The United States is home to some of the world’s most popular airlines. After the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 and the resulting decline in air travel, there was a large-scale consolidation across the industry and the United States is now home to some of the largest airlines in the world. Most visitors from outside Canada and Mexico arrive in the United States by air. Although many medium-sized domestic cities have international airports, flights to most of them are limited, and most travellers enter the United States through one of the major ports of entry along the coast. Atlanta, New York (Newark and JFK), Los Angeles, Chicago (O’Hare) and Miami International Airports are the five main points of entry into the United States by air.
- From the East, New York City, Chicago, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Charlotte, Boston, Washington, D.C., Orlando and Miami are the main access points from Europe and other transatlantic departure points. All major East Coast airports are served by some major European cities. Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle, although not in the East, also have a good number of flights from major European cities.
- From the West, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and Honolulu are the main access points from Asia, Oceania and other trans-Pacific departure points. Las Vegas, Portland (Oregon) and San Diego also offer some international flight options. Of course, if you arrive in Honolulu, you will need to take another flight to the mainland. Foreign airlines are not allowed to carry passengers to/from Hawaii or Alaska and the other 48 states (except for refuelling and transit). Chicago, while not on the West Coast, remains a major access point to Asia, with non-stop flights from Tokyo, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing and Seoul, and direct flights from Singapore. Qantas flies to Dallas/Fort Worth and Honolulu non-stop from Sydney, in addition to daily services to Los Angeles and San Francisco from Sydney and Melbourne, and to New York from Sydney. Although New York is on the East Coast, there are also good connections to East and Southeast Asia, with non-stop flights from Tokyo, Seoul, Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou, Hong Kong and Taipei, as well as direct flights from Manila and Singapore. There are flights to Boston and Washington, D.C. from some Asian destinations.
- From the north, Chicago, New York, Detroit and Minneapolis have a good number of flights from major Asian and Canadian cities. There are flights from Toronto to many cities in the East and Midwest; flights from Toronto to the US are generally considered ‘domestic’ as Toronto-Pearson Airport has pre-clearance facilities at the US border (i.e. travellers to the US clear US Immigration and Customs in Toronto and arrive in the US at a domestic terminal).
- From the south, Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Houston, New York City and Los Angeles are the main points of entry from Latin America and the Caribbean, but especially from South America. Dallas, Atlanta and Charlotte are also major international gateways. From Mexico, many major US airports offer non-stop service to Cancun, Guadalajara, Los Cabos, Puerto Vallarta and Mexico City, with non-stop service to other Mexican cities from Los Angeles and Houston. Direct flights to/from Cuba are available on a limited charter basis from Miami only to those authorised or approved by the Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) to trade with the “enemy”, and tickets for these flights are only available through certain travel agencies (mainly in Miami) authorised by OFAC to sell tickets. In December 2014, Presidents Obama and Raul Castro reached an agreement to normalise diplomatic and trade relations between the two countries, ending a 55-year trade embargo. Plans are underway to implement the normalisation of relations and trade, which could include direct flights from Miami and other US cities to Cuba. Airlines still need to clarify implementation rules with their legal teams, plan routes and get approval from the US and Cuban governments. Others may wait to see how it is implemented before planning.
- On the other side of the world, New Delhi, India, has non-stop flights to New York (via JFK and Newark airports) and to Chicago. Mumbai has non-stop flights to New York (JFK and Newark). You can also fly to New York (JFK) from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan and the United Arab Emirates. Qatar and Saudi Arabia fly to Washington, DC, and South African Airways flies to New York (JFK) and Washington, DC (Dulles). Los Angeles and Houston both offer non-stop flights to Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Miami is served by Qatar.
The United States requires full entry requirements, including for international transit. If you normally need a visa to visit the US and cannot avoid transit, you will need at least a C-1 transit visa.
Customs and immigration clearance is completed at your first stop in the United States, not at your final destination, even if you have an onward flight. Allow at least three hours at your first stop in the United States. If baggage was checked at the airport of origin to your final destination, it should ALWAYS be collected at the first US stop and taken to customs for inspection. After passing through customs and immigration, there is usually a check-in counter or conveyor belt where passengers can recheck their baggage before proceeding to the international arrivals area where the non-travelling public can greet and meet the returning passengers. All international arriving passengers must pass through TSA security to board the next flight.
The baggage allowance for flights to and from the US is usually calculated using the piece system in addition to the weight system, even for foreign airlines. This means that you are allowed to check in a limited number of pieces of luggage, with each piece not exceeding certain linear dimensions (calculated by adding the length, width and height of the pieces of luggage). The exact allowances and restrictions on weight, linear dimensions and number of pieces of baggage allowed depend on the airline you are travelling with, your point of departure (if arriving in the US) or destination (if departing) and the class of service you are travelling in.
Upon arrival, after collecting your luggage, you can go to the exit. Most airports have a wall of “courtesy phones” near the exit with descriptions and prices of motels in the area. You can call these motels for free and request a room and a shuttle will pick you up at the airport. It is very convenient and mostly free (but you are supposed to tip the driver).
Security procedures for commercial flights departing from anywhere in the United States are constantly evolving. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) now requires all passengers to remove their shoes and outerwear and have their personal belongings X-rayed. Full-body scanners using millimetre wave or X-ray technology are becoming more common and are now the norm at most US airports. It is possible to decline a full-body scan and opt for a search, but you may have to wait a few minutes for an officer to be available to conduct the search. If you opt for a search, the TSA officer will offer to conduct it in private, and you also have the right to request that it be conducted by an officer of the same gender, but usually no clothing other than shoes and belts will be removed (you can ask the officer beforehand), although the officer may feel some private areas through your clothing. Randomly selected passengers may also be selected for additional checks. This may include an ‘enhanced search’. Do not assume that you are in trouble or suspected of being in trouble just because you are subjected to these checks.
If you want to lock your checked baggage, the TSA requires that you use special locks with the TSA Travel Sentry locking system. These locks can be opened by TSA agents with a master key if they want to inspect the contents of your suitcase. If your lock is not a TSA approved lock, the TSA will break the lock and you will not be entitled to compensation for any damages.
Passengers whose journey originates from major Canadian airports and who use US or Canadian airlines have the advantage of being able to complete US immigration procedures (passport control and customs) at their Canadian port of exit. For most flights originating in Canada, they are treated as US domestic flights, but only because customs clearance has taken place at the Canadian airport. As a result, once Canadian passengers arrive at the US port of entry, instead of walking up or down a segregated corridor, they walk to the gate where they see the display of restaurants and shops in the domestic terminal on their way to baggage claim. It should be noted that most Canadian airlines are housed in the US domestic terminals or concourses of most airports. Because of this arrangement, some otherwise domestic airports (such as LaGuardia Airport in New York) that do not have customs and immigration facilities also serve international flights from Canadian airports with pre-clearance facilities.
Travellers on flights between the US and Canada operated by foreign carriers such as Philippine Airlines and Cathay Pacific, as well as travellers arriving from smaller Canadian airports that do not have pre-clearance facilities, must still go through traditional immigration procedures upon arrival at their first stop in the US; a Canadian transit visa may also be required if passengers are accommodated in a holding area for the duration of the transit.
Some airports in Canada, including Vancouver International Airport, Terminal 1 at Toronto-Pearson Airport and Montréal-Trudeau Airport, do not usually require transit passengers from abroad to clear Canadian Customs and Immigration before going through US pre-clearance procedures. But even if you do pass through these airports, make sure your paperwork is in order so you can enter Canada: If you cannot enter the US on the same day you go through pre-clearance, or if you and/or your luggage are not checked in by your airline to at least your first destination in the US, you must report to Canadian Customs; a Canadian transit or temporary resident visa may be required. Also note that this provision does not apply in reverse, which means that you will have to go through Canadian Customs and Immigration on your outbound flight.
Pre-clearance facilities are available at most major Canadian airports (Toronto-Pearson, Montreal-Trudeau, Ottawa Macdonald-Cartier, Vancouver, Calgary, etc.), Queen Beatrix International Airport in Aruba, Grand Bahama and Lynden Pindling International airports in the Bahamas, Bermuda International Airport in Bermuda, and Dublin and Shannon International airports in Ireland.
Passengers on British Airways flights from London to New York City transiting via Dublin or Shannon, Ireland, can benefit from US passport control and pre-clearance in Dublin or Shannon. Upon arrival in the United States, they will be treated as domestic passengers.
Visa restrictions: All persons wishing to enter the United States by land must be in possession of a valid passport, NEXUS, FAST, Global Entry, SENTRI card or passport, laser visa or “enhanced driver’s licence” (issued by some US states and some Canadian provinces).
Traffic drives on the right-hand side of the road (as in Canada and Mexico), except in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where left-hand traffic is common on the small Caribbean islands.
If you are entering under the Visa Waiver Programme, you must pay a US$6 fee in cash at the port of entry. There is no fee if you simply re-enter the country and already have the visa waiver receipt in your passport.
The US-Canada and US-Mexico borders are two of the most frequently crossed borders, with millions of border crossings per day. The average wait time is 30 minutes, but some of the busiest border crossings can experience significant delays of 1 to 2 hours at peak times (weekends, holidays). Current wait times (updated hourly) can be found on the US Customs website. The US-Mexico border is a lucrative area for drug trafficking. Vehicles crossing the border may be x-rayed or searched by a drug-sniffing dog. If there is any suspicion, your vehicle may be searched. As this is very common, do not expect border officials to be patient.
Since metric units are used in Canada and Mexico, while conventional units are used in the United States, you should note that after the border, road signs are in miles and miles per hour. If you are driving a car from Canada or Mexico, remember that a speed limit of 55 mph is equivalent to 88 km/h in the United States.
Greyhound offers a comprehensive and affordable cross-border service from Canada and Mexico across its network. Some routes, such as Toronto to Buffalo, run hourly. Megabus U.S. also offers several daily trips from Toronto (which is also a hub for Megabus Canada) to New York City via Buffalo for just $1.
Bus passengers are often checked more strictly by US customs officials than car or train passengers.
With the boat
Before the Second World War, most travellers and immigrants from abroad came to the United States by boat. Today, this is no longer the case, as most enter by air.
It can be difficult to enter the United States by sea, except on a registered cruise ship. The most common entry points for private boats are Los Angeles and surrounding areas, Florida and the eastern coastal states.
There are a few passenger ferries between Canada and the United States, mainly between British Columbia and Washington State or Alaska.
Cunard offers a transatlantic cruise between the UK and New York.
Amtrak offers international connections from the Canadian cities of Vancouver (Amtrak Cascades offers two trips per day to Seattle), Toronto (Maple Leaf once daily to New York via Niagara Falls) and Montreal (Adirondack once daily to New York via Albany).
For international trains from Montreal and Toronto, immigration formalities are done at the border; this takes much longer than on the bus, so the bus is often both cheaper and faster than the train.
Travellers from Vancouver go through US immigration and customs clearance at Pacific Central Station before boarding the train, similar to air travel. Allow enough time to complete the necessary checks before departure.
From Mexico, the nearest Amtrak stations are in San Diego (Pacific Surfliner with several departures from San Diego to San Luis Obispo) and El Paso (Sunset Limited and Texas Eagle once daily between Los Angeles and San Antonio). In San Antonio, the Texas Eagle continues north to Chicago and the Sunset Limited continues east to New Orleans). Trains do not cross the border into Mexico, so travellers must take public transport or a taxi to the border. There are no continuing trains south on the Mexican side of the border.
In urban areas, there are many border crossings that can be crossed by pedestrians. Border crossings such as those in or near Niagara Falls, Detroit, Tijuana, Nogales and El Paso are popular with people who want to spend a day on the other side of the border. In some cases, this can be ideal for day trippers, as driving across the border can mean a much longer wait.