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So I just stumbled across this account of a traveller which I can imagine to be pretty distressing because I myself have had a rather close call not too long ago. I was travelling from Singapore travelling to Switzerland (to which I can travel visa-free) and a recent relaxation of regulation allows me to apply for a residency permit only after landing in Switzerland, instead of having to apply at the Swiss embassy in Singapore. Thus I travelled to the airport without any visa and the airline did not want to let me board because I did not have a swiss residency permit on hand (yet) or a return ticket. However I insisted that based on my own research I shouldn't already need a residency permit to enter the country, but the airline was firm on their stance. I argued with the manager for a while and eventually they let me board after I provided enough evidence that I had sufficient reason to be living in Switzerland and as a result I almost missed my flight.

My question is, to what extent do airlines have the right to reject people from boarding due to immigration issues at the destination country? My logic is that even if I landed in Switzerland without a residency permit and don't manage to acquire the necessary documents then, it should be the responsibility of the Swiss immigrations to kick me out of their country, and not the airline's (which isn't even swiss airlines)?

Anyway, it turned out in the end that I acquired my residence documents successfully in the country, so the airline would have done me a great disservice had they successfully barred me from boarding the plane.

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    I feel the two answers so far are practical, but don't address the underlying question: What recourse does a passenger have if the airline's judgment on this is wrong? I doubt it's truly "absolutely none". For example, if the airline denies boarding due to overbooking, they usually have to provide compensation. If they deny boarding due to immigration issues, they may not even have to refund the airfare. So could an airline solve an overbooking problem by falsely claiming there are immigration issues? What prevents such abuse? – krubo Jul 1 at 7:54
  • Yes, thank you for pointing this out. I realise after writing, that this question is actually the heart of what i was trying to get at. – Zhanfeng Lim Jul 1 at 7:57
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    @krubo: The airlines rely on an automated system whose rules are provided by the governments themselves. So, in this particular case, the Swiss government has put a rule in the automated system that tells the airlines they are not allowed to let someone without a residency permit board. There's really not much the airline can do about that. – Jörg W Mittag Jul 1 at 10:52
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    @Jörg W Mittag. I suppose I didn't word my question properly. I was not so much asking whether they have the right; its their plane of course they do, rather to what extent this right extends. E.g. of course an airline has the right to deny a passenger from boarding purely based on skin colour. But I'm sure that they may be facing legal issues afterward should the passenger sue. So yea, my question was more on the recourse. – Zhanfeng Lim Jul 1 at 11:43
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    If you "didn't word my question properly," then why not edit it? – WGroleau Jul 1 at 20:16
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Airlines, in general, have an absolute right to deny boarding. But in the case of immigration issues, they frequently have an obligation to check whether passengers can be admitted to the destination. Many countries will levy fines on airlines who deliver a passenger to their border who is lacking required documents.

Every country implements this differently, but it is common practice that airlines must either take responsibility for removing the inadmissable passenger, at their own expense, or pay a fee or fine to the government if they're unable to do so.

In Switzerland, the law is as follows:

Air carriers transporting persons must take all reasonable measures to ensure that they only transport persons who possess the required travel documents, visas and residence documents to enter the Schengen area or to travel through international transit zones of the airports.

  1. The air carrier is obliged at the request of the competent federal or cantonal authorities to provide immediate assistance to any passengers that it is carrying who are denied entry to the Schengen area.
  2. The obligation to provide assistance covers:
    1. the immediate transport of the person concerned from Switzerland to their country of origin, to the state issuing the travel documents or to another state where their admission is guaranteed;
    2. the uncovered costs of the required attendance as well as the customary subsistence and care costs until departure from or entry into Switzerland.
  3. If the air carrier is unable to provide evidence that it has fulfilled its duty of care, it must additionally bear
    1. the uncovered subsistence and care costs that have been covered by the Confederation or the canton for a period of stay of up to six months, including the costs for detention under the law on foreign nationals;
    2. the attendance costs;
    3. the deportation costs.
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    @ZhanfengLim Airlines use databases of entry requirements to assess whether passengers should be allowed to board. To be honest, since you are eligible for visa free travel to Switzerland, I'm surprised you were denied boarding the first time (and it seems to have been a mistake or misunderstanding of the entry requirements). With your residence permit you are certainly eligible for entry, so the airline has no risk of being required to remove you. Of course, I can't guarantee how things will go for you. – MJeffryes Jun 30 at 13:58
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    A subtle but important point: this answer's lead paragraph speaks of travelers who are "ineligible for entry," but the law actually only considers the question of whether travelers "possess the required travel documents, visas and residence documents." This distinction is significant because it means that the airlines don't have to look past the documents into travelers' purpose of travel or, more intrusively, other private matters such as criminal history. If someone with a visa is denied because of criminal history, the airline is not liable for a fine. – phoog Jun 30 at 14:06
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    @MJeffryes All of the neighboring countries are also in the Schengen Area. You will normally be put back on a plane and flown back to your point of origin if you're denied entry at an airport (not just in Switzerland, but almost anywhere.) For the Schengen Area, they'll normally want to see a return ticket leaving the Schengen Area, since the whole thing is effectively considered one big country for purposes of immigration control. – reirab Jun 30 at 21:54
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    "Airlines, in general, have an absolute right to deny boarding." Airlines face hefty fines for significant delays is boarding, and yet you're claiming that they face no impediment to flat-out refusing boarding? This clearly needs further qualificantion. – Acccumulation Jul 1 at 0:50
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    @Acccumulation I didn't say there would not be any consequences for denying boarding. They may be required to refund and/or compensate you. But having a ticket doesn't mean you can force them to let you board. In most jurisdictions, the captain has ultimate authority over who is allowed on the aircraft. – MJeffryes Jul 1 at 8:18
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To give you an idea of what the airline agent is looking at in the airport, here's a Timatic web interface which United Airlines provide:

enter image description here

And once you click on the Check button, you will get:

enter image description here

Note that if you change the "Ticket" field to "Return ticket held", the admission summary changes from "No" to "Conditional".

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My question is, to what extent do airlines have the right to reject people from boarding due to immigration issues at the destination country?

They have all the rights. The airplane is their own private property. They don't need any justification to deny you boarding, they can allow or not allow anyone to enter their private property, as they please.

Yes, you did enter into a transportation contract with them, but the fine print in that contract will say something like this.

My logic is that even if I landed in Switzerland without a residency permit and don't manage to acquire the necessary documents then, it should be the responsibility of the Swiss immigrations to kick me out of their country, and not the airline's (which isn't even swiss airlines)?

That is not correct. According to international treaties, it is the responsibility of the airline to ensure that you will be admitted into the country. In case you are denied entry, the airline has to both pay a hefty fine and return you to the airport of origin at their cost. (Although note that the transportation contract with you will also specify that they will recover the fine and this cost from you.)

If you had been denied entry, the airline would have had to pay a fine on the order of 10000$, and fly you back. They then, in turn, would have charged you with 10000$ + the cost of the return ticket, and they would have been completely within their rights to do so.

[…] a recent relaxation of regulation allows me to apply for a residency permit only after landing in Switzerland

Airline gate agents are not international immigration lawyers. They don't have the recent relaxations of all 41412 combinations of origin and destination countries memorized.

They rely on an automated system called Timatic which simply tells them "Yes" or "No". The information in Timatic is maintained based on information from the destination country. So, in this case, Switzerland has put into Timatic that entering without residency permit is not allowed, and that's the only information the gate agent has at their disposal.

I argued with the manager for a while and eventually they let me board after I provided enough evidence that I had sufficient reason to be living in Switzerland and as a result I almost missed my flight.

You were lucky.

Moral of the story: Don't rely on gate agents being aware of every recent change in every immigration law of every country. Make life easy for them.

Even if you are right, arguing the fact that you are right may almost certainly take longer than the airplane is going to wait for you.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Willeke Jul 2 at 16:45
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