I have booked flights which involve me transiting through the USA (Newark) en route to Costa Rica. My itinerary includes an overnight stay in New York; I'll be spending the night with relatives.

I went through United Airlines' online check-in process and I was asked if I was travelling to the USA for transit or if I would be staying. (I imagine I'll be asked a similar question at the immigration desk when I arrive in Newark.)

As a UK citizen, I already have an ESTA through the Visa Waiver Program; this question is not about visa requirements.

Which box should I tick? Am I transiting, or staying?

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    You are staying if you go through the immigration process at New York and leave the transit area. – davidb Nov 7 '14 at 10:57
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    @davidb: Where in the USA is it possible to arrive by air and not leave the transit area? – hmakholm left over Monica Nov 7 '14 at 13:26
  • @HenningMakholm there is no such place in the USA. But the concept of transit exists elsewhere. The comment was to generalise the situation. – davidb Nov 7 '14 at 14:10
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    @davidb: Why would they have a "transit" checkbox for travelers to the USA, if the question were to be interpreted such that nobody could truthfully check it? – hmakholm left over Monica Nov 7 '14 at 14:14
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    @DJClayworth that's not the same question at all. This question is specifically not about visa requirements; I already stated I don't need a visa. – Graham Borland Nov 7 '14 at 16:57

Short Answer

The short answer to your question is you should check the "staying" box since the purpose of your layover is to visit friends. The duration of this layover is not important according to US immigration laws. What matters is the purpose.

See below for the explanation.

Long Answer

Defining Transit vs Stay

I believe that the temporal definition of "to transit" and "to stay" do not apply in this case. The difference between the two lies not in the duration of your permanence at a given place.

I think "transit" means that you remain in the international area of the airport, thus you never really enter the country. Whereas "staying" means that you go through immigration checks and exit the international area of the airport. Thus you effectively enter the country.

US Transit vs Visit

I could not find a true air-travel-related definition, however there is a page explaining what a US transit visa is (thanks @HenningMakholm), from the US Bureau of Consular Affairs. Here a clear definition is made between the transit visa, which allows you to layover in the US for transit purposes only, and a visitor visa, which allows to layover in the us for the purpose of visiting friends.

This seems to apply directly yo your case:

Travel purposes not permitted on a Transit (C) Visa - Examples:

A foreign citizen whose layover in the United States is for a primary purpose other than to transit, for example to visit friends or sightsee, requires a visitor (B) visa.

So to answer your question you should check the "staying" box, even if you plan on departing 24 hours after entering the country, since you are visiting friends.

Schenghen Transit vs Visit

Similar concepts apply within the Schenghen area. There are transit visas which allow you to remain in the transit area of the airport, and the short-term visa which allows you to exit the transit area to go sleep in a hotel. Quoting the website:

Quote from EU transit visa website.

Therefore you would not be considered "in transit" if you spent a night anywhere outside the international area of the airport.

UK Transit Visas

Thanks to this answer I now have new information regarding yet another particular situation: the UK.

The UK has two types of transit visas:

Visitor in Transit Visa

Apply for this one if you are going through immigration, i.e. if you are effectively crossing the border into UK. This can be because you have to check-in your luggage on a connecting flight, because you want to visit friends, or do sightseeing. Maximum validity is 48h.

Direct Airside Transit Visa

Apply for this one if you are changing flights without having to go through immigration.

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    Um, aren't we always told that American airport don't have a separate international/transit area? Your link is explicitly about Schengen countries, where many airports do have immigration-free transit areas. – hmakholm left over Monica Nov 7 '14 at 13:25
  • I did not know that American airports don't have a separate international/transit area. If that is the case what happens when a passenger gets off from a plane coming from Europe? Do they immediately exit the plane and find themselves on US land? – JoErNanO Nov 7 '14 at 16:27
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    x @JoEr: International passengers are herded towards immigration lines immediately. There's nowhere else to go when you exit the plane. To get to a departure gate you need to pass through immigration and then the ordinary security checkpoint for departing passengers. – hmakholm left over Monica Nov 7 '14 at 16:37
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    x @JoEr: There's such a thing as an US transit visa. It allows the holder to enter the country for the sole purpose of passing through to a different destination. This cannot be fully checked at the time the holder enters, of course, but it is not quite meaningless either -- in particular if someone who entered on a transit is later found outside their proposed itinerary, they will be illegally present. – hmakholm left over Monica Nov 7 '14 at 16:58
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    After calling UA to check, and after actually going to the airport and boarding the flight and arriving in the USA and successfully clearing immigration, I can confirm that this was the correct answer. – Graham Borland Nov 9 '14 at 2:14

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