Take the 2-minute tour ×
Travel Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for road warriors and seasoned travelers. It's 100% free, no registration required.

Given the extensive time taken for immigration formalities in the US, what is the shortest time to consider between connecting flights in the US, when coming from abroad?

Until now I have always entered the US at my destination. This is not always the cheapest option. I was told that 3 hours is the advised time to go through immigration and boarding of a connecting flight. Online booking sites still offer connecting flights, with a transfer times sometimes even less then 1 hour.

share|improve this question
1  
It will make a big difference whether you are a US citizen or not so you should mention this. –  hippietrail Jul 12 '11 at 7:28
    
I have added a tag non-citizen –  andra Jul 12 '11 at 10:49
add comment

5 Answers

up vote 18 down vote accepted

There is an official "minimum connecting time" for each airport. For international airports, there are usually separate "minimum connecting times" specified for domestic to domestic, domestic to international, international to domestic, and international to international. At larger airports there may even be longer minimum connecting times when you are changing airlines.

Believe it or not, the data is not readily available online. Here are some places to find an official minimum connecting time, sorted in order from most authoritative to least authoritative:

  1. The official source is the IATA, which publishes the Airline Coding Directory, which costs hundreds of dollars.

  2. A much cheaper way to get the same data is to get the Official Airline Guide. Since minimum connecting times don't change very often, I recommend just buying one copy of an outdated OAG Pocket Flight Guide on ebay for a couple of bucks.

  3. Call any airline involved in your itinerary. Tell them you would like to know the minimum connecting time for the airport in question. They'll know exactly what you're talking about and look it up for you.

  4. Airlines sometimes publish minimum connecting times on their websites or in their timetables, usually only useful when you are connecting on the same airline. But if you are connecting on the same airline, you don't have to worry about this, because they will not book you on a connection which is shorter than the minimum connecting time.

Remember that minimum connecting times are only estimates. Your first flight might be late. US Immigration may be overloaded. The airport train may break down. The security check in for the second flight may be really long.

Due to all the steps involved, international to domestic transfers are always terrible and should be avoided if at all possible. You are literally better off transferring through a third country that has good international->international connections (Vancouver, Amsterdam, and London Heathrow Terminal 5 are all great for international to international) if that allows you to enter the US at your final destination.

So for example if you're travelling from Europe to Detroit, you're WAY better off changing planes in Amsterdam than at JFK. If you're travelling from Seoul to San Diego, you're WAY better off changing in Vancouver than SFO or LAX. Etc.

Like everything, "IT DEPENDS," so please feel free to ask a more specific question -- at the very least we need to know what airport you're connecting at and which airlines you're using.

share|improve this answer
add comment

Most US airports (IAD, DTW, JFK, ATL, etc.) have separate terminals for international and domestic flights - arrivals and departures. And more often than not, the two terminals are separated by at least a (internal) transit ride. Moreover, in addition to the immigration lines, all international transit passengers are required to collect their baggage AND clear customs. The former is highly unpredictable... So, considering -

 1. Alighting the aircraft
 2. Immigration
 3. Baggage Collection
 4. Customs
 5. Re-deposition of baggage for the onwards flight, and
 6. Making your way to the "domestic" terminal,

I would budget at least 3 hours between your connections.

share|improve this answer
1  
It varies significantly between airports. Also, if you don't check in any luggage, you can skip claim and re-check (and shorten the customs check), so it saves up to an hour. –  dbkk Jul 13 '11 at 18:23
add comment

Just to be clear are you talking about a single ticket or buying two separate tickets? If you have a single ticket with an international segment followed by a domestic segment, the airline will accommodate you on the next flight if the international procedures (immigration, customs, etc.) take too long and you miss your connecting domestic flight. Of course the next flight could be much later or full, but you will get there eventually. If you are buying separate tickets there is no guarantee at all that you can board the next flight if you miss your connection. In general, I wouldn't try to schedule a very tight international connection, but if your connecting domestic destination has frequent flights, it may not be too risky.

share|improve this answer
add comment

At least at JFK when you land you can get some vouchers (don't remember how they are actually called) that allow you to skip the immigration line if you have a connecting flight. Don't know if it's the case in other (smaller) airports. In this case all the immigration formalities (provided there are no issues) shouldn't take more than 20-30 minutes.

I haven't tried this myself, but when we were landing (flying in from Europe) flight attendants informed us that we can get these vouchers and go through a separate short queue for passengers going to connecting flights. I saw a sign for this at the immigration check and there was no line there whatsoever as opposed to a huge line for general public. This definitely applies to non-US citizens and I think to US citizens too. It's just a separate line that in the end goes to the same immigration officers. You are just allowed to cut the standard line through a separate entry because you have a ticket to your next flight.

Edit: Just checked and this was in Terminal 4 of JFK in April, 2011.

share|improve this answer
1  
Is this for non-US citizens too? –  Ankur Banerjee Jul 12 '11 at 9:09
    
Yes. In JFK (don't recall the exact terminal) there was a general line (which was looong) and a separate sign for people going to connecting flights. On the plane from Europe the flight attendants told us that we can pick up some vouchers (or something like that) to go through that special queue. Haven't tried it myself, but saw the sign and people going through it. –  Alan Mendelevich Jul 12 '11 at 10:16
    
@hippietrail: done –  Alan Mendelevich Jul 12 '11 at 11:07
1  
The BA terminal at JFK (9) didn't have this when I flew in very recently, so it's certainly not everywhere there. Good job I'd allowed 3 hours to connect, as it took 1.5 hours to get through immigration and customs! –  Gagravarr Jul 12 '11 at 11:49
add comment

Beware that sometimes the airlines have some stupid minimum connection times. More than once I've been offered a totally impossible connection on an international to domestic situation. The limiting factor for me has actually been baggage, not immigration.

You always have to claim your checked baggage at the first point of arrival and carry it through customs. You can then generally drop it (it will already be properly tagged) on a belt somewhere near the door you come out of customs.

Note that this means you have to wait for your bag (it's about 50/50 whether I get to the carousel before my bags--note that you have already cleared immigration at that point) pass through customs (usually very quick but occasionally they're picky as I'm normally coming from a country of concern to the ag people) and get it on that belt outside before the cutoff for checking bags for your connecting flight.

There have been multiple times I could have made the close flight (I walked by the gate where it was going to board) but I couldn't have gotten my bag on it.

Note, also, that you always exit customs into the non-sterile area. This means you have to clear security before you get your next flight. These days that can be a substantial delay.

I will never consider anything less than 2 hours on international -> domestic. I've had the computers book connections as close as 70 minutes.

share|improve this answer
add comment

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.