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What happens when upon international arrival at one terminal (in my case that would be ICN T2), you attempt to make a sterile transfer to another terminal (ICN T1) without a connecting flight booked? Can you leave the departures area and enter the country at the other terminal through the other terminal's immigration? (Or is a connecting flight ticket required for the sterile transfer?)

(This question is for Incheon international airport specifically, but responses for other airports are appreciated as well.)

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  • As a curious, extremely rare traveller, can I ask why you might want to do this? The only moderately plausible reason that comes to mind is if the queues in T1 are expected to be much shorter than T2.
    – TripeHound
    Nov 23, 2023 at 11:39
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    @TripeHound there could be all sorts of reasons, none of which is likely to be particularly critical. The path between terminals is likely to be rather shorter on the inside than going around on the outside, and one might be meeting a friend at the other terminal, or parked at the other terminal, or taking a train that is closer to the other terminal, etc.
    – phoog
    Nov 23, 2023 at 12:08

2 Answers 2

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Of course there's the issue of luggage – a scenario like this one assumes you have no check-in luggage.

But in the specific case of ICN, the answer is no. You won't get past step 1, security check. The first thing they look at, before letting you go through the metal detectors, is your boarding pass, which is also scanned into the system. No boarding pass, no passing through. If you want to go to T1, you'll have to pass through Immigration and Customs at T2, then take the shuttle bus to T1 (or I believe the AREX train stops at both stations).

This scenario might be possible in Singapore, since departures and arrivals are not segregated, and it would be easy to take a shuttle and go to another terminal. However, if you pass through a manned counter (it's mostly automated gates now, but some countries are not eligible, and, from my own experience, the biometric sensors don't work that well...) the ICA officer might wonder what you are doing at that terminal specifically, instead of the one you were assigned to.

In Hong Kong this scenario is moot for 2 reasons: while there used to be 2 terminals, there's only one now (T2 is being redeveloped), and all arrivals were in T1 anyway. And of course the security checks at Transfer required an onward boarding pass.

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  • Regarding Hong Kong, I've been to airports that have more than one immigration checkpoint in the same terminal, so having only one terminal in operation doesn't necessarily imply that there is only one place to clear immigration controls.
    – phoog
    Nov 23, 2023 at 12:05
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    @phoog Maybe but not in HKIA, which is the place I was specifically discussing. There many Immigration counters in T1, but you don't have much choice where to pass through passport control (for tourists) or the eChannel (automated gates). The Immigration counters funnel all passengers into the luggage hall. Everybody exits in the same arrival hall.
    – dda
    Nov 23, 2023 at 12:20
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This depends on a lot of variables. In general there are three different approaches that airports take

  1. Mandatory immigration (example US and Canada). When arrive you will go through immigration at your arrival terminal. It doesn't matter, if you have a connection, a self connection or are just arriving: everyone goes through immigration. There is no sterile transit, period.
  2. Mandatory connection security (examples: LHR, CDG, DOH): When you exit the plane, you have the choice between "arrival" and "connection". For connection you will first need to do another security screening and at this point almost all airports have a boarding pass check. So you can't get through without a boarding pass.
  3. Optional connection security (examples: FRA, VIE, AMS, NRT).: If the country from which you arrive is considered a "safe" country, you do not need to go through security but you exit the plane directly into the terminal. There are no checks an you are free to move about. At this point you may choose to go to a different terminal. However this only works if the terminals are connected "airside" which varies from airport to airport and sometimes from terminal to terminal.

So you CAN use immigration at a different terminal but ONLY if

  1. It's a not a "no sterile transit" country like the US or Canada,
  2. The airport practices "optional connection security",
  3. You arrive from a "safe" country, and
  4. The airport allows "airside" transfer between terminals.

One example where this works: when I arrive in Frankfurt from the US I have multiple options of where to go through immigration.

There are plenty of examples where it wouldn't work. I don't know about ICN specifically.

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    I think Canada has, or has had in the past, some sterile transit provisions for some very small number of specific flights. But I could be confusing it with what I experienced the one time I did an international-to-international transit in Canada, which was a small dedicated passageway leading to a small room with a two-desk passport checkpoint, on the other side of which was the departure area of the terminal.
    – phoog
    Nov 23, 2023 at 12:09
  • For Schengen, there is the additional separation between Schengen arrivals/departures and non-Schengen arrivals/departures. More than once, I needed to go through security between arriving from outside Schengen and connecting to a Schengen destination. AMS has sterile transit both in their Schengen and non-Schengen sections, but not between those sections.
    – Abigail
    Nov 24, 2023 at 13:34
  • @Abigail are you sure this is about Schengen/non-Schengen? E.g. in FRA, when we arrived from Canada, the one girl in the group who had a connecting flight was able to stay airside. In contrast, when arriving from South Africa, I was looking out signs leading me to my next gate, but eventually found myself landside. Given that security checks in South Africa were less strict compared to both Germany and Canada, I always assumed that was the reason for not allowing sterile transit.
    – Sabine
    Nov 24, 2023 at 18:59
  • @phoog: Currently Canada allows sterile transit for nationals of Indonesia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Thailand to transit Canada en route between the USA and another country. There are also restrictions on the airline you use and the airport you transit through. See here. Nov 25, 2023 at 1:13

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