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We are flying from Japan to Mexico City and have an 11-hour layover in Los Angeles (LAX). Our friend is willing to come pick us up to hang out for a few hours but we are unclear if we are allowed to leave the airport if we are connecting for international flights.

Our baggage will be checked all the way through and we wonder if leaving through customs without taking our bags will signal some sort of warning/alarm.

We are flying Malaysia Air from Japan and then Alaska Air from LAX. We are also American citizens.

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See this other question we have on the site. Short answer: yes, you can, since you are always required to clear US customs and immigration, even if you have landed in USA on route to somewhere else. Seeing that you are american citizens, you don't require a visa and that shouldn't be a problem. –  mindcorrosive May 5 '13 at 5:54
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If you are a US citizen:

Yes you can, when arriving at the US from any international flight you have to go through immigrations, then pick up your bags and go through customs, after that you will be able to leave and come back enough time before your connecting flight.

If you are a non-US citizen:

In addition to the above information, you will be on a transit (C1) visa, which means your admission to the US while on transit might not be granted, if granted by the immigration officer then you can go out of the airport and have a tour or so. Just remember not to exceed the allowed time mentioned in your visa or decided by the immigration officer.

From immihelp.com:

A transit visa is particularly very useful if you need to change airports in the U.S. Even if you don't need to change the airport, if there is a long delay before you can board your flight to the final destination, instead of waiting in the airport, you can get out and tour the nearby places, visit friends or family members, or do shopping.

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@JiminyCricket, I did not notice that you mentioned your nationality at the end of your question so I added both cases. –  user1712 May 5 '13 at 9:08
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1) Non-US citizens in transit are not necessarily on C1 visas. Most will likely be on VWP, and those that aren't could be on any other form of visa. 2) I've never heard of anyone being granted "transit" but not being granted "admission to the US". Do you have a reference for that? Given how US immigration works it doesn't seem to make sense. –  Doc May 6 '13 at 23:34
    
@Doc that's what the official websites says.. not me. I would appreciate it if you can improve the answer :) –  user1712 May 6 '13 at 23:53
    
@Doc one more thing, do you have an access to the immigration database? how do you know that all transit visa holders are granted access? while the official website says the opposite? –  user1712 May 7 '13 at 0:27
    
Can you provide a URL to the "official websites" you're referring to? I didn't say "transit visa holders" were granted access. The US doesn't have a concept of a sterile transit area like most countries - if you're in transit, you have access to the country. Feel free to post any official sites that say otherwise. –  Doc May 11 '13 at 20:16
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