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One annoying thing about flying to the US from abroad is the need to stand in a long line at the check-in kiosks so that your immigration status could be verified. In some cases I’ve even seen airline require US citizens to stand in the same line. None of this of course makes any sense as all visas/ESTA can be verified in advance via CBPs electronic systems and you could then check passports directly at the gate.

Are there airlines that are more sane for US-bound flights and issue online boarding passes for most passengers? In my particular case I’m a Green Card holder, which should be a particularly easy visa scenario.

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    You could check passports at the gate, but what if they are not in order, or there is some other subtle problem? At the check-in desk, there is more time to investigate or resolve any issues. At the gate, the staff has to either make a snap decision or delay the flight's departure. Also, I am not sure if gate staff get the same training on verifying immigration documents and eligibility. Jun 20 at 20:03
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    I suppose you could single out Air Canada, Westjet, Aer Lingus, Etihad, Bahamas Air, etc, for which all or most of their US-bound flights are from preclearance airports. Jun 20 at 20:07

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United Airlines will absolutely let a US Permanent Resident (Green Card holder) check-in online for a flight to the US - although it is not always successful.

For this to be successful you will need to meet a few conditions.

  • United will have to have "scanned" your current passport on a previous trip. This could be that they have physically seen your passport at a check-in counter, or could be that you have scanned the passport at a United Check-in Kiosk. It's possible that using their mobile app to scan the passport is also sufficient, but I'm not sure of that.
  • You will need to have uploaded any required COVID documentation via their Travel Ready Center, and had it approved before you attempt to check-in (for a Permanent Resident this step may no longer be required).
  • You will need to have your I-551 card (Green Card) and enter the number during check-in (or, if you are travelling on a visa, enter the visa number)

After doing the above, you will generally be able to check-in, and you MAY be issued with a boarding pass. There is no way to know in advance if you will be given a boarding pass or not. In the few years prior to COVID when travelling on a visa I was maybe 75% successful at being able to check-in online for flights to the US. Since having a greencard I've been 100% successful - but that's from exactly 1 attempt so not necessarily all that meaningful.

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  • Just to clarify, Green Card holders don't actually need proof of vaccination to travel to the US. Delta doesn't even let you upload it when checking in as a Green Card holder. But great data point on United, I'll give them priority when I book my next trip.
    – JonathanReez
    Jun 20 at 22:03
  • Good point. Although ironically, you DO need to show proof Covid vaccination to get a green card in the first place!
    – Doc
    Jun 20 at 22:06
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    @Aganju Not relevant to this question, and not my experience on hundreds of United flights (all with my middle name on the ticket)
    – Doc
    Jun 21 at 2:17
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    -1 for the "absolutely", I flew with United numerously with my greencard and not once was I able to skip the check in counter when flying from abroad into the US. Yes, you can check in, but no - they wouldn't issue a boarding pass until they were able to physically inspect the card.
    – littleadv
    Jun 21 at 4:24
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    Regarding the Covid bit, the U.S. Covid testing requirement for entry was recently dropped, so that should not longer be a requirement for flights to the U.S.
    – reirab
    Jun 21 at 6:52
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I'm a US citizen, and flew KLM from Amsterdam to the US a month ago. After submitting a variety of covid-related documents online, KLM issued me a boarding pass a few days before the flight.

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For the US citizens, the airlines allow submitting the passport information through their apps (United) or self-serve kiosks (Delta), at least based on my personal experience, and in-person check in is not required. The security check before the boarding gates is still required for everyone though (for US citizens they check that you have the passport there, but I'm not sure if all the airlines do that - I've only experienced it with United).

For green card holders and other non-US people, the airlines are required to verify that you have the necessary documentation when you board. US citizens cannot be deported, everyone else (including LPRs) can be denied entry and flown back at the airlines' expense if they lack proper documentation. The only way to verify that they do in fact have that documentation is to physically inspect it at the airport (including prior to boarding, but it's cheaper and more efficient to do it at check-in since the facilities are all there already).

I had similar experience with other countries as well. For example, I needed to go through documents check on my flights to China (visa required) before boarding. I believe they also forced me to check in in person then. On the way out of China the Chinese immigration authorities perform the check. You can't leave the country if you don't have entrance visa/permit to your destination.

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    As a greencard holder I have checked in online for a flight to the US, and boarding without showing the airline anything.
    – Doc
    Jun 20 at 21:52
  • @Doc really? I don't think I ever had that happen to me while I had my greencard, I always had to go through an agent to verify it.
    – littleadv
    Jun 20 at 23:03
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    As per my answer, I have done this on both Visa and GC when flying United. I can't speak for other airlines.
    – Doc
    Jun 21 at 0:22
  • Yeah, same. So I guess YMMV.
    – littleadv
    Jun 21 at 0:41
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Iberia allows you to upload documents in advance (e.g., ESTA or Green Card, Covid-vaccination or Covid test result, ...). Then, these documents get checked and once verified, you can print out your boarding card at home.

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