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I'm interested in finding out a little history on how International Transit has worked historically in the US. I know that the current situation is that transit is not permitted and all passengers must enter the US prior to transiting, but I am wondering if it has always been that way.

The thing that piqued my interest into this question was arriving into Tampa International Airport, and walking past a room (in the International Arrivals corridor toward Customs/Immigration) with a door labelled "In Transit Passenger Waiting Area". This room was full of junk, and obviously not in use; but it implies it was in use at one point!

Does anyone know what this room would have been used for in the past, and how transit worked before the rules presumably changed? Also, how many other airports had/have similar "rooms"/areas?

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  • presumably it worked more or less the way it works in other countries around the world, no?
    – njzk2
    Nov 23 at 21:59
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    @njzk2 Not quite. Many airports outside the US are built with the international departures area in a secure concourse, usually after an exit immigration checkpoint, where the only ways to exit the terminal are to either board a flight or go through immigration. US airports didn't, and still don't, generally have that separation: anyone on the concourse can just walk out the exit at any time and be in the US. So as jcaron notes, US international-to-international transits didn't work like other airports: passengers were monitored and escorted to special waiting areas instead of being let loose. Nov 24 at 3:00
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International sterile transit used to exist about 20 years ago in quite a few US airports. You'll find a few references to it in this thread from 2001 on Flyertalk, though even at the time, it was considered quite the exception rather than the norm, apparently.

Note that is was quite different from sterile transit as you know it in quite a few other locations. Passengers in transit were escorted to a waiting area until the time of departure of their next flight, and were escorted to it as well. No waiting in the departures area, access to shops and restaurants, lounges, etc. Passports were kept by staff during the first flight and the duration of transit. Similar schemes exist nowadays for passengers of some nationalities in some countries, like Mexico.

This press release from 2003 tells us sterile transit, known as the International-to-International transit program (ITI), and TWOV (transit without visa) which went with it, were stopped quite abruptly at 11:00 a.m. EDT, Saturday August 2, 2003. It was so abrupt that the regulation has exceptions for passengers already in flight when it takes effect!

The idea (in the wake of 9/11) was probably to partially close the loophole of TWOV which allowed people from unfriendly countries to board a flight to the US with very little checks (they now need a visa and all the associated scrutiny). This was later extended to friendly countries with the introduction of ESTA.

Since it's been nearly 20 years I'm a bit surprised there's still visible signage left from back then!

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  • There have been cases of international transit without requiring entry to the U.S. much more recently than 2003. One example I happen to remember off hand was the Korean Air service to Brazil, which had a stop at LAX. All passengers disembarked at LAX, but those continuing on to Brazil waited in a special waiting area rather than clearing immigration prior to boarding the onward service to Sao Paulo. This service lasted until 2016.
    – reirab
    Nov 24 at 4:40
  • "Passports were kept by staff during the first flight and the duration of transit." - WHAT? I am sure I missed something, but back then, passengers in transit would have to surrender their passport? Wow
    – BruceWayne
    Nov 24 at 14:27
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    @BruceWayne Passengers in transit using the TWOV (transit without visa) ITI (international-to-international) scheme, i.e. for passengers who would normally need a visa to enter the US but didn't have one. Passengers with a visa or visa waiver (and of course US citizens and PRs) were able to use the normal system (the same we know of today). Note that the surrender password-and-be-escorted system still currently exists in some countries like Mexico (again, for people who would need a visa but don't have one).
    – jcaron
    Nov 24 at 14:32
  • @jcaron that's interesting, thanks!!
    – BruceWayne
    Nov 24 at 14:33
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    @BruceWayne: it was way more convenient than having to apply and pay for a visa. Nov 25 at 11:47
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A little bit more history:

My first two flights (60's-70's) from Europe to the US required "fueling stops" since at the time you couldn't make it from Frankfurt to Los Angeles in a single go. One was in Bangor, Maine and the other in Winnipeg, Canada. In either case, passengers had to get off the plane were corralled in segregated area until the plane was ready to leave again.

With the advent of long range planes, that went away as well.

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    I've always liked the story of a German brewery worker who misunderstood one of these stops in Bangor, Maine in the 70s and wandered off into town thinking he had already arrived at his destination of San Francisco, spending a few days walking around very confused, and eventually becoming a bit of a 15 minute celebrity for the mistake. Nov 24 at 2:10
  • @ZachLipton to be fair, most of us have done that in a lift/elevator wrong-floor moment at some point.
    – Criggie
    Nov 24 at 23:42

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