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I've never left my birth country before. What is the process when arriving in another country?

Assuming I have my passport book and can fly to another country, what happens when I depart the plane? Do I enter the airport and then what? What needs to be done to make sure I'm legally there?

I'm just wondering because I have no good idea on what to expect after getting off the airplane, and it would be good to know what to generally expect.

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    The process starts before you leave. You need to determine whether you need a visa for the countries you will travel to, and obtain them if so. In some cases you may also need a visa for countries you will merely pass through in transit. If you need a visa but do not have one, you will either be denied boarding your flight, or be refused entry to the country and returned to your point of origin. – Michael Hampton Dec 16 '15 at 5:53
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    That varies dramatically by country of origin and country of arrival. Please state specific examples you are interested in. – Hilmar Dec 16 '15 at 14:46
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    @MichaelHampton I remember the strange look on my face when my friend (from India) said Italy had approved his visa for his vacation. I'm like you need a special credit card to go to Italy? He's like no, you need permission to enter the country! I said that's odd, I thought you just showed up! He's like "... if you have a US passport, sure... The rest of the world... not so much" – corsiKa Dec 16 '15 at 17:20
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There are really plenty of variations but the main events are: Exiting the plane, leaving the secure terminal area, immigration, baggage claim and customs. The order of the last steps vary by location but it is difficult to go wrong. Signs indicate the way at each step plus doors and guard ensure that passengers do not do the wrong thing accidentally or intentionally. Once you leave an area, you cannot backtrack.

  • Planes are disembarked roughly following a front-to-back order or sometimes middle to front and back simultaneously. This is getting less common but it happened to me this year in Europe. You have to make sure to leave with all your belongings.
  • A path will lead you from the plane to the terminal. Sometimes you walk outside and airport people will guide you to make sure you stay safe. Most often now, the plane is connected by a movable tunnel called a jet-bridge which gets you into the terminal quickly. Another common method is to wait for a bus to drive you from the plane to the terminal. Again, airport employees are there at all times to ensure safety and that everyone follows instructions.
  • From the terminal you are to follow the exit signs. Those will pass through the proper steps in sequence according to the airport you are at. Most international airports make you go through immigration first where you are to show your documents, including passport and visa if needed. There will be a number of kiosks, sometimes some are dedicated for nationals and residents, group of nationalities and the rest, so make sure to choose the appropriate one. They usually have a few questions for you to judge your intentions. Be honest and as clear as possible.
  • The next step is often baggage claim, although is some places you pick up your luggage before or as you disembark from the plane. In the latter case, you will see people waiting for luggage to be taken out of the plane. This is also the case if you were required to check carry-on items or infant strollers at the gate. In most large airports though, your luggage will be delivered to a carousel as you leave the immigration area. Keep your flight number handy as large airports have a number of carousels and you have to find the right one for your flight. An electronic sign indicates which is the right one. It may also be announced by the flight crew before landing.
  • There is sometimes but not always also a customs check. In some places it is optional and there will be two paths, one marked Nothing to Declare and another. If you do have nothing to declare, follow the indicated path. You may still have to show your luggage, let it be inspected and even pass it through an X-Ray machine. In some airports this is done systematically, in others it is done randomly, either based on a random light or at the discretion of custom officials. If you do have things to declare, such as when importing good which will stay in the country or bringing in commercial merchandise, you have to follow the other path where you will be asked to fill out an official form. They may demand duty on the goods or a guaranty to ensure that the good depart with you at the end of your trip.

There are indeed a few steps but they are usually easy to follow because the majority of passengers have to go through the same steps and the order is dictated by the policies of the airport at which you are arriving.

If something goes wrong, notify an official immediately before proceeding the the next area. Should your luggage not arrive, for example, you usually have to fill out a form before proceeding to customs. At customs you will have to mention this to them because you will probably return to collect your stuff once the airport contacts you when your belongings are located. In some cases, they will send them via courier but that is usually the exception.

Once you have cleared all the necessary steps, you will need to locate transport to your destination, unless someone is picking you up. In any case, I recommend two more steps before leaving the airport: Use an ATM to get local currency, Pick up complementary maps and guides to the area.

Adddendum

As comments mention, you will often be supplied the customs form on the plane so you you can fill it in advance, which you should as it saves time later. They will also sometimes give you a different form based on your nationality. Citizens of the arriving country or countries allied with it (EU or Andean for sample) get one form and the rest get another. When there is one form, there will usually be sections to fill out for arriving nationals and tourists, plus common ones.

Having to pass immigration and customs is not universal, sometimes they are done in a single step too. The most common reason to skip those steps though is to have done them before. This usually happens if the last leg of your journey is domestic. For example, when flying to Galapagos (Ecuador) from another country, you will usually land in Guayaquil or Quito, do immigration and customs there and then switch planes for your final leg. A few places have such traffic between countries that you do immigration on departure, this happens when travelling from Montreal (Canada) to the the USA and from Nassau (Bahamas) to the USA. Probably other places do this too but those are the ones I've seen.

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    Very thorough. It might be worth editing to add some information about the customs declaration form that is distributed during the flight before arrival at some destinations (including the U.S. and Europe). I know the OP only asked about after-the-plane activities, but I suspect that's because she/he didn't realize that the process might begin on the plane. – Joe DeRose Dec 16 '15 at 4:53
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    I agree with @Joe; I was particularly unsure about the customs process the first few times. I think it would help a lot to emphasize that it is the traveler's responsibility to know whether they have anything to declare. There may be signs at the airport giving some examples of items that must be declared, but not a comprehensive list. (It's also probably worth mentioning that the vast majority of travelers don't have anything they need to declare.) Other than customs, like you said, it's hard to go wrong if you follow the signs. – David Z Dec 16 '15 at 6:01
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    It is worth saying here that it takes a good while for the bags to arrive at the carousel. So there is no rush to get off the aircraft. You can stay sitting for a while and let people who can't wait drop their coats on each other and trip over the carry-on bags. then get up, stroll to the exit, say thank you to the staff, and follow everyone else to the carousel. – RedSonja Dec 16 '15 at 9:34
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    At the carousel you will see the pushy people hitting each other with trolleys. Don't push or get anxious - your bag will come, and if you don't grab it the first time it will come round again. If it doesn't come there is a desk handy to report it. And you have enough stuff in your carry-on to keep you going for a day, don't you? – RedSonja Dec 16 '15 at 9:36
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    One more step- find a washroom before leaving the controlled area, if possible. Conditions in the terminal can be crowded and chaotic in some places with aggressive touts and crowds waiting for passengers. Be aware that you cannot generally backtrack, so if there is something you need (such as a service) in the baggage claim area you may not find it outside, and if you forget something it's a problem. Avoid carrying questionable or prohibited items if possible (this includes food you didn't buy at the airport). Be 100% honest with customs and immigration, but only answer what is asked. – Spehro Pefhany Dec 16 '15 at 10:24
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Each country is a bit different, so letting folks know where you are leaving from and going to would help get a more specific answer.

In general when you get off the plane, you follow the crowds to immigration and do whatever procedures they require, then go claim your checked bags if any, then go through customs and do whatever procedures they require, then you enter the public arrivals hall and get swarmed by touts.

Some countries stick a health desk in the middle somewhere.

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Here is a summary I wrote for a novice traveller of mine who will be landing at YYZ soon. Most of it applies elsewhere as well:

  • First, you check in online 24 hours before (your airline may vary.) Use the airline's web site, and your reservation code (from a confirmation email, most likely.) Even if you can't print the boarding pass, check in online.
  • Second, work out when you need to arrive at the airport - probably 2 or 3 hours before departure. Then work back from that to see when to leave
  • You get on the plane and you sleep. Even if it's daytime.
  • At some point on the flight they will hand out landing cards. You will need to know the address where you're staying, and how much stuff you are bringing (eg gifts for your hosts) that will stay in Canada. You will need the value in Canadian dollars.
  • As the flight concludes, your passport should be handy. Put away in your bag but handy
  • If you have a local SIM or can roam, you can turn on your phone while the plane is landing. You can't use it while you are at the booth with the border officer but other than that you can. Many airports have free wifi. You can check the schedule of your next transportation (train, bus) or communicate with the person who is meeting you.
  • When you land there is a tiny chance border officers will be in the jetway saying "passports". They do that for China flights sometimes. If so, a quick showing of your passport should be enough.
  • Then there is a long walk and some escalators and eventually down to a lineup place. [While airports vary, the long walk generally leads to a place you line up.]
  • Check the signs because the Canadian citizens line should be faster (if you're not a citizen, don't waste lineup time being in the wrong line.)
  • When you get to the officer you hand over your passport and landing card. They ask you stuff you told them already. Where are you coming from? How long were you gone (or will you be here?) What are you bringing in?
  • The officer then writes a code on the card and gives it back. Put the passport away safe. You go past the booth and line up to show the card to someone
  • Specific to YYZ, just after the CBSA booth before you go down to the baggage claim, there is a screen where you can find out what carousel your bag is at. And it's much easier to see the numbers from upstairs so take a moment, look up your flight, and look down there for your carousel. Then go on down and wait for your bag
  • At baggage claim, wait for your bag. Look around at other people while you're waiting. If you see people you recognize from the flight, you can be more confident you're waiting in the right place.
  • When you get your bag, leave the baggage claim area. You line up one more time to show the card to someone as you leave
  • Watch for signs that say "Exit" or "Ground Transportation." Don't follow signs that say "Connections" if you want to leave the airport.

The airport is designed for people who have never been there before and can't read signs in the local language. Since you can read English, you should be fine in just about every airport in the world. Just stay calm and unhurried and follow the signs, as well as directions from uniformed people who tell you which way to go, when to wait, and so on.

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    "You get on the plane and you sleep. Even if it's daytime." Easy to SAY. Maybe you should add, "If you're not tired, close your eyes and pretend." And I appreciate the words "just about every" in the last paragraph because at least once, I spent an hour trying to locate baggage claim! No, I'm not embarrassed to ask directions, I just made the foolish assumption that the signs could be trusted. – WGroleau Dec 16 '15 at 16:57
  • For sleeping tips, check travel.stackexchange.com/questions/4308/…. And in my home airport, I once followed some people who got off the same domestic flight as me and took some sort of shortcut that bypassed baggage claim - getting back in there to get my bag was not trivial. – Kate Gregory Dec 16 '15 at 17:03
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    Your phone should not be turned on until the plane has landed and is taxiing or (in some jurisdictions) until it has reached the gate and the seatbelt signs are turned off. – abligh Dec 16 '15 at 22:24
  • @abligh that was the rule about 6 months ago to a year ago, but is not the norm now, though there may still be some places where they prefer that. The norm now is an announcement reminding you to get your phone out of the overhead before the seatbelt sign goes on for landing, if you want it once you're on the ground. – Kate Gregory Dec 16 '15 at 23:26
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    @KateGregory sure, but are you allowed to use it (for calls) prior to landing? I fly twice a week in the UK, and around Europe less frequently, and have done one US trip in the last 6 months, and whilst on most flights now you can have your phone on and in flight safe mode prior to landing, you can't actually use it (in the sense that a local SIM or roaming would be useful). Indeed the alleged remaining justification for keeping the phone in flight safe mode is interference with the VOR system on landing (apparently). You can (UK certainly) use it whilst taxiing to the gate. – abligh Dec 17 '15 at 6:18
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Once you get off the plane, you'll follow the sign to Arrivals; sometimes it will also say Baggage Claim.

You will get in line with everyone else at the immigration counter. There, the officers will check your passport and/or your visa for validity. They may also ask you questions as to the purpose and nature of your visit.

Once they are satisfied with your documents, they will stamp your passport with an entry stamp. This marks your legal entry into the country.

After that step, you have cleared immigration - next you have to collect your luggage and go through customs control. Customs is where they check your luggage and items to make sure you aren't carrying any restricted or forbidden items.

Once you pass customs - you have arrived at your destination country.

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