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In Europe usually you don't need to go through immigration to change planes (unless you are entering/exiting Schengen). Is it the case in the US as well? May I catch a connecting flight on one of the US airports if I don't have US visa?

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Shorter version: Yes, you need either a visa or visa waiver (ESTA). Getting the latter can actually take more trouble/money than a proper visa to some other countries (so it's not much of a "waiver"). And yes, you need it even if you merely change planes in the US. Yes, this sucks. –  Jonik Jan 16 '12 at 21:22
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up vote 32 down vote accepted

Unlike many other countries, US airport do not have any form on physical immigration controls when you are departing the country on an international flight. In fact, in most airports there isn't even a concept of an "International" terminal/gate, with the same gates frequently being used for international flights and domestic flights.

As a result of this they can't enforce the concept of a 'transit' passenger - once you're in the departure area, even if you got there on the pretext of catching another international flight out of the country a few hours later, there's nothing to stop you boarding a different domestic flight, or even simply walking out of the airport!

This means that ALL passengers arriving on international flights in the US must have the legal right to enter the US. ie, you must either be a US citizen/green card holder, be from a country that is a part of the US Visa Waiver Program and have a valid ESTA, or have a US Visa.

If you require a Visa then there is a "Transit Visa" (C) available which is normally a little easier to obtain than a normal visa, but you'll still need to go through the full visa application process, including showing proof that you intend to leave the US (almost) immediately.

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I'll second this. I actually have walked out from the international departure gate to an area outside--the plane was very late and I wanted food other than what was available in the terminal. There was no check of any kind on the way out and coming back there was nothing but the normal security you would find in any airport. –  Loren Pechtel Jan 23 '13 at 1:36
    
+1 I flew into the USA from Fiji, landed in LA with New York as my final destination. But I had to go through immigration control in LA, collect my checked-in luggage and check in again to board my flight to NY. –  EdmundYeung99 Mar 17 '13 at 20:24
    
I'm slightly confused. How to they perform immigration control in these cases i.e how do they "know" if I have a visa or not? Is this only the case for transit flights or is this the case for arrivals as well? –  Aditya Somani Mar 27 at 1:41
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@AdityaSomani All arrivals in the US must go through immigration, regardless of whether you are transiting or arriving. There is no way to get to a departing flight from the area where incoming flights arrive except via immigration. –  Doc Mar 27 at 1:59
    
@Doc Ahh I understand now. So basically once you leave the arrival after the immigration you MUST have a transit VISA or any other similar document because the departure lounge is unprotected and you can walk out at ease right? I remember what Loren is talking about in a previous comment quite vividly from one of my own experiences in Atlanta as well. –  Aditya Somani Mar 27 at 2:41
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First of all it depends what nationality you are. I assume you are from a country that is part of the US visa waiver program. In this case you don't need a visa but you do need a travel authorization (ESTA) even if you are only changing planes in the US without leaving the airport.

Source: ESTA-FAQ of the Department of Homeland Security.

So there is no difference between visiting the US for 90 days or just transiting, in both cases you need an ESTA. It currently costs $14 and you can do it online before leaving for the US.

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The accepted answer on this question may also be of interest. –  Ankur Banerjee Jan 16 '12 at 16:11
    
Sadly I am not from a country that is part of the US visa waiver program. So you are saying that unlike in Europe, changing to a connecting flight requires passing through US immigration? –  Grzenio Jan 16 '12 at 16:32
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Yes it does, when you arrive by any plane in the US, you always have to go through US immigration, even if you are just on transit to another country. If you can't do ESTA, you may need a proper visa. Please change your question to include your nationality. –  Peter Hahndorf Jan 16 '12 at 16:51
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ESTA is a visa, never mind what DHS says about it. The only difference is the application process and the price. –  jwenting Jan 18 '12 at 7:05
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Technically the ESTA is NOT a Visa. It's an automated check for people from people counties to determine if they will be admitted without a visa. Whilst this might sound like semantics, there's one significant difference - if you are denied a Visa then you basically have zero recourse, you will not be allowed into the US, and have to declare the fact that your visa application was rejected on all future attempts to obtain a US visa. If you are denied an ESTA then it means that you have to go through the usual Visa application process, but you are not (automatically) denied entry to the US. –  Doc Jan 21 '12 at 18:44
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protected by Ankur Banerjee Jan 22 '13 at 21:57

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