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I'm staying over in New York for 4 hours before my next flight that lands again in America. If I do my immigration at New York, can I leave the airport for example to get food, and then just come back 3 hours later and wait for my next flight? Or do I need to wait in the airport until my final flight?

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Yes, you will pass through immigration and customs at your first point of entry when your plane lands in New York. At that point, you have entered the US and you may go wherever you like.

You will probably find, however, that 4 hours isn't that long for a domestic connection. The New York airports are always busy, and you may be waiting for some time to pass through the border checkpoint. Then getting anywhere from the airport takes time, no matter how you choose to travel. You will definitely not have 3 hours spare to wander around.

There are plenty of options for food inside the airport for people in exactly the same situation as you.

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    I've been in this situation (in NY) and done both things: a) left to look around, and b) just stayed in arrivals/departures and chilled. a) ended up being not very interesting and a bit stressful (I can't go through security without getting stressed, they're kind of designed that way). b) was relaxing. Just stay in there. – Max Williams May 1 '18 at 8:58
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    FWIW, every time I've been through Newark Liberty Intl (almost NY!), four hours was more than enough and I did indeed have 3 (long, tedious) hours spare to wander around. However, I believe I was in part lucky and your advice is good in general. – Lightness Races in Orbit May 1 '18 at 9:18
  • @LightnessRacesinOrbit In my experience, Newark does not usually suffer from the same ground traffic congestion as JFK, allowing planes to get to the gate more quickly to unload. Immigration and baggage claim also seem to take less time on average, sometimes significantly less. So your "free time" might easily begin 45 or 60 minutes after a landing in Newark, while it would be unexceptional to take twice as long at JFK. – phoog May 1 '18 at 14:20
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    Walking around NYC in 3 hours is like counting the gravel near the tracks of a bullet train while at full speed. Plus I've seen domestic security take 2 hours or more...even in smaller cities. I'd just stay inside. – cbmeeks May 1 '18 at 14:55
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    Unless you have like 8 hours or more of a wait, don't bother leaving the airport. – Adrian Mann May 2 '18 at 9:04
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In theory, yes, though you may not have enough time.

if I do my immigration at New York

You have no choice about that; you will do immigration there. You'll also need to claim your checked bags, if any, clear customs, and recheck the bags, after which you'll need to pass through TSA security before reaching your gate.

All of this could easily take a couple of hours. It's unlikely to take much less than one. Even reaching the gate to get off the plane can take 30 or 45 minutes at JFK; such times are not at all unusual, and if something exceptional is happening then it can be longer.

Once you've rechecked your bag, nothing keeps you from leaving the airport, but do check the security line to see how long it is before you make any decisions. It takes an hour or more to get to Manhattan, so that's almost certain to be out of the question. If you're arriving at JFK, you might take the A train to the Rockaways and have a stroll on the beach. If you're arriving at Newark, there's not much to do as far as I'm aware.

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    Nope you'll struggle to do anything outside of Newark Liberty without onward (and return) travel - I advise staying in the airport. – Lightness Races in Orbit May 1 '18 at 9:19
  • The only exception is if OP flies through a preclearance airport. – JonathanReez May 1 '18 at 19:58
  • @JonathanReez the question specifies "from the UK," where there are no preclearance airports, but the point is well taken for others who might be traveling from a preclearance airport. – phoog May 1 '18 at 20:22
  • I'd take the airtrain to Jamaica before going to the Rockaways. – axsvl77 May 2 '18 at 3:44
  • Ireland has a couple of airports that can do pre-clearance – PaulG May 2 '18 at 10:17
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You will be able to leave and return again, but bear in mind, you will need to clear security again. You will not however, need to clear customs and immigration. You do that at your first port of entry.

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As the other answers say, you must go through immigration at your point of entry and you can leave the airport in principle. However, there's nowhere to go that's close enough to the airport that you could get there, do something, and get back to the airport in time to catch your connecting flight.

  • Jamaica isn't that far by air train. Can get a slice of pizza and walk around a little. For those of us who miss New York, that would be a great hour. – axsvl77 May 2 '18 at 3:45
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You can leave the airport, but four hours is not that much time, especially as you will need to go through immigration and security (for your connecting flight) in that time. Also, bear in mind that you will need to obtain a visa before flying to New York, unless you qualify for a wavier (I don't know the conditions on this, but all my colleagues from the UK here need to have a visa just to pass through the US between the UK and Mexico).

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    Strange, Isn't pretty much everyone with a British passport, that describers the holders nationality as "British Citizen", eligible to the visa waiver programme? Unless of course they have visited the restricted countries, or have criminal convictions. – Trotski94 May 1 '18 at 9:35
  • I assume this refers to travel authorization from the Electronic System for Travel Authorization, which the U.S. maintains is technically different from a visa. Travel authorization has been required for entry through the Visa Waiver Program since 2009. – Michael Hoffman May 1 '18 at 20:37
  • @MichaelHoffman It would be a very unusual mistake to confuse ESTA and a visa. Almost everybody thinks that "ESTA" means "visa-free entry to the USA" (i.e., what is actually the VWP). – David Richerby May 2 '18 at 8:49
  • returning ESTAs are much faster. if OP is coming in by first-time ESTA to JFK, his mileage may vary between 30 minutes and 4+ hours from debarking to clearance completed. And I'm afraid once they entered the "Non U.S." queue they may not be able to simply abandon the clearance process when they realize its going to take too long to catch their connecting flight. but stopover with final destination in US will require full clearance in JFK anyway... – dlatikay May 2 '18 at 9:01
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    @dlatikay they won't be able to abandon the clearance process in any case. All passengers must clear passport control and customs, even those who are connecting to a flight to another country. – phoog May 2 '18 at 12:41

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