Do I have to go Through Customs for a Connecting Flight? Full Guide
Do I have to go Through Customs for a Connecting Flight? Full Guide

Do I have to go Through Customs for a Connecting Flight? Full Guide

If you’re reading this article, you’ve probably got a flight coming up with a layover, and you’re likely asking yourself: do I need to go through customs for a connecting flight?

Whether you have to go through customs will depend on where you travel from and your destination country. As you can imagine, this requires a little more explaining.

Read on for a comprehensive overview of what the customs process involves, when you’ll need to go through customs for a connecting flight and what layovers entail.

Do I have to go through customs for a connecting flight?

As a general rule, you will only go through customs for international connecting flights. For domestic connections, you typically don’t have to.

A quick explainer about customs

Before we go any further, let me quickly clear up an important distinction to help you better understand customs.

The word customs is often used interchangeably for 3 different procedures at an airport:  

  1. Security
  2. Immigration
  3. Customs

These procedures are actually different to each other and normally happen at different points during your transit through an airport.

If you have to go through customs for a connecting flight, then you typically only have to clear security and immigration. Your final destination, not any connecting airports, will usually be where you declare any goods—technically, this is customs.

I’ll explain these processes in more detail later on. But to keep things easy to read in this article, I’ll only differentiate them when absolutely necessary.

What happens during a connecting flight?

For international connecting flights, normally you have to go through security and immigration. However, whether you go through customs depends on the specific requirements the connecting country has in place. 

Two regions of the world where flights with international connections often transit are Europe and the US.

Connecting flights in European countries

27 European countries have an agreement in place called the Schengen Area (also called the Schengen Zone). The agreement abolishes border controls at the mutual borders between Schengen countries.

Essentially, this means that flights between Schengen countries are considered domestic. With that in mind, the following factors determine whether you go through customs and immigration for a connecting flight in Europe.

  1. If your departure country and connecting country are both within the Schengen Zone, then you will not need to go through customs during your layover. For example, if flying from France to South Korea with a layover in Greece, you only have to clear customs once you arrive in South Korea.
  2. If your departure country is within the Schengen Area and your destination country is within the EU but not the Schengen Zone, then you will have to go through immigration upon arrival, but won’t be subject to customs. For example, if flying from Spain to Ireland and vice versa.
  3. On the flipside, if you depart from an EU country and your destination is within the Schengen Area but not the EU, then you won’t be subject to immigration, but you will need to clear customs procedures. For example, if flying from Spain to Switzerland and vice versa.

These rules are a bit confusing at first, so make sure to read them again before your flight so you know what to expect if flying in Europe.

Connecting flights in the United States

The US is another major transit point for global air travel. And as the country is so big, flights sometimes have more than 1 connection there. If you have a layover(s) in the US, then you will normally have to clear all customs procedures at the first US airport you arrive at.

Visas for connecting countries

You might need a specific visa to get connecting flights in certain countries.

For example, all nationalities except Canadians need an Electronic Travel Authorisation (ESTA) for layovers in the US. Certain nationalities will need a short-stay Schengen visa to transit through the Schengen Zone.

Your home country’s government website or the website of the airline you’re flying with should have the latest information on visas and other requirements for connecting flights.

Domestic connections

In large countries some domestic flights may have a connection. As a domestic connection does not require crossing a border, you shouldn’t have to pass through any customs procedures at all.

What is a connecting flight?

Connecting flights break up long journeys from the departure country to the final destination. They are typically shorter flights covering a smaller portion of the overall journey.

You might choose to pay for an air fare that includes a connecting flight because it’s cheaper than flying direct or because it’s the only option to get to your destination. You might get separate tickets for the individual legs of the journey, or a single ticket covering all flights.

Connecting flights are often called layovers or a stopovers, but there’s a difference between these 2 terms.

The difference between a layover and a stopover

What differentiates a layover from a stopover is the amount of time you have to wait for your connecting flight.

Different airlines might define things slightly differently, but in general, a layover lasts less than 24 h, while a stopover is any layover longer than 24 h.

Layovers typically don’t give you enough time to leave the airport and explore, while a stopover might.

Do you have to collect your bag for a connecting flight?

You usually need to collect your luggage for a connecting flight if the connection is with a different airline to your previous flight.

Sometimes different airlines will work together to transfer your luggage without you needing to collect it. However, this usually only happens when both flights are with the same airline.

When booking your flight, the flight itinerary will say whether you have to collect your baggage. On the webpage, there is normally an information or warning symbol making this clear. 

If you do need to collect your luggage in the connecting airport, there will be a baggage claim area for you to do this.

Unlike checking in luggage for an initial flight, which is typically done at a check-in desk with weighing scales, for a connecting flight, there will usually be a ‘drop-off’ area.

A member of staff from the connecting airline or airport should be at the drop-off area organising things. They might give you a ticket with a reference number for each bag you drop off.

Keep hold of any tickets. You’ll need them to track your luggage if for any reason it doesn’t arrive at your final destination when you do.

Because there’s always a small chance of this happening, when your journey includes a connecting flight, try to pack items you’re definitely going to need in your first few days of the trip in your hand luggage. It’s a good idea to pack a change of clothes too.

What are customs?

Customs (sometimes called border control) is the agency or authority in a country with the responsibility for collecting tariffs and controlling the movement of goods in and out of the country.

Customs officers are employed by the government of the country, not the airport which they work in.

You often won’t notice when you’ve been through customs. Normally the customs procedure takes place after baggage collection at your final destination, not during a layover.

When leaving the baggage reclaim area, there are usually at least 2 exits: 1 for ‘nothing to declare’ and another for ‘goods to declare’.

If you have nothing to declare, then you simply exit baggage collection and make your way to the arrivals hall. But if you have goods to declare, then you have to go through the other exit to the customs area and pay any taxes.

Is customs the same as security?

In airports, these are technically different procedures. Security is that annoying process when you have to empty your hand luggage—and sometimes remove items of clothing— putting everything into trays to be scanned. While your hand luggage is scanned, you do body scans. 

What is the difference between customs and immigration?

While customs control the flow of goods and materials across a country’s border, immigration controls the flow of people.

Sometimes called passport control, immigration officers are the ones who check your travel documents such as your passport and any necessary visas. It’s these guys who stamp your passport in the airport.

Immigration officers also work for their respective government and they may be part of the same agency as customs officers.

Nowadays some airports use immigration e-gates. These are automated gates that scan your passport and your fingerprints, and take a picture of you. They are designed to speed up the immigration process and cut queues.

What happens during customs for a connecting flight?

Each airport might do things slightly differently, but the overall customs procedure for a connecting flight typically follows these next steps.

When you get to the connecting airport, you’ll need to pass through a security checkpoint. Here officers will scan your body and your hand luggage.

Instead of security, you might go straight to immigration where your passport and any other travel documents, such as a transit visa, will be checked.

The immigration officer might ask to see a customs declaration form. If this is required, you will either have been given one to fill out on the plane before you landed, or forms will have been distributed while queuing for immigration.

Customs declaration forms normally ask for details of your trip. This can include the reason why you’re traveling, your final destination and how much cash you are traveling with.

In some airports you might have to pass through immigration and security procedures.

At security checkpoints customs officers might inspect your luggage and your person more rigorously. This is usually just a routine practice, especially if you’re trying to leave the airport during a stopover, so don’t worry.

What happens during inspection?

Further inspection will include more luggage and body scans. Officers might check your person and luggage for chemical residues too. They may also search your luggage and person manually.

Customs officers might also ask you questions about your trip and want to see your travel documentation. If for any reason they want even more information, you might be interviewed in a private room. However, this is only likely if they spot something in the scans.

If for any reason you are caught with a prohibited item, then you could be fined or charged. The severity of the punishment will depend on what the item is.

What to do if you are chosen for inspection

If customs officials want to inspect your luggage more closely, stay calm and be respectful—it’s more than likely just a routine inspection and nothing to be worried about. Cooperate and you’ll be on your way shortly.

Once you’ve cleared all customs processes, you will be able to enter the country or continue through the airport for your connecting flight.

Key tips for a smooth customs process

  • Check beforehand if you’ll need to declare anything you’re flying with – finding out before you arrive at the airport can save you a headache and any unexpected fees
  • Wash your luggage if need be… although I personally don’t advocate for drug use in any way, if you’ve carried substances in your luggage during your travels, you might want to wash/clean your luggage to remove any potential smells and residues. It won’t be good if customs smell weed on your backpack.
  • Try to pack any goods in an accessible way – it’ll be less annoying for you if customs officers can access them without having to damage the packaging, especially if your goods are gifts your taking back
  • Be honest – as you know, customs officers can scan your luggage, goods and body so just declare anything you need to
  • Have your documents to hand – keep your passport, boarding pass, customs declaration form, all flight details, including proof of onward travel and visa papers, together in your hand luggage or on your person

Top tips for a smooth layover

Anyone who has taken a connecting flight will tell you that the process of going through customs can be stressful. This is especially true if there isn’t much time between landing and having to get your next flight.

These next pointers will help ensure your layover goes as smoothly as possible.

  • Check your itinerary – your flight details should say which terminal your connecting flight leaves from. This will help you plan in advance how to get to the right gate. If you have a minimum connection time, knowing how to get to the gate beforehand can save you precious minutes
  • Give yourself enough time – if you’re booking flights individually, then allow enough time to get through customs. Having at least 2 h between your flights is a good idea
  • Be clear on whether you need to re-check your luggage – it’s not common, but sometimes you need to do it for a connecting flight. Again, your itinerary should make this clear
  • Pack correctly – air travel rules differ between countries. Make sure you know what’s allowed in your luggage when transiting through a country to avoid being searched by customs
  • Try not to stress – some airports have intense customs procedures and others aren’t the best at updating information boards. Follow all customs instructions and ask staff for help if information boards aren’t updating

What to do if you’re running late for a connecting flight

Don’t let panic and stress delay you any further. Follow these next tips for the best chance of making your connection.

  • Speak to airline staff – find the nearest desk for your airline and notify them immediately if you think you’re going to miss your connection. They might be able to hold the flight for a short period
  • Use airport transport services – airports usually have caddies that can cart people to gates. Ask if this is available
  • Fast track customs service – some airports offer fast track lanes through security and immigration for a fee. These can usually be booked online and could help you if your proceeding flight is delayed
  • Check for a priority queue – even if you haven’ booked fast-track customs, you might be able to use a priority queue if you explain to airport staff you’re running late  

Key tips to enjoy your layover after customs

With the hassle of customs out of the way, you can enjoy your layover. Just remember to keep an eye on the time and your departure gate so you don’t have to rush to your connecting flight.

  • Entertainment – pretty much all major airports these days have free WIFI. But just in case there isn’t any, it’s a good idea to have a movie or a few episodes of something downloaded. The departure lounge is also a good time to tuck into a book
  • Browse the shops – shopping at the airport is always expensive, but having a gander can help kill time. You might find some interesting things too.
  • Sleep – if you struggle to sleep on planes, then this is your chance to for a rest before continuing your journey
  • Explore the local area – if your stopover gives you enough time, why not leave the airport and check out the city

More travel tips on A World Over

Do I have to go through customs for a connecting flight? As a general rule, for international connecting flights, yes, but this depends on the airport. For domestic connections, you normally don’t have to clear customs procedures.

Let me know in the comments if my advice has been helpful. Also, what have your experiences of connecting flights been like?

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