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Arriving in Europe -- Immigration/Customs

I haven't seen this discussed anywhere and feel a little dumb in asking but here goes:

I'm looking to book a flight to Berlin from California and several of my options include a lay-over in a city like London or Amsterdam. What I'm not clear on is since I wouldn't be leaving the airport, do I go through customs there or at my final destination? What happens in the reverse on my return to the States?

Posted by Chris F
Basel, Switzerland
6653 posts

It has been discussed here before a few times, but it is complicated. Customs and passport checks are two different things. Here are the gory details. It all ruled by 3 things.

  • Have you got a through booking to the final destination, or two separate tickets?
  • Are both countries in the EU?
  • Are both countries in Schengen?

1) If you have a through booking, your luggage will be booked through to your final destination, you won't see it until then and you will only go through customs after you collect it at your final destination. If you have made two separate bookings (usually not recommended), then you need to collect your luggage at the first destination, go through customs, and then check it back in again.

2) There are no customs within the EU. Flights within the EU (London - Berlin or Amsterdam - Berlin) have no customs. But they know which bags originated outside the EU (different luggage labels).

3) There are no passport checks within the Schengen Area. Most EU countries are in Schengen, but the UK is not.
If you fly Somewhere --> Amsterdam --> Berlin, Amsterdam --> Berlin is a Schengen-internal flight, no passport control, so you will go through passport control at Amsterdam, that will be your entry point to the Schengen Area, then no passport control at Berlin.
But, if you fly Somewhere --> London --> Berlin; the UK is non-Schengen, so you stay "airside" in London, never enter the UK and have passport control into the Schengen area in Berlin.
That is of course assuming you have a through booking, if not you have to enter the UK (passport + customs) and check in again, back out through passports.

Confused? Overwhelmed? This should be in a FAQ somewhere :-)

Posted by Frank II
7019 posts

If your connection city is London, you will stay airside and go through Immigration (Passport Control) and customs in Berlin.

If your connection city if Amsterdam, you will go through immigration (passport control) in Amsterdam and customs in Berlin.

For most tourists, customs is nothing more than a walk through.

On your return to the U.S., you will go through U.S. Customs and Immigration the first place you land in the U.S. assuming your last point of departure from Europe is either London or Amsterdam.

Posted by Edgar
Medford, OR, USA
4391 posts

On your return to the U.S., you will go through U.S. Customs and Immigration the first place you land in the U.S. assuming your last point of departure from Europe is either London or Amsterdam.

Exception to the above are preclearance sites including Dublin, Calgary YYC, Vancouver BC YVR and 13 other foreign (to the US) airports.

Through preclearance, the same immigration, customs, and agriculture inspections of international air passengers performed on arrival in the United States can be completed before departure at foreign airports instead. Currently, preclearance operations take place at 15 foreign airports in six different countries, benefitting air passengers, airports, and air carriers, in the United States and abroad. CBP also staffs a Pre-inspection facility for passenger/vehicle ferry traffic to the U.S. in Victoria, Canada.

Posted by Frank II
7019 posts

Since the OP didn't mention Ireland or Canada, I didn't think it was necessary to mention it and confuse her even more.

Lisa, when you finally decide on your flights, come on back and we'll give you the exact details on what to expect at each airport.

Posted by Terri Lynn
Nashville, TN, USA
796 posts

Lisa, we are Americans who have lived (for work) in London, Amsterdam and Berlin (as well as some other European cities) and it isn't as complicated as you might think. I am presuming you are booking one flight from California to Berlin and will choose a specific flight that will either have a layover in Amsterdam or London all on one flight and ticket without leaving the airport at either location. Your documents would be checked in California before boarding for an international flight. You would have a passport check in Amsterdam but would not have any customs check as you would not have your luggage. Once you arrive in Berlin, you will have a customs check at that point as you would have your luggage. If coming from London, they will check your passport as well but not if coming in from Amsterdam.

In many ways, it is simpler to just go through Amsterdam and get the passport control done with then just go through customs in Berlin. You will be tired by the time you get to Berlin and hardly want to go through both there.

Posted by Lisa OP
Rocklin, CA
30 posts

Thanks for the replies.

I assumed most of that information, but wanted to be sure. How much time do I need to build into any layovers to get the passport checks done?

I realize that I can avoid some of this if I get a direct flight to Berlin from the East Coast -- any opinions on Air Berlin?

Posted by Nigel
Northamptonshire, England
19699 posts

You can never tell how much time you will need for passport / border checks. It depends on so many factors.

This week I arrived at Gatwick in London - from Nice on EasyJet - and saw the longest queues I have seen for ages. It turned out that all but 3 of the biometric machines had failed and we all had to form one very long queue for the few humans able to manually process us. It didn't help much that 4 other planes, including one full of sunburned Brits returning from Jamaica, had all arrived at the same time, just after noon.

Always leave plenty of time. If you get through in just a few minutes you have one up.

Posted by Lola
Seattle, WA
9820 posts

Lisa, as explained by Chris F and Frank II above, if you fly through London Heathrow, you do NOT have to go through immigration/passport control there (unless you are flying on two separate tickets and have luggage that is not checked through. In that case you would have to go through immigration ---which can take an hour or more---to get to baggage claim and get your luggage to re-check it. So make sure you book your flight to Berlin on one ticket.

Assuming you do that, at Heathrow you stay "airside" and do not queue to show your passport. If your Berlin flight leaves from a different terminal, there are dedicated buses that take airside passengers between terminals. So you do not build in extra time to clear passport control at Heathrow. You will, however, go through security screening again before the Berlin flight. Time for that is built into the "minimum connect time" for your flight. This is another reason for booking the two flights as one ticket---they won't book you on flights that violate the minimum connect time rules. And if your incoming flight happens to arrive late and you miss the second one, the airline will put you on the next available flight without additional cost.

The procedure at Amsterdam is different, as explained above.

Posted by Southam
Windsor, Ontario, Canada
2698 posts

For your scheduling, especially when flying home, you can also expect the airline to impose a security check at the departure lounge for your trans-Atlantic flight. Especially on US-based airlines, these can be more thorough than the initial entrance to the airport's secure area. So yes, allow lots of time, as recommended by your airoline.

Posted by Nigel
Northamptonshire, England
19699 posts


I've just seen your profile and that you are an avid photographer.

Things may have changed but back when I traveled with a fair bit of photo kit (back in the dim dark ages when film was king and everything I shot was for slides) I used to register said kit with the US Customs prior to departure so that I would not have a problem when coming home of them asking if I had acquired the stuff overseas (I kept it so clean, do you see?) and therefor owed duty.

I seem to remember a seal or sticker being affixed.

I don't know if that is still true or if they take your word for it now..... but would it be worth checking?

Posted by Ken
Vernon, Canada
29072 posts


I vaguely recall having to go through Passport control when arriving in London and connecting with another flight. If that's the case, it's not a big deal and shouldn't take much time. However if you decide to connect in London / LHR, that may involve a change of terminals which could take some time. Customs is not an issue, since you'll likely have nothing to declare.

If you decide to connect in Amsterdam, it will likely be a bit easier as AMS is a single terminal airport (although it's LARGE). You will definitely go through Passport control there, since that will be your first point-of-entry to the E.U. You'll most likely have to go through security again for your connecting flight to Berlin. That's been the case every time I've transited through AMS.

Posted by Fred
San Francisco
9951 posts


Flying out of CA to Europe has some advantages, since you can go to Berlin directly, ie from LAX to Berlin Tegel on Air Berlin. That way you go throught immigation/passport check in Berlin. Decide first whether you want to go to London or Amsterdam in the first place.

Posted by Chani
Tel Aviv
11288 posts

Living in Rocklin, may I assume you're flying from SFO? I highly recommend using a European carrier so your stopover is not in the U.S. If your stop is stateside, then you usually have to change from domestic to international terminals in both directions and you have to collect your luggage and clear customs at your point of entry to the US (and you'll probably go through a major airport like LAX or JFK - ugh).

If I had my druthers, I'd avoid flying through Heathrow. In my experience, it takes the longest to get through security. British Airways flights are usually in and out of terminal 5, so you may not have to change terminals, but 5 is huge and the security lines are long. Too much hassle. I've found Amsterdam's Schiphol to be friendly and pleasant. If you have a long daytime layover (6 hours or more), it's easy to hop on a train and visit Amsterdam. Also, you will only be dealing with euros, if you go through London, then if you want to pick up anything at the airport (drinks, snacks), you pay in sterling or pay an exorbitant exchange rate(and get your change in sterling to boot.

Posted by hsico75
North Carolina, US
70 posts

I read each reply twice and my head is spinning more. Can anyone confirm my understanding?
US departure- layover FRA -final destination SZG checked bags & on single ticket with code share partners (Lufthansa & Austrian Air)

Because I am flying through and ending the flight in Schengen countries on a single ticket, while at the layover airport checked luggage will continue on code share carrier to the final destination and I would only go through a passport check at my layover airport. Then at my final destination (i.e. Austria), after claiming my checked bags I would proceed through customs.

Again after re-reading ALL the replies multiple times this was what I took away.

Posted by Chris F
Basel, Switzerland
6653 posts

hsico75, Correct. Immigration (passports) at Frankfurt and customs once you are re-united with your bags at Salzburg.
At Salzburg there will be 3 doors to exit luggage reclaim. Red (goods to declare), Green (nothing to declare, random checks only) and blue (EU internal). You go through green.
Though you confused me by using abbreviations (FRA and SZG). I had to look them up.

Posted by Lisa OP
Rocklin, CA
30 posts

Surprised that this thread got so active again -- thanks for all the help.

I actually have already booked by flight. My husband will be doing some work in NYC in the fall, so in an attempt to use airline points well, I'm booked on an overnight JetBlue flight to JKF and then the following evening an overnight flight on AirBerlin directly to Berlin.

Because my husband will have some housing, I can leave JFK for a few hours (building in travel time and traffic of course).