the Airport Stress-Free! If you feel a bit clueless about how to check in for your flight successfully, give Part 2: How to Check In and Make That Flight a read!

So you’ve successfully flown hundreds or thousands of miles to a new destination! What you do when you arrive in your destination is dependent upon your citizenship and where you flew from and to. I’m writing this post for my fellow Americans, but if you are from another country, simply insert your country’s name every time I state U.S. and consider if your country has some additional requirements.

There are essentially four types of arrivals that will cause the airport process to differ:

  1. Arriving in your final destination in a U.S. city
  2. Arriving in your final destination in a foreign city
  3. Arriving in a U.S. city for a layover
  4. Arriving in a foreign city for a layover

I have organized this guide around each of those four types. Check out the graphic below and see if you can figure out which applies to your flight(s). Hint: if you have a multi-leg journey, you will have both a Layover arrival and a Final Destination arrival, so pay attention to that little red airplane below.

Final Destination – Home Country

If you landed in the U.S. from flying from another U.S. city, arriving is as simple as following the signs to head to either your next form of transportation to leave the airport, or to pick up your checked baggage.

No doubt you will be following loads of people who just disembarked from your flight, so if in doubt, follow them, but be sure that they are going the right way by watching the signs for BAGGAGE CLAIM or EXIT.

Baggage Claim

To figure out which baggage claim carousel will have your bag, check out the column on the very far right of the departures/arrivals board. If the screens have not yet updated with your baggage carousel number, you can check out the screens on the carousels themselves and look for your flight number. If you had a lapse in memory on your fight number after hours of sitting on a plane, you will probably be okay with following people you recognize from your flight.

Now you wait until the carousel starts to spin and pray that your luggage will come around for you to grab and be on your way! For security purposes, it is in your best interested to get to the baggage claim before the bags start coming out. No security here to make sure that no one takes the wrong bag – it’s a free-for-all!

Ground Transportation

What is your plan for getting from the airport to your next destination? Are you taking a taxi, renting a car, catching a train, taking a shuttle back to your parked car, or is a friend picking you up? It can be confusing to find where you need to go because every airport is laid out differently. The best thing you can do here is look for signs that help you figure out your way.

Final Destination – Foreign Country

If you landed in an international destination, and it’s your final destination, you are probably jet-lagged, but super excited that you’ve made it! Hold your horses, though, because you’ve got several more steps to go through before this country is going to let you in. There are extra steps in an international arrival called Customs and Immigration.

Most people think of the Customs and Immigration process as the part where you wait in line to meet with an officer who reviews your documents and ask you questions. This is basically true, but it’s important to understand that the “Customs” part is where you tell the foreign country the possessions you have brought along with you to their country, whereas “Immigration” is being screened for the duration and purpose of your trip to their country. They care about what you have (Customs) and what you are doing in their country (Immigration).

The Customs Form

You document the goods and cash you are bringing with you to the country in the form of a Customs Declaration form. You will typically be given a form while still on board your flight so that you have time to complete it prior to disembarking from the aircraft. This form will request your personal information and a confirmation or denial that you are traveling with particular items or sums of cash.

Immigration Officer

After disembarking, follow the masses of people or the signs to Border Control/Immigration & Customs (whatever it may be called in that country) to queue in a line to meet with an Immigration officer. If you are traveling as a family, when it is your turned to be called, you can all go up to the Immigration officer as one group. If you are traveling with friends, you should be screened individually by the officer.

While being screened, the officer will check out your passport, review your customs forms, and ask you some additional questions. Some common questions I’ve had:

“State your name and date of birth.”

“Where will you be staying?”

“Why are you traveling here?”

“When do you leave?”

“What did you do on vacation?”

“What types of gifts did you buy?”

And even once I literally did not get asked one question. It’s not really common to meet a chatty or “friendly” customs officer, so a good rule of thumb is to only answer the questions that they ask. And don’t act shady!

All Cleared – Almost

After being cleared by the Immigration officer, you will need to collect your checked baggage and walk through an area where there are several officers watching the activity of passengers with their possessions, looking for suspicious activity. In some countries, there are red and green lights that will flash for a random inspection of your luggage, or even in some airports you press a button to determine if you are cleared or have been selected for an additional inspection.

Keep walking through confidently, and follow the directions of the officers if there is something else you need to do. As soon you make it through the doors, you are free to officially begin your much-needed vacation!

Flight Layover – Home Country

If you landed in the U.S. from flying from another U.S. city, but you haven’t reached your final destination, you are on what’s called an airport layover. This means you disembark your first plane only to make your way to the departure gate for your next flight. If your full trip is with the same airline (or a partner one), you should have your boarding pass for the next flight already in your possession. It may or may not have your gate information already printed on it. Whether it does or not, you should check out the departures boards to confirm your departure gate. If you checked a bag, it should be making its way onto your next flight without you having to do anything.

If your next leg of the trip is with a non-partner airline or you booked separate itineraries (meaning, you did not book both legs as part of one transaction), you may not have your boarding pass for your next flight, so you will need to go to the check-in counter for the airline. You will likely have to collect and and re-check your baggage, unless you made some arrangements upon dropping your bag at your initial departure.

Trip Layover – Foreign Country

So what if you landed in an international destination, but it’s not your final destination? An international layover can be a bit more complicated, as there is the chance that you will have to clear Customs and Immigration during your layover.

Customs and Immigration During and International Layover

How do I know if I clear Customs and Immigration during my layover, or do I do it when I arrive in my final destination?

Unfortunately the quickest answer to this is that it depends. It depends on what country you have landed in and what your final destination is. If you are landing in one country and then will fly to another city within the same country, you will likely go ahead and clear Customs and Immigration now, as your next flight will be treated as a domestic flight within the same county. In many countries in Europe you do not have to clear customs and immigration after you do it upon arrival in the first country if you remain within certain countries.

If you landed in one country only for a layover and your next flight is to a different country, you are essentially a transit or transfer passenger who will literally only remain inside the airport while in this country. Some countries allow you to simply transfer through without going through their Customs and Immigration process, but this is not always the case.

For example, when you fly back to the United States, you will clear customs and immigration at the first port of entry, even if you are not in your final destination; however, as a U.S. citizen, you will not be required to clear customs again on the next leg of your trip, and your next flight will be treated as a domestic flight.

The best piece of advice I can give you is to try to research your exact itinerary before departure to see where you will have to go through Customs and Immigration if you are worried about the extra time involved. Otherwise, it’s pretty obvious the steps you need to take when you arrive because the airport is not exactly going to let you do otherwise.

Check Luggage During an International Layover

Do I have to pick up my checked baggage during my layover?

This again will depend on your particular itinerary, but there is a chance that if you are booked with the same (or partner) airline and your luggage is checked through to the final destination, you will not have to pick up and re-check your luggage. You should inquire when you initially check your bags what will be required with your particular itinerary.

If you have to clear customs and immigration, there is a chance you will need to pick up your checked luggage to move through customs and then re-check your luggage to your final destination. You can absolutely expect that upon the first port of entry back to the United States, you will have to follow this procedure.

Can I Leave the Airport During my Layover?

Whether you are able or should leave the airport during a layover has everything to do with time and location. While a layover can offer you the chance to see a tiny bit of another destination, leaving the airport introduces risks that might cause you to miss your flight to your intended destination.

If you have a layover in the U.S., the only thing you will have to do upon re-arrival to the airport to catch your next flight will be to go back through security; however, if you leave the airport during a layover while in a foreign country, you will have to go through customs and immigration upon arrival, and will have to go back through customs and immigration and security after you come back to the airport. You will also make sure that your ticket will allow you to leave the airport, or that a country does not require a visa that you do not have.

Because all of these steps can be unpredictable and are notorious for wait times, and since there could be delays in your first plane arriving that cut into your layover time in the first place, I wouldn’t even consider leaving the airport if your layover is too short and instead plan what you are going to do with your idle time as you wait for your next departure.

So what is “too short” of a layover?

For domestic layovers, a layover of 4 hours or less is really too short to realistically leave the airport, tour the city, and be back in time to go back through security in time for boarding.

For international layovers, a layover of 6 hours or less is too short to realistically leave the airport, tour the city, and be back in time go back through security, immigration, and customs in time for boarding.

If your layover is over these minimal times, but less than 12 hours, you maybe be able to have time to take a quick peek at the city, but there are some considerations that you need to make.

  • Do you have a suitcase carry-on with you? You will have to decide whether you want to pay to store it at the airport or lug it along with you.
  • What time of day is it? If it’s late in the evening or early in the morning, it’s not likely you will get to experience much of the city unless you are looking to hit up a late-night meal or club.
  • What is it that you want to do on your layover? Do you want to tour a downtown area and grab a meal or drink? Or do you want to visit as many attractions as possible? A careful consideration of the amount of time it will take to travel from the airport to your activity of choice, as well as how long you will be able to enjoy the activity is necessary. Don’t forget to put some buffer time in for external factors that can delay you in making it back to the airport on time.

If your layover is 12 hours or more and especially if it is overnight, you should consider getting a hotel room for the night so that you can drop whatever luggage you have with you, and get some proper rest. Having a proper stopover, up to several days long, is the really the best and most risk-free way of making the most of a layover. Consider that as you book your next vacation

That’s it! You’ve officially made it through the journey that is the full airport process, from departures to arrivals. If you are interested in becoming a traveling pro, consider using me as your travel coach as you plan your next trip!

I tried to be as comprehensive as possible, but it is hard to put every situation, so if you are a fellow American, please reach out to me if you have a particular questions about your flight itinerary and I can help you out!