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I'm a Dutch citizen, and on September, right as Canada begins allowing foreign tourists, I plan to fly there for a much-desired holiday. The affordable flight connections however all require me to change planes in the US, mostly in Chicago.

The US does not allow entry for non-essential reasons, and it is unlikely they will by September. They specify that on pages like this one. I do not plan on leaving the airport however, or doing anything besides getting to the plane for Canada. If I have a negative covid test (as this page specifies), and an ESTA (as this page specifies), will I be allowed to change planes in Chicago?

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    No, not until the US removes the visitor travel ban. Please let us know which travel engines/airline sites do/don't detect this (based on your citizenship and visa status) and warn you they can't sell you the ticket.
    – smci
    Aug 24 at 4:04
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    @smci All of them, by my experience? I have mostly used Skyscanner and Kiwi.com but none of them allow me to switch off certain countries. Some warn for covid restrictions but only display those in Canada, not the USA.
    – KeizerHarm
    Aug 24 at 7:07
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The US has never generally disallowed entry by air for non-essential reasons. Only entry by land to the US is limited to essential travel (the current order is here for the Canadian border and here for the Mexican border). Foreign tourists are now able to (and have been able to any time during the COVID-19 pandemic) enter the US by air, as long as they have not been physically present in Mainland China, Iran, the Schengen Area, the UK, Ireland, Brazil, South Africa, or India in the previous 14 days, and get a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours of boarding the flight.

You have not mentioned where you have been present in the last 14 days. You only said that you are a Dutch citizen, but there is no ban based on nationality. If you are a Dutch citizen who has not been in one of the above geographical areas in the past 14 days (or will spend 14 days in a country not in one of the above areas before going to the US), you can get a COVID-19 test and fly to the US to visit or transit with no problem. However, if you will have been in one of the above geographical areas (including in the Netherlands, which is in the Schengen Area) in the 14 days before traveling to the US, you cannot enter the US as a nonimmigrant right now unless you fall into one of the exceptions in the ban (and the exceptions are much more narrow than "essential reasons"). See for example the Schengen Area ban for more details on the exceptions. There are some additional exceptions mentioned here.)

Transiting the US always requires immediately entering the US for immigration purposes, even if you do not leave the airport. If you are unable to enter the US, you are unable to transit the US.

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    Thanks for the answer. The geography ban and the tourism ban (apparently land-based) must have been mixed up in my head - and I didn't realise that transiting always requires entering. But that distinction has interesting implications: I am planning to stay in Canada for three weeks, so I could transit the US on the return flight.
    – KeizerHarm
    Aug 21 at 21:33
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    And in case OP is wondering - yes, these restrictions make absolutely no sense whatsoever.
    – JonathanReez
    Aug 22 at 1:03
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    They made sense when they were introduced, but the US has utterly failed to update it's restrictions to reflect the changing situation in the world in general. Aug 22 at 14:10
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    @PeterGreen requiring someone to go through Immigration & CBP just to transit makes no sense to me. I didn't have to do that anywhere on our trip from the US to Europe (except when we took a wrong turn in Frankfurt), but I'm no foreign travel expert.
    – FreeMan
    Aug 22 at 14:35
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    @FreeMan There's a lengthy history that goes back decades, but some of the high points are: The US has very little international traffic compared to domestic traffic. Before 9/11 it was possible for someone of nearly any nationality to show up and transit without a visa, and overall, immigration and customs checks were much more relaxed. Security was jacked up, but traveler convenience was not really considered. The US has been taking baby steps toward sterile transit. Some newer airports are already designed for it, and some pilot programs are expected later this decade. > Aug 22 at 17:37
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No, there is no transit exception to the travel ban for travellers from the Schengen area. Transiting at a U.S. airport requires you to be admitted into the U.S. as separate international transit areas like in some other countries are not available.

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    Somehow I assumed that airports had that by default, that after customs you are essentially in terra nullius... thank you for the straight answer.
    – KeizerHarm
    Aug 21 at 21:22
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    @KeizerHarm Most of our airports were built when there wasn't much in the way of international transit and aren't built to isolate transit passengers. I have walked from an international departure gate to open air with no hindrance, and later returned encountering nothing more than normal aviation security. I also walked from that same gate to a domestic gate and back with no hindrance at all. Aug 22 at 1:25
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    @KeizerHarm The US doesn't have exit immigration or exit customs checks, so there's no "after customs" for international departures.
    – cpast
    Aug 22 at 3:14
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    @Vikki I believe the setup OP expects is for there to be a concourse dedicated to international arrivals and departures, with one customs and immigration checkpoint in between the concourse and the rest of the airport. This allows people to arrive on one international flight and leave on another without needing a visa for the country hosting the airport. I know this setup is common for big airports in the EU and I wouldn't be surprised if it's common elsewhere as well. However, in the USA it is unheard of and possibly not even legal.
    – zwol
    Aug 22 at 21:33
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    @zwol To be clear, I would not expect that of smaller regional airports - but I did for big ports like Newark or O'Hare, which my ticket booking website actually connects me through to get to Montreal. I have made international transits before in places like Dubai, and Covid was the only reason I even bothered looking up US transit rules. I never expected a booking site to guide me through a place I may not be allowed to set foot in even if there were no pandemic!
    – KeizerHarm
    Aug 22 at 22:21
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To answer the question, as others have said, No, you generally can't do international-to-international transit in the U.S. without clearing entry immigration inspection and, thus, entering the United States. (There have existed a handful of narrow exceptions to this over the years, such as for passengers continuing on a fifth-freedom flight to another third country on the same aircraft, but these are relatively rare special cases.)

Why is the U.S. different from most other countries in this regard?

U.S. airports (generally) have no sterile (from an immigration standpoint) departures area. Anyone in the area from which flights depart can simply leave the airport without any sort of checkpoint whatsoever. The reason for this is that domestic-to-international connecting passengers are far more common in the U.S. than international-to-international ones. This is mostly because of how large the U.S. is (by both geography and population) and how far from other countries most of it is.

For domestic-to-international connections, the U.S. setup is actually much more efficient. You can walk off of a domestic flight within the U.S. and walk right onto a departing international flight without going through any sort of checkpoint whatsoever (immigration, customs, security, or otherwise.) Indeed, domestic and international flights frequently depart from the exact same gates. There is no exit immigration control in the U.S. You just show your passport as you're boarding the departing flight and the airline sends the manifest to immigration. This is great for domestic-to-international connections, making them very easy for passengers. It's also great for departing passengers in general, as they can access all of the restaurants, lounges, shops, etc. in the terminal regardless of whether their flight is domestic or international.

However, the fact that domestic flights arrive and depart from the same area that international flights leave from means that that area is necessarily inside the country from an immigration standpoint, not outside it like in countries that have exit immigration control and sterile international departures halls. Thus, you have to have already been legally admitted to the U.S. to access that area.

Unfortunately, countries essentially have a choice of inconveniencing domestic-to-international passengers or inconveniencing international-to-international passengers. The large international airports in most countries choose the former because most countries are much smaller than the U.S. and/or are located much more closely to other populous countries than the U.S., thus have a much larger share of international-to-international connecting passengers vs. domestic-to-international ones. However, the situation in the U.S. is quite the opposite with far more domestic-to-international passengers than international-to-international ones, so the opposite choice is made.

Additional Benefit: Preclearance Facilities

As a side note, the setup in the U.S. also enables a convenient feature for passengers flying to the U.S.: immigration pre-clearance facilities located in other countries. Most major airports in Canada and several other airports around the world that have a significant number of flights to the U.S. have U.S. immigration facilities on-site, allowing passengers departing on flights to the U.S. to clear U.S. immigration control before boarding. Their flights then arrive in the U.S. as if they were domestic flights, allowing passengers to immediately board other flights or exit the airport with no further immigration, customs, or security controls.

Aside from passengers not having to stand around in more queues after arriving, this also has another very convenient benefit: airports with preclearance facilities can have flights to U.S. airports that don't have immigration control facilities at all or outside of the operating hours for those facilities, enabling non-stop flights between major airports in places like Canada and the Caribbean to small/medium market U.S. airports.

Such a program would not be possible if the flights might include passengers planning onward connections to a third country without authorization to enter the U.S. For example, an Algerian national without a U.S. visa couldn't fly from Toronto to Algiers via JFK on a precleared flight, since they would not be able to clear U.S. entry immigration in Toronto prior to boarding the flight.

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