Where Do I Clear Customs on International Flights With Connections?

Dec 27, 2018

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“Reader Questions” are answered twice a week by TPG Senior Points & Miles Contributor Ethan Steinberg.

One of the most important things to do before leaving on an international itinerary is to make sure your passport/visa/immigration documents are all in order, or you could end up ruining your trip before it startsTPG reader Janel wants to know where she’ll clear customs on an international itinerary with a connection on the way…

I’m going on a cruise out of Rome in May. We fly from Chicago, stop in Dublin for an hour and 15 minutes, and then on to Rome. Will we go through customs in Dublin or Rome?

TPG READER JANEL

This is a great question for Janel to be asking, because having to clear customs in Dublin would make her 75-minute layover rather rushed. While the exact answer to this question depends on the country you’re traveling to and through, there are a few patterns to be aware of.

Transit Security vs. Customs

In almost all cases, if your bags are checked through to your final destination and you already have your onward boarding pass, you’ll go through transit security when you land at your connecting airport instead of customs. This is similar to the security check you’d receive before your departing flight (empty your water bottle and put your laptop and phone through the x-ray machine), and when you complete this check you’ll exit into the gate area with all the other departing passengers. Generally speaking, the lines for transit security are much shorter than for actual customs.

The Dublin Airport website even has a handy guide, telling you to follow the signs for “flight connections” and not baggage reclaim. Generally speaking, you only clear customs if you’re leaving the airport and entering into the country, not heading on to connecting flights.

One example of where this becomes a gray area is long layovers. When I was flying back from India two summers ago, I had a ~15-hour overnight layover at London Heathrow (LHR). This was before I had a Priority Pass membership, and so desperate for a good night of sleep before my connecting flight back to Chicago (ORD), I booked a cheap Airbnb near the airport for the night. I ended up clearing customs, and I have a London entry and exit stamp in my passport to prove it.

The American Exception

The most common exception to what I described above has to do with flights to the US, or when you land in a new country and connect (domestically) to a different city within that country. Let’s say you’re flying from Tokyo (HND) to Washington, D.C. (DCA), with a stop in New York (JFK) on the way, as I did last month. You will have to clear customs and collect your bags at the first airport in the US that you land in. In this case, even though I was on a single Oneworld itinerary, I had to claim my bags in New York, recheck them and re-clear security for my domestic flight.

There are a few cases where you might take an international flight to the US, yet land and simply walk out of the airport without going through customs. The US Customs and Border Protection agency has established a number of “pre-clearance” facilities at airports outside the US. If you’re departing from one of these destinations, you’ll clear customs before boarding your flight instead of upon arrival into the US.

It’s worth paying attention to these locations, as you might need to arrive at the airport earlier to leave times for the customs inspection. You can find a full list of pre-clearance locations here. The majority are in Canada, but there are also facilities in the Bahamas, Bermuda, Aruba, Ireland (Shannon and Dublin) and, believe it or not, Abu Dhabi.

Bottom Line

Customs laws vary heavily country to country, and it’s important to research your specific connecting airport to avoid any unpleasant surprises. That being said, in more cases than not, if you’re not leaving the airport, your bags are checked through and you have your onward boarding pass, you’ll go through an expedited transit security process rather than the full customs inspection.

Make sure to keep an eye out for US customs pre-clearance facilities abroad. While it’s nice to head right home after a long flight without waiting in line, you’ll need to budget extra time before your departure to go through the same procedure.

Thanks for the question, Janel, and if you’re a TPG reader who’d like us to answer a question of your own, tweet us at @thepointsguy, message us on Facebook or email us at info@thepointsguy.com.

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