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In a question about travel to Puerto Rico Michael Hampton writes the following:

Note also that you should bring your green card and passport if you travel to or from Puerto Rico or the US Virgin Islands. While this is a purely domestic flight, and it is not strictly required for you to have your passport, if the flight has an emergency it may need to divert to an airport at an island which is not part of the USA. You will need your travel documents if this happens.

Are there historical examples of this happening, either in Puerto Rico or elsewhere? Presumably most passengers on the plane will have no passports in this case and would thus be ineligible to enter under default circumstances. Is it thus recommended to take a passport if your flight goes over foreign territory?

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For what it's worth, I once was in a similar situation myself. I was on a flight from USA to UK, which had to make an emergency landing in Canada (and we spent about 24 hours in Canada before proceeding to the UK).

While I had a USA passport, more than half of the passengers would have required a visa to enter Canada. Those who needed a visa were separated out and processed very thoroughly. As we landed on a military base (it was a genuine emergency - fire onboard), we were housed in the army barracks. Those who would need a visa were housed in a separate area and were warned not to attempt to leave the base. Their movements were very limited for these 24 hours.

To "separate out", once we got out of the aircraft, they called by passport countries, i.e. "Passengers with USA passports, please step this way; passengers with Thai passports please step this way, etc."

Those of us that didn't need a visa to visit Canada were given freedom to move pretty much anywhere apart from areas marked as restricted. We could leave the base if wanted to, although we were advised that it was a few km to the nearest town and that polar bears had been spotted nearby, so it may not be very safe to walk.

When we finally boarded the plan the next day, they made sure that we were all onboard. They did announce that we would not be allowed to leave if at least one of the passengers were not present.

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  • That could have been a disaster if one of the polar bears made it on the base :-( – gnasher729 Sep 29 at 0:01
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A real life example of this occurred on Sept 11 2001 when hundreds of planes destined for the US were forced to land in other countries, mainly Canada. While almost all would have had passports, many would not have had permission to enter Canada.

The procedure was that each entrant was processed by officials, details were taken and each given emergency permission to enter. In a genuine emergency it would seem likely that a similar procedure would be followed. It would be very unlikely that person wishing to enter a country illegally would happen to be on a flight that was diverted there.

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    How many of those diversions were domestic flights though? I'm sure there were a few (like my Alaska/Vancouver comment under the Q, and perhaps something like SEA-BOS which on a great circle passes over Canada) but most were presumably international flights – Chris H Sep 25 at 11:43
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    None were domestic that I know of. But I wanted to give a real life example of what happens when a flight lands somewhere it isn't supposed to. I doubt the process would be significantly different for a diverted domestic flight. Many of the passengers wouldn't have passports, but they would have some form of ID. Having a passport would help, hence the recommendation in the question. – DJClayworth Sep 25 at 12:42
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    Well, then there's always this: apnews.com/article/23590f00ba6ce40c24517dfe631edf2b – Marianne013 Sep 25 at 15:33
  • My partner and I LOVED this musical about those planes being diverted into Canada and the community that happened there in the airport: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Come_from_Away – Ryan Sep 27 at 0:42
  • Came here to talk about this one. Gander will be forever famous for it. – Mark Mayo Sep 28 at 1:35
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Good summary from https://www.tripadvisor.com/ShowTopic-g1-i10702-k13222947-o10-Plane_diverted_visa_question-Air_Travel.html:

Depends on circumstances, the duration of stay, the infrastructure of the airport and the flexibility and availability of immigration.

Worst case: passenger will stay in a separate room at the airport.

Best case: the receive a visa (eg. transit visa) or a solution is find to let the passenger temporary into the country.

The same link contains a few people sharing their experience, e.g.:

 I encountered the overnight situation once before. All the passengers were put up in a hotel near the airport. Those of us with permission to enter the country went through normal immigration and got on the hotel bus. The others were escorted as a group to the bus but their passports were taken and held till the next day (not sure who actually had the passports, hotel, airline, authorities). Those of us who had passports could go outside the hotel, those without were not allowed out.

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  • I'm not sure there is a boat from the mainland to PR, except perhaps for cruises. But you'd need a passport there too, AFAIK. And an emergency isn't the only concern; a flight may divert simply for bad weather at the destination. – Michael Hampton Sep 25 at 2:22
  • @MichaelHampton definitely (the diversion case happened to me more than once). Personally I'm taking my passport simply in case I have to fly somewhere else outside the US unexpectedly. – Franck Dernoncourt Sep 25 at 4:19
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    Boats can also divert to islands in case of emergencies. – gerrit Sep 25 at 7:58
  • @MichaelHampton there MUST be boats, because of the Jones Act. Will they take passengers? Don't know. – Harper - Reinstate Monica Sep 25 at 21:30
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The case I am about to write is not regarding a domestic flight - but still I will write my two-cents. Basically @Franck-Demoncourt 's answer sums up the answer and some scenarios, one of them is titled as : worst-case.

I would like to offer even a worse one, where a certain plane of a certain country actually lands for some reason in a third-party country which is friendly to the Airplane's origin country but hostile to some of the passenger's Country and passport.

This is not just a theoretical situation as it happened to one of my colleagues.

In such a case, to my understanding - the world conventions state that the Crew of the plane ( basically - the pilot / captain ) must offer the affected passengers the option to stay on the plane and the captain / pilot ( highest grade officer in charge ) also have the obligation to stay with them if the passengers choose so in order to offer protection ( the plane itself is considered a territory of the plane's origin country )

As said before - this is not directly an answer to the question that is about domestic flights and lack of passports - but still I thought it is a good chance to give this example also in order for people to know that:

  • A this can happen.
  • B What to do in this situation as regarding to your rights as a passenger.

P.S

I will try to find reference for the convention mentioned or the rules implied and I will post if I can find them. If anyone else have the source for these - please feel free to post / edit this answer..

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    Datapoint. I'm not saying what you said is wrong - but it seems the US doesn't always care: re " ...the plane itself is considered a territory of the plane's origin country. -> A person wanted in the US took a flight that went from Canada to Mexico but transited US airspace. The aircraft was required to land in the US and the person was removed and arrested. – Russell McMahon Sep 25 at 11:33
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    I am pretty sure that 'the plane itself is considered a territory of the plane's origin country' is just a common myth. When airborne it is true, but when landed, a plane is subject to local legislation just as anything else. The Chicago Convention on International Civil Aviation even explicitely grants access for local authorities to any plane landed in a foreign country. – Tor-Einar Jarnbjo Sep 25 at 13:23
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    @RussellMcMahon the US and Canada have an extradition treaty, meaning that the US can (and does) ask Canadian agencies to arrest people within Canadian borders for them (and vice-versa). This is so a criminal in one country can't escape to the other to avoid consequences. So the US was able to get a Canadian plane to land, but I'm not sure it would have been successful (and maybe they wouldn't have even bothered to make a request) if it was with a plane from a country they didn't have good political relations with. – Alexandre Aubrey Sep 25 at 17:13
  • @AlexandreAubrey the plane requires US permission to fly through US airspace. No airline is going to jeopardize its future ability to fly over the US by refusing an order to land. Furthermore, refusing such an order would probably lead to the flight being intercepted by military aircraft. – phoog Sep 26 at 4:09
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    I won't try to imagine the nightmare of an Israeli airplane being forced to land in Iran, judging from the poor relationships between the countries. – usr-local-ΕΨΗΕΛΩΝ Sep 27 at 21:56
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Here is a real example from 2 years ago.

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/14/world/europe/air-france-flight-siberia.html

Air France Paris -> Shanghai emergency landed in Irkutsk. The Russians were accommodating but the rescue plane sent from France broke again because of freezing hydraulics, requiring another one from China. The passengers were not allowed to exit the airport and were stuck in Siberia, during winter, for 3 days.

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