Avoiding travel through the United States
This article describes routes between countries that avoid a transit of the United States. Since the documentation requirements, processing times and cost to transit in the US can be onerous it may be preferable to select itineraries that avoid the United States altogether. However, finding these flights is not always easy; the United States is a hub for many airlines and travel planning sites lack the ability to search only for flights that do not transit the US.
Note that alternative routes described in this article also often require visas. Always check transit or entry conditions of all stops. You are responsible for checking and, if necessary, getting the visas and are advised to do so well before your planned trip.
One reason to avoid US airports is that, unlike many other countries, the United States does not allow sterile transit, which means that for any stop in the US, you have to pass through Customs and Immigration. Many travellers will therefore need either a Visa Waiver or C1 transit visa.
This policy applies to all landings:
- transferring — get off one plane and onto another without leaving the airport
- at an intermediate airport — you are flying between two non-US cities but the plane touches down in the US
- your plane just stops for fuel — for example, some Asia-Canada over-the-pole flights refuel in Alaska
In all cases everyone has to get off and go through immigration. The policy also applies for US territories such as Guam, the US Virgin Islands or Puerto Rico, though the visa rules are different there. Sometimes fuel stops are not even mentioned on itineraries for long haul flights; if you wish to avoid the US, check routes carefully.
The formalities are time-consuming and tedious; at the airport, four hours or more is recommended to be safe. Also, all visitors arriving in the US, even for transit, will be photographed and fingerprinted. Anyone who is not covered by the Visa Waiver Program or the separate provision for citizens of Bermuda and Canada requires at least a C-1 transit visa. This can be expensive (US$160 minimum) and time-consuming to obtain. You can easily be denied the visa since the requirements are the same as for the full B-2 tourist visa.
If you have previously been denied entry to the US or overstayed a US visa, and have been advised that entry may be refused in future, transit entry is as likely to be refused as any other entry. It will almost certainly be easier to avoid risking it.
If your final destination is Mexico or Canada, then a visa waiver might not be an option, even if you'd otherwise be eligible, because the visa rules classify some travel within North America as not leaving the United States, If you have a one way flight or stay for more than 90 days, you may need to get an actual visa; it may be easier or cheaper to just avoid the stop in the USA.
Airlines check for appropriate visas before boarding and will not let you board if you lack a visa that their system says you need. If you do arrive in the US without a visa and aren't eligible for a waiver, you will be sent home and recorded as having been denied entry to the US; this will make any future entry much more difficult.
The US, like most other countries, has very strict security arrangements at borders; any traveller can be detained, searched and questioned, and some have been arrested or deported. The US also has a "no fly list"; if your name is on that, you cannot board a flight that will pass through US airspace, even if the flight does not land in the US (eg. flights from Mexico to Canada). Like most security measures anywhere, these are not at all transparent; it is almost impossible to discover why officials take particular actions.
Critics say the US system is routinely abused, with racial profiling used against various groups thought likely to include either terrorists or illegal immigrants. Even American dissidents have been targeted for searches that are arguably unconstitutional. In one case, back in 2002, a Canadian citizen en route to Canada was grabbed while changing planes and deported to Syria where he says he was tortured.
Checked baggage may be opened and searched. There are TSA-approved locks which the inspectors can easily open. If you are not using one of those and they want to search, then they will break in and accept no responsibility for damage.
There can be difficulties for US citizens as well. Citizens are required to enter the country on a U.S. passport; a dual citizen may get in significant legal trouble for trying to enter on another passport. Also, unlike virtually every other country in the world, the U.S. imposes full tax liability on its citizens, regardless of where they live or where they earn their income, so you may find yourself in serious legal trouble for not filing U.S. tax returns (even if you had no income during your time abroad).
If you were born in the United States, you will be considered a U.S. citizen unless your parents were on a diplomatic posting at the time or you have formally renounced citizenship. This is true even if your parents were illegal immigrants at the time of your birth. People who have renounced their U.S. citizenship before proper U.S. authorities (a U.S. embassy or consulate in their home country) should carry copies of the paperwork they received upon renunciation.
United States airspace
Although this article covers planning a travel itinerary that avoids landing in the United States, there is an additional concern regarding passing through United States airspace during a flight between two other countries. For example, a flight between the United Kingdom and Mexico may well enter the airspace of the United States, and nearly all flights from Canada to Latin America pass over the US.
All flights traveling through the airspace of the United States are expected to provide passenger details, even if there is no intention to land in the United States on the way. If your name is on a no-fly or other watch list, then your airline may deny you permission to board your flight. A worst-case scenario would be your plane being forced to land in the United States with you being placed under arrest.
Traveling from Europe or Asia via Canada allows reaching a number of Caribbean and South American destinations. This is also useful for flying around the world without entering the United States. There are numerous services from European cities to Montreal and Toronto, plus some to other Canadian cities, and Vancouver and Toronto have non-stop or direct services to Seoul, Tokyo, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Sydney.
In some cases, going via Canada may not be a much better alternative. Similar to the US, Canada also does not allow sterile transit, and requires passengers transferring between international flights to undergo customs and immigration checks. Starting March 15, 2016 everyone who can visit Canada visa-free other than US citizens will have to apply for an eTA, also if they're transiting. It's similar to the US ESTA but unlike ESTA the Canadians are also asking questions about employment and such. You also can only pay the fee for the eTA by credit card.
Moreover, aside from a handful of countries, practically everyone who needs a visa to enter the United States will also need a visa to enter Canada (as the latter in the last years have removed several such countries from their visa-free list). The Canadian transit visa is at least theoretically free of charge, and the odds of approval are in general somewhat better than the US one, but it's still a visa you need to apply for and wait for to be processed and for some countries (chiefly from the Middle East and Africa), applicants will have to give their biometrics and pay a separate CAD 85 fee for that. In addition, if you have a criminal record, including a drunk-driving conviction since that is a felony in Canadian law, it is likely that you will have even more trouble getting into Canada than into the States.
To North America
- Mexico City can be reached on non stop flights from Amsterdam, London, Madrid and Paris.
- Cancún is also directly reachable from various cities in Europe.
To South and Central America
- São Paulo and Buenos Aires are fairly well-served from Amsterdam, Frankfurt, London, Madrid, Paris and Rome.
- Lima can be reached with non stop flights from Amsterdam, Madrid and Paris.
- Santiago de Chile can be reached with non stop flights from Frankfurt, Madrid and Paris.
- Many cities in South America are easily reachable from London, Madrid or Paris.
- Some carriers (Iberia, KLM, for example) fly directly from Europe (e.g. Madrid or Amsterdam) to Panama or Costa Rica, from where regional carriers will take you to other parts of Central or northern South America.
- Caracas can be reached on non stop flights from Frankfurt, Madrid, Paris and Rome.
To the Caribbean
- Bermuda can be reached directly from London.
- Jamaica, Antigua, Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago, St. Lucia and Saint Kitts are reachable from London Gatwick on several airlines.
- Havana is a direct flight from several European cities. From there, connecting flights to Latin America, other Caribbean islands and other Cuban cities are available.
- Saint Martin (St. Maarten) is directly reachable from Paris and Amsterdam.
- Barbados and St. Lucia are directly reachable from Frankfurt (weekly flights)
- Guadeloupe and Martinique are serviced by daily flights from Paris.
- Condor offers service from Frankfurt to Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic with onward service to San José Costa Rica
If you want to go on a Caribbean cruise, it's quite hard to find a suitable one if you need to avoid a transit through the US. Largely catering to American tourists, most of them start and end somewhere in Florida (Miami, Key West and Tampa), and many of the rest start and end in Puerto Rico, which is part of the United States. There are some European-based cruise companies that start their cruises elsewhere in the Caribbean but do check the cruise itinerary carefully before booking it — there are other US territories in the Caribbean too.
To South and Central America
Santiago de Chile and Buenos Aires can be reached from Sydney and other Australian cities with a stop in Auckland. These flights are substantially shorter than trips via North America, but are less frequent and can be more expensive. Book well in advance. Onward flights to the rest of South America and up to Mexico are available from both cities.
Then there's one rather exotic and probably expensive alternative; perhaps something to be considered for a round the world adventure. Papeete, French Polynesia has flights from some other cities in Oceania as well as from Tokyo. From there, LAN Chile flies via the Easter Island to Santiago de Chile.
- Air Canada runs one daily non-stop flight to Canada from Australia. A daily flight now flies from Sydney to Vancouver non-stop (and an onward direct flight on the same plane to Toronto.) You can also continue to book flights to Canada via either Auckland or the major Asian transit points such as Tokyo, Singapore, Bangkok and Hong Kong. Check in each case that the flight is non-stop or via Vancouver as a first stop. A particular issue with flights to Toronto being routed through Los Angeles International Airport (LAX).
- Air New Zealand has non-stop flights from Auckland to Vancouver. Note, the flight that stops in the Cook Islands goes via LAX.
To South and Central America
One stop connections from Asia to South and Central America are possible by transiting via major European hubs such as London, Amsterdam and Frankfurt, but that's a lengthy trip. Passengers to South America may consider transiting via Oceania (as described above) or southern Africa (as described below). There are some direct flights over the Pacific:
- Mexico City and Tijuana can be reached from Tokyo serviced by Aeromexico.
- Aeromexico also operates a weekly Shanghai to Mexico City flight via Tijuana.
- Emirates Airlines flies direct from Dubai to São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and Buenos Aires.
- Qatar Airways flies direct from Doha to São Paulo and from there to Buenos Aires.
Note that the JAL service from Tokyo to São Paulo has a stop at New York-JFK.
Singapore Airlines also flies from Singapore to São Paulo but stops in Barcelona. However, a transit visa for Spain isn't required for most nationalities as long as the next leg of a passenger's journey commences on the same day.
There are many non-stop flights to Vancouver from major Asian hubs on both Asian and Canadian airlines, as Vancouver is the closest North American port-of-call to Asia.
Recently there has been an increase in the number of non-stop flights from Hong Kong, Beijing, Tokyo, Manila and Shanghai to Toronto as well, owing to the business links and large expatriate Asian population in the city of Toronto. Some Hong Kong to Toronto flights, however, refuel in Alaska.
South African Airways flies direct from Johannesburg to São Paulo; TAAG Air Angola flies direct from Luanda to Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo and Havana. From Northern Africa you can fly to Praia in Cape Verde and take TACV to Fortaleza or Recife.
There is a general lack of flights direct to non-US North America from Africa, so it might be a better idea to fly to Europe first; the exception being Northern Africa to Canada. Egyptair flies to Toronto and Royal Air Maroc to Montreal, though for African and Middle Eastern citizens going via Canada is often not a much better alternative.