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The last four or five times I've flown into the US, my airline app has notified me that online check-in is available, however when I start online check-in I'm told it's not possible.

When I tap on check-in in the app, it asks for my details, then starts thinking (spinning wheels or whatever screen), then I'm told that online-check-in isn't available and I have to check-in at the airport.

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Same thing if I try through a browser.

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This has happened with Hawaiian, Fiji, Air Canada (can't remember if there were others). The messages are similar, but not identical, between the different airlines.

Why have an online check-in option if you can't use it? Is it because I'm not traveling on a US passport? Which would mean it happens for all non-US passengers (but it doesn't make that clear in the message).

I have been able to check-in online flying to other destinations, or domestic within the US. It only seems to be international flights to the US.

Edit to add: we are traveling one-way to the US with B1/B2 visas (not on the VWP which requires onward travel). I wonder if the lack of onward flights means they need to check for visas etc before checking us in?

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    It has happened to me, not often, from Asia, on my way back to HK. I had to show up at a counter, because, I suppose, they wanted to check my residence status in HK. It could be a similar thing.
    – user138870
    Commented Mar 20 at 21:34
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    @dda you make a good point - we are flying one-way into the US with B1/B2 visas (not on VWP which requires onward travel). I wonder if that's why.
    – Midavalo
    Commented Mar 20 at 21:38
  • I was never told so, BUT every time they asked to see my HK ID card, so...
    – user138870
    Commented Mar 20 at 21:45
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    Possible duplicate of: travel.stackexchange.com/questions/174408/…
    – JonathanReez
    Commented Mar 21 at 0:24
  • "I wonder if the lack of onward flights means they need to check for visas etc before checking us in?": I imagine there are several possible conditions that can make a passenger ineligible for online check-in, and this is very likely to be among them.
    – phoog
    Commented Mar 21 at 9:07

3 Answers 3

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I don't think there is single set of coherent rules that governs this. In my experience online check-in for international flight is hit or miss for no obvious reasons and I've certainly seen variability even on the exact same flights: in January it works but in February it doesn't.

In some cases I got all the way through the process just to receive a document that read "THIS IS NOT A BOARDING PASS" with instructions go to the check-in counter and show it there.

There are certainly factors that reduce the likelihood: being a non-citizen, flying into a picky country (which the US clearly is), one-way, somewhat unusual visa, difficult origin or passport country, etc.

There is probably something in your specifics that makes it less likely, but I don't think it's possible to find out what that is.

Why have an online check-in option if you can't use it?

Many people can and do use it. The notification is automatically sent to all passengers. The system will only look at your specifics when you start the process. It would be nice if they tell you the reason, but there is no benefit to them doing so they don't.

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    Even if the full check-in is not available, note that the online check-in process usually gives the option to the passenger to select their seat, select their baggage allowance, etc... so there's still value for the customer even if no boarding pass can be obtained. (And value for the airline in upselling, obviously) Commented Mar 21 at 10:37
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    Codeshare is another specific that often seems to play a role. I have had much better luck checking in online when I booked directly from the same airline. But as you say, it's entirely hit-or-miss anyway - I have been flying for two decades and I absolutely cannot predict if I will be able to check in online, except for domestic and intra-EU flights.
    – xLeitix
    Commented Mar 21 at 15:16
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    It used to be very common to be refused online checkin outside the narrowest of conditions (e.g. not for foreigners or code-share purchases or a bunch of other things), although in recent years IT systems have improved so they can handle more cases (having to deal with another airline's systems might be a problem, for instance). But even today airlines will develop systems to provide good service to frequent fliers in business/premium classes, but everyone else has to jump through hoops.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Mar 21 at 17:28
  • I feel this is the closest we can get to an answer. It is very hit and miss.
    – Fattie
    Commented Mar 22 at 12:15
  • As a rule of thumb If you need to show up a passport at the destination you cannot get a board pass. If you cannot arrive at the destination the company must get your ass back, usually for free and that's why they want to pre-check your papers at boarding
    – jean
    Commented Mar 22 at 19:58
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Is it because I'm not traveling on a US passport? Which would mean it happens for all non-US passengers (but it doesn't make that clear in the message).

I believe so. They need to check your visa and there's no automated way for them to do that. So they're forcing you to speak to an agent. You will probably not be able to check in through automated kiosks as well, they want the agents to actually inspect the visa and gather the information required (address in the US and such). I know some automated kiosks have passport readers that can read the MRZ on the visa, but my experience (dated as it is) was that they'd refer you to the agent anyway.

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    I had the opposite experience in Brussels last week. Their manual system was down and they sent everyone to the kiosks, which fortunately handled the doc checks just fine.
    – Hilmar
    Commented Mar 20 at 22:59
  • Would it still work if the manual system wasn't down?
    – littleadv
    Commented Mar 20 at 23:14
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    I’ve seen absurd situations where my mom (B1/B2 visa) got an online boarding pass but me (green card) did not on the same flight. It’s just poor IT systems a lot of times.
    – JonathanReez
    Commented Mar 21 at 0:26
  • @JonathanReez did that happen after you had entered the respective document numbers? If my memory serves me correctly, online check-in systems sometimes require US visa numbers to be entered and sometimes don't. Is it the same with green card numbers?
    – phoog
    Commented Mar 21 at 9:06
  • @phoog yes, that’s after I’ve entered the green card number.
    – JonathanReez
    Commented Mar 21 at 14:47
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The most common reason for this is being selected for additional security screening. The next most common reason (from my experience, at least,) is a problem with the ticket, though it sounds like that's not the case here.

There is a randomness factor involved in selection for secondary security screening. A certain percentage of passengers on many U.S.-bound flights will be selected, including U.S. citizens. (I'm a citizen and both myself and other U.S. citizens I've traveled with have had it when traveling back to the U.S.)

While there's always a chance of being selected randomly, there are some factors that increase the chance of being selected. One-way tickets and traveling alone (at least no one else on the same ticket) are a couple of common ones. Travel history is also taken into account, particularly to countries with governments that are less-than-friendly to the U.S. or those where terrorist groups are more likely to operate.

When you're selected for secondary screening, you will generally not be able to check-in online and, when you do get your boarding pass (at the airport,) it will have "SSSS" printed on it. For U.S.-bound flights, this often means that you will go through another security screening (typically somewhere near the departure gate) even after clearing the normal security, though sometimes the secondary check may occur in the same location as the normal security checkpoint.

Note that, contrary to what another answer suggests, this generally has nothing to do with concerns about whether you're allowed to enter your destination country. That will ALWAYS be checked by the airline when boarding an international flight, from any country to any country (aside from special cases like the Schengen Area, where a flight is technically 'international,' but no immigration controls are involved.) Selection for secondary security screening is done by government security services, who communicate that decision to the airlines. The decision is not made by the airlines themselves.

In cases like this where you can't check in online, I do strongly recommend planning to arrive at the airport earlier than you had originally planned in order to allowed extra time for the secondary screening.


If you suspect that there may actually be something wrong with your ticket, though (as opposed to secondary screening selection,) then I would recommend calling the airline as soon as practical. Ideally, do not wait until you get to the airport in this case. In my experience, the most common issues here are things like flight changes, where the airline may have changed you to a different flight, but the reticketing process failed for some reason. In this case, you need to have an agent reissue your ticket, which is definitely preferable to do before arriving at the airport. I've had this happen a few times, both after flight changes by the airline and when applying upgrade certificates. Ticket wasn't properly reissued for some reason, so, when I attempted to check in, while my reservation was still valid, I had no ticket. This was usually cleared up pretty quickly by the phone agents, after which point I could check in online.

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  • "The most common reason for this is being selected for additional security screening" Actually, do we even know for sure that the connection: government computer which decides secondary screening <-> www-level airline online checking systems is a thing?? It's commonplace that someone does checkin online, but then they get the +security treatment. (This has happened to me FWIW, but again, it's a common.)
    – Fattie
    Commented Mar 22 at 12:20
  • The most common reason for this is being selected for additional security screening - What type of screening are you referring to? CBP immigration, TSA, something else? We've not noticed any additional security screening while we've been there, so do you mean behind-the-scenes checks etc?
    – Midavalo
    Commented Mar 22 at 21:58
  • @Fattie I'm not sure I completely follow, but are you asking if we know for sure whether there's a connection between the government computers and the airline check-in systems? If so, absolutely yes, at least with regards to the U.S. This is also how TSA Pre works. The airline's computers send your info to DHS, DHS makes the decision and sends the result back to the airline, which in turn prints it on your boarding pass. Secondary security screening selection works the same way, just with a much less pleasant result.
    – reirab
    Commented Apr 5 at 0:39
  • @Midavalo TSA or the equivalent thereof in the country of your departure (for flights bound to the U.S.) I've encountered this a few times on Europe -> USA flights as well as flights to/from Israel. You'd definitely notice if you had secondary security screening selection, though. For one thing, it will typically say SSSS on your boarding pass when you do get it. They will go through your carry-on baggage more closely, usually doing explosives trace swabs and such. For flights bound to the U.S. this is sometimes done near the departure gate.
    – reirab
    Commented Apr 5 at 0:43

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