Connecting flights to and within the USA – what you need to know when traveling with the ESTA
One thing that all Visa Waiver Programme member countries have in common is that they are a long way away from the United States! This means that, although direct routes are certainly available, sometimes your only option is to take multiple flights. Here we will take a look at what a connecting flight means for your journey when you’re visiting the USA with your ESTA.
If you are going to the United States from the United Kingdom, more and more airlines offer direct flights these days, and it’s no longer just from the major transport hubs. It is becoming increasingly common for smaller airports to offer direct transatlantic flights to destinations across the USA. However, the luxury of not having to change flights can come at an elevated price, and so connecting flights may often be your best option.
Furthermore, if your final destination is not a major city within the USA, it is quite likely that you will need to take a domestic flight once you get there. Remember, the USA is a vast country, where flying is the primary mode of transportation for travelling long distances. In certain places, you could even drive up to a thousand miles without leaving the state!
So, let’s say you are booking an indirect flight to the United States. These journeys can fall into one of three different types:
International – international; you take your first flight to a different country, and then continue onwards to the United States.
Domestic – international; you take your first flight within your country of departure, and then continue onwards to the United States.
International – domestic; your first flight takes you into the United States, and your second flight takes you to your final destination within the country.
The category that your journey falls into will change the procedures somewhat, and that might affect which itinerary is best suited to your needs. So let’s break it down:
International – international
Let’s say you have made a booking from the UK to the USA that takes you through another country. Let’s also assume that you have made the booking as part of one itinerary through the same airline. This means that when you check in, you will get both boarding passes at the same time. You will check in your luggage, and you probably won’t see it again until you reach the USA. However, it is advisable to check with your airline whether you will need to pick up your bags in transit. When your first flight lands, whether or not you need to go through immigration and customs depends on the airport, but generally speaking you can avoid having to do this by remaining ‘airside’ (i.e. not leaving the departures area of the airport). If for any reason you go ‘landside’ at your transit destination (due to a long layover, to smoke, etc,), you will need to go through security again to get back into the departures area. Furthermore, you would need to make sure you had the proper travel authorisation to be in that country, as well as your ESTA for the United States.
In general, when you book an indirect flight through one airline, the waiting time between landing from your first flight and taking your second one is planned to accommodate any procedures you need to carry out whilst you are there, particularly immigration. They tend to provide a little leeway too in case of delay. When you land, there is usually information provided to you upon arrival about where to go to make your next flight, with people on the ground there to assist.
If you have made two separate flight bookings, then you will need to pick up your luggage when you arrive at your stop-off point, check in for both flights separately, pass through immigration and go through security again at this point of your journey. If you do this, you should be sure to give yourself plenty of time for these procedures and to accommodate for any delays. You should consider that, when you book your indirect flight through the same itinerary, your airline will make every effort to make sure you catch your second flight and will make it easy for you to catch the next available flight should you miss it. If you book through different airlines you do not have this peace of mind, and you may have to purchase a new ticket if you miss your second flight (depending on the ticket type).
Once you arrive in the United States, you will need to go through customs and immigration, and then pick up your bags.
Domestic – international
If you travel domestically within your country of departure and then take a subsequent flight to the United States, you will most likely only have to go through security once, and you will never have to go through customs/immigration until you reach the United States. The most likely scenario is that you go through the standard security process in your airport of departure, and simply head straight to your connecting flight once you get there, without having to pick up your luggage (provided the flights were both booked on the same itinerary). Again, it is always advisable to check with your airline what the process is when you land at your first stop-off point, but this is a simpler process because you are cutting out the middle country. If you book your flights through separate airlines, you still won’t need to deal with the hassle of immigration after your first flight, but you will need to pick up your luggage and check it in again.
As with an international – international route, once you arrive in the United States you will go through customs and immigration before picking up your bags.
International – domestic
When travelling from the UK with the ESTA, the most common indirect routes involve a connection in a third country (scenario A) or within the United States itself, which we’ll go into here.
Particularly when travelling to the west coast or to smaller airports within the USA, it is common to take a flight to a larger hub somewhere on the east (New York, Boston, Miami, etc.), and then travel onwards to your end destination. With these journeys, the procedure is generally consistent. You will check in your bags at your point of departure, and you will need to pick them up at your first point of arrival in the United States. Provided you booked your flights on the same itinerary, your airline will help you when you arrive at your stop-off destination, telling you where to go and possibly giving you a priority pass to get through the necessary steps.
You will have to go through customs and immigration at your first airport of arrival. This is where your ESTA (or visa) will come into play. You will need to fill in a customs form, either on the plane, or using a dedicated automatic desk at the airport. You will go through immigration, where you will present your passport and customs declaration, and your fingerprints and photograph will be taken. Depending on the airport and the time of day, this process can take a while, and don’t forget you will also need to pick up your bags afterwards and go through security again. For this reason, it’s always smart to make sure you have a couple of hours before your next flight when connecting in the USA. That said, your airline will help you along the way, you will probably go through dedicated queues for connecting passengers, and you need not worry if you miss your connecting flight as you will be put onto another flight at no extra cost (unless you booked to separate flights with different airlines).
The reason you need to pick up your luggage here is because this is your official point of entry in the United states, and a customs and border patrol agent may ask to see what’s in your bags. Once you have been through customs, however, you will be able to check your bags back in easily in a dedicated area, without having to queue or present your flights details again (the tag will already be on your luggage).
The advantage to this kind of connecting flight is that you will not have to go through customs and immigration again when you reach your end destination. Landing domestically in the USA is much simpler than an international arrival. Given that you will inevitably have had a long day of travel, it is often preferable to land at your destination without having to queue for a long time, and to just simply pick up your bags and get to where you need to be.
In a nutshell, these are the different indirect flight options when travelling to the United States. The most important thing to remember is to apply for your ESTA in advance; without advance travel authorisation, you cannot even board the plane. You can apply for ESTA online at any point, but it advisable to do so as soon as you know you will be travelling. Once you have your ESTA, this will be linked to your passport digitally, and US Customs and Border Patrol will be able to see that you have valid travel authorisation automatically.
Whichever kind of connecting flight you take, just be sure to have your ESTA in advance, and allow plenty of time to change flights.
Travelling to the United States? Do you have your pre-planning checklist in order? Visit our ESTA Guide for more information about obtaining your travel permit. We'd love to hear from you. Send us your comments or questions for travel assistance.