Avoiding travel through the United States
This article describes routes 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. One way for obtaining information is finding out the number of the flight you consider using, then check the airports and route of that flight using a flight tracking site like Flightradar24.
Alternative routes described in this article may require visas and procedures similar to the ones you would encounter when transiting the US. 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. Nearly all airlines will refuse to let you board their planes if you lack a required visa, and none of them will refund your fare since they consider it your mistake. Most will switch the booking to a later flight that you can take after getting a visa, but they may charge a fee for the change. Even if you have previously traveled without a required visa, this excuse will not keep you from being denied service unless your visas are in order.
- See also: United States of America#Get in
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. This policy applies to all landings:
- transferring – get off one plane and onto another without leaving the airport
- at an intermediate airport – for example, flying from Tokyo to Rio and the plane touches down in New York City
- 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; many travellers will therefore need either a Visa Waiver or C1 transit visa. 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; for example charter operators may not disclose that their aircraft lack the range to reach Canada directly from Mexico without an intermediate stop for fuel. 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 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. Like most security measures anywhere, these are not at all transparent; it is almost impossible to discover why officials take particular actions.
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.
SSSS stands for Secondary Security Screening Selection; if this, or "*S*" is printed on your boarding card, it means that you have been selected for more screening/questioning than other travelers. There seem to be all kinds of reasons that can get you an SSSS mark from prior travel to "suspicious" countries (and of course being a citizen of such a country) to having paid cash for your tickets. After the inspection your boarding card will be stamped to indicate that you have been screened; if you show up at the gate with an SSSS boarding pass without a stamp, you may be sent back to the security checkpoint.
Critics say the US system fails to guarantee basic standards of fairness, human rights and civil rights, with racial profiling used against various groups thought likely to include either terrorists or illegal immigrants. In one case, back in 2002, a Canadian citizen en route to Canada, Maher Arar, was grabbed while changing planes and deported to Syria (his country of birth) where he says he was tortured. Even American citizens who are critics of their government's policies have been targeted for searches that are arguably unconstitutional. These incidents are quite rare, but perhaps not rare enough to be reassuring.
The stamps in your passport can also be a problem. In 2017 a former Prime Minister of Norway, travelling on a diplomatic passport, was held and questioned for an hour or so because he had visited Iran several years earlier.
Another issue is privacy of digital data; the authorities of course want to prevent import of various things – child pornography, bomb-making plans, copyright-violating media, and so on. They may demand that you give them passwords for your phone or laptop, or at least open the devices to them; they may also want the keys for any encrypted data, and in some cases they may also demand your social media passwords. Arguably all these are unconstitutional violations of privacy but the government position is that they are both lawful and necessary. There are a number of court cases challenging these intrusions, but as of early 2018 no clear resolution is in sight.
The traveller has a no-win dilemma here. If you are subject to a device search, you are already suspected of wrong-doing. If you let them in, they can use any information drawn from your devices to deny your entry and ban you from the United States. Additionally, they can read or copy all sorts of personal data, for example taking your contacts list for use in surveillance. If you decline a device search, they can certainly seize the devices and send them to a digital forensics lab, detain you a while, subject you to questioning, deny you entry and/or ban you from the United States. Of course they can also do any of those even if you comply; one Canadian was denied entry because they suspected he might be a gay prostitute after he let them into his laptop and they discovered he had an account on a dating site which they considered quite dubious.
The only effective mitigation for a device search is to minimize the amount of information they carry to the greatest extent possible. Many travellers find it advisable to leave some devices at home; set up an old laptop without any important private data and take it on your trip and/or buy a "burner" phone to use while travelling. Of course the US is by no means the only place where this might be worthwhile, and probably not even the worst threat; for example these are routine precautions for people bound for China.
For more detail on your rights and on defenses, the EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital civil rights advocacy group) have a guide to Digital Privacy at the U.S. Border.
The US 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 (e.g. flights from Mexico to Canada). Criteria to get onto that list are infamously opaque and the only reasons ever cited are "security" and despite many arguing that there should be, there is little to no legal recourse to get off the list once on it. In the case of mistaken identity (i.e. if somebody on the list has the same name as you), you can apply to the DHS Traveler Redress Inquiry Program, and if successful, you will be assigned a redress number that you can provide your airline with so they know that you are not the person on the list. Unfortunately, there are multiple lists maintained by various entities in multiple countries and bad information tends to propagate, so even if you manage to get off one list, the wrong information is likely to persist on others.
In Canada marijuana became legal, including for recreational use, in 2018. US officials have said Canadians may be banned for life from entering the US for legally smoking it, or for working for or investing in the legal companies involved. Marijuana being legal on the state level in several states of the US - including states that border Canada - has no bearing on this as immigration (and being turned back at the border) is a federal matter and federal law continues to deem cannabis illegal.
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. Nearly all flights from Canada and East Asia to Latin America pass over the US, as do many flights from Canada to East Asia. Even domestic Canadian flights may do so since the geographically-shortest paths from Montréal to Halifax or Toronto to Winnipeg cross US territory.
All flights travelling through the airspace of the United States are required to provide passenger details to US authorities, even if there is no intention to land in the US. 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.
Some people avoid visiting or transiting the US because of perceived high risk of COVID-19 there. It is not clear to what extent this perception is justified; certainly much of the US has less strict anti-COVID rules than many other places and some of the statistics are worrying, but some other countries are much worse and, as of early 2022, the situation is slowly getting better everywhere.
As of early April 2022, the US reports 1.14 million active COVID cases — diagnosed but not yet either recovered or dead — out of a world total of 44.5 million; both numbers are considerably lower than they were a month ago and falling. That means roughly one in 300 Americans, plus however many are infected but not diagnosed, can spread the disease.
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 and on resident aliens, 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 undocumented 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.
Former citizens may potentially be discriminated against when trying to reenter. Although in theory you should have no issue in re-entering the country as a new foreign citizen (provided you meet the relevant entry requirements), passports showing the US as your birthplace will raise suspicions and the immigration officer can reject your entry if they are not satisfied with the genuineness of your travel. Moreover, if the Department of Homeland Security believes you renounced your citizenship for the purpose of avoiding taxes, you may be denied entry.
- See also: Avoiding travel through Canada
Traveling from Europe or Asia via Canada allows reaching a number of Caribbean and South American destinations (see below for details), unless travel through U.S. airspace is a problem for you. 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. Everyone who can visit Canada visa-free other than US citizens must apply for an eTA, also if they're transiting. It's quite similar to the US ESTA but with some more questions for instance concerning employment. The CAD 7 fee for the eTA can only be paid by credit or debit card.
Virtually all nationalities who need a visa to enter the United States will likewise need a visa to enter Canada. 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 criminal under Canadian federal law), it is likely that you will have even more trouble getting into Canada than into the States.
To North and Central America
Getting from Europe to Canada in practice never requires entering the U.S. and most flights don't even enter U.S. airspace. European airports big enough to have intercontinental flights often serve at least Toronto Pearson. From the largest European hubs there are often several daily flights to Canada's major intercontinental airports in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver and sometimes direct flights to other Canadian airports too (Calgary in particular has several connections through Air Transat, and soon WestJet as well).
As a rule Mexico City Benito Juarez Airport can be reached on non stop flights from most of the busiest airports in Europe, both by Aeromexico and European carriers. Mexican beach destinations, Cancún in particular, are also served by nonstop flights from Europe.
Iberia flies from Madrid Barajas to several Central American airports; Guatemala City, Panama City, San José. Panama Tocumen and San José have a surprisingly good coverage from major European airports; both also have flights from Amsterdam Schiphol, Frankfurt Airport and Paris CDG. Panama is additionally served from Istanbul Airport, San José from London, Munich Airport and Zurich Airport. From there regional carriers will take you to other parts of Central or northern South America. Note that KLM and Iberia codeshare with regional airlines from other airline alliances on some of these routes and booking them on a single ticket is much cheaper than flying to SJO/PTY and booking onward travel to - say - Managua separately.
To the Caribbean
Cuba and the Dominican Republic are likely the most popular destinations in the Caribbean and there are a number of direct flights from Europe – especially to beach destinations like Varadero, Puerto Plata and Punta Cana – but also to the capitals Havana and Santo Domingo. In addition, Montego Bay in Jamaica is served from several European airports.
Most other islands in the Caribbean were — or are still — ruled by either the British, Dutch or French. Therefore, if the island's airport is big enough for transatlantic flights there are most likely direct (both charter and scheduled) services from the former/current colonial capital; depending on the island Amsterdam Schiphol, London Heathrow, London Gatwick, Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport or Paris Orly Airport and in some cases other European airports too. From there, you can get to the smaller islands by regional flights.
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 in a US port, often in Florida or Puerto Rico. 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 America
In general, nonstop flights between Europe and South America go nowhere near the United States – exceptions are flights to Colombia and Ecuador that might fly over U.S. territories in the Caribbean. Again, the largest European airports all have services to the largest South American airports Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires and Santiago de Chile. From these four hubs there is a good access to all of the rest of the continent. Caracas used to be served from most of the above European airports as well, but in the late 2010s the unrest in the country as well as problems in getting bills owed by Venezuelan entities paid in hard currency has prompted several airlines to suspend their services there meaning that it can be quite difficult as of 2019 to get there.
In addition, capitals of Spanish-speaking countries are in general served by direct flights at least from Madrid but occasionally also other major European airports (for instance, Lima, Quito and Guayaquil are connected to Amsterdam by KLM). Most of the largest cities in Brazil, in turn are served by direct flights from Lisbon and Paramaribo and Cayenne are reachable from Amsterdam Schiphol and Paris Orly, respectively.
There are some non-stop services to Vancouver. Air Canada flies from Sydney to Vancouver non-stop, with an onward direct flight on the same plane to Toronto). In addition, Qantas has seasonal flights on the same route. From New Zealand Air New Zealand has non-stop flights from Auckland to Vancouver.
You can also continue to book flights to Canada via either Auckland or 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.
From most of elsewhere in Oceania the only flights to the Americas go to either Honolulu or Los Angeles and you have to backtrack to New Zealand, Australia or Asia to get to Canada.
To Latin America and the Caribbean
Santiago de Chile is served directly from Sydney and Melbourne by Qantas, and Sydney via Auckland by LATAM. The latter also operates a service from Melbourne. Buenos Aires can be reached by Air New Zealand direct flights from 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.
Getting to the Caribbean or Central America from Oceania entails quite a few flights; you can either fly via Canada or via Santiago or Buenos Aires with at least one additional transfer at some airport in northern South America. Going to some places in the Caribbean that are part of the Commonwealth might be possible with only one change of planes in London but expect the journey to take closer to two days.
Finally, for going to South America there's one rather exotic and probably expensive alternative; perhaps something to be considered for a round the world adventure. Papeete in French Polynesia has flights from some other cities in Oceania as well as from Tokyo. From there, LATAM flies via Easter Island to Santiago de Chile.
From Oceania, you can fly from Sydney or Auckland to Paris via Papeete — but this way you won't avoid travel through the U.S. as this service will land in LAX. Flights via Asia are not only shorter (in most cases) but probably also more frequent.
There are many non-stop flights to Vancouver from major East and Southeast Asian hubs on both Asian and Canadian airlines, as Vancouver is the closest North American port-of-call to Asia. A connection via Seoul's Incheon International Airport may be convenient because that is quite a good airport and closer to Vancouver than most points in Asia. Also, Korea does allow sterile transit so you need not worry about customs or immigration if only changing planes.
There are many non-stop flights from Hong Kong, Beijing, Tokyo, Manila, Taipei, Guangzhou and Shanghai to Toronto, owing to the business links and large expatriate Asian population in the city of Toronto. There are also nonstop flights from Beijing to Calgary and Montreal on Hainan Airlines and Air China respectively (with an onward flight from Montreal to Havana, Cuba), and nonstop flights from Shanghai and Tokyo to Montreal on Air Canada.
Several Middle Eastern carriers fly to Toronto. Moreover Air Canada has some Middle Eastern airports in their route network. Royal Jordanian and Qatar Airways fly to Montreal from Amman and Doha respectively, and Turkish serves Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal from Istanbul.
There are also flights to Toronto from South Asia. Air Canada connects Delhi to Toronto, and PIA has flights from several Pakistani destinations.
To Latin America and the Caribbean
Being located roughly on the other side of the planet, there are very few direct connections between Latin America and the Far East and you're in for a lengthy trip no matter which way you travel. While direct services do exist, due to the long distances there are hardly any non-stop flights. The plane has to stop and refuel somewhere, and that somewhere is for some routes an airport in the United States. Increasingly fuel efficient planes with bigger and bigger tanks bring longer and longer routes into the realm of possibility, so direct routes deemed impossible a few years ago may be tantalizingly close to reality.
One-stop connections from Asia to South and Central America and the Caribbean are possible by transiting via major European hubs. Passengers heading to South America may also consider transiting via Oceania (as described above) or southern Africa (as described below).
Benito Juarez Airport in Mexico City is the Latin American airport with the largest number of connections from the Far East; Aeromexico flies there from Tokyo, Seoul and Shanghai (stop in Tijuana). Additionally, ANA flies there from Tokyo, Hainan Airlines from Beijing (stop in Tijuana) and China Southern from Guangzhou (stop in Vancouver, Canada). From there you can fly on to elsewhere in Latin America and the Caribbean. Finally Air China flies from Beijing to Havana with a stop in Montreal, and to Sao Paulo with a stop in Madrid.
From the Middle East the situation is the opposite, you can get directly to South America, but will need to transfer to get to Mexico, Central America or the Caribbean. Emirates (from Dubai), Qatar (from Doha) and Turkish (from Istanbul) all have services to Sao Paulo and Buenos Aires. Emirates also flies to Rio de Janeiro and Santiago de Chile.
Transfer in Europe for African citizens
The countries in the Schengen area have a liberal policy when it comes to airside transit; only citizens of six African (in addition to six Asian) countries need a visa for that. The UK maintains a much stricter policy and citizens of about 2/3 of the African countries must obtain a transit visa.
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 from Cairo and Ethiopian from Addis Ababa to Toronto. Both Air Canada and Royal Air Maroc fly from Casablanca to Montreal, and Tunisair flies there from Tunis, though for African and Middle Eastern citizens going via Canada is often not a much better alternative.
If heading from Africa to anywhere in South America – or for that matter anywhere in Latin America – there are a number of routes going via Brazil. Be aware that if you come from a yellow fever endemic country, a vaccination certificate is mandatory in order to enter Brazil. From the southern part of the continent, South African Airways and LATAM fly directly from Johannesburg to São Paulo and TAAG Air Angola flies direct from Luanda to Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo and Havana. For travelers starting in Eastern Africa, Ethiopian flies from directly from Addis Ababa to Sao Paulo and onwards to Buenos Aires, plus the Gulf States carriers offering a larger range of South American destinations may also be worth considering. Coming from Northern or Western Africa you can fly to Sal in Cape Verde and take Cabo Verde Airlines to Fortaleza, Recife or Salvador. Finally, Royal Air Maroc flies from Casablanca both to Rio and Sao Paulo.
Getting around the Western Hemisphere without landing in the U.S. is for the most part doable. There's a good selection of nonstop flights from Canada to Mexico, Central America, South America and Caribbean, but all of them pass through US airspace. If this is a problem for you, the only feasible alternative is flying a long detour via some European airport. What's more, the shortest path from eastern Canada to Spain and Portugal (which as per above have great connections to Latin America) as well as to North Africa (from where there are some flights to South America) crosses the northeastern U.S.
There are also good connections between Mexican, Central American and South American airports. However, Caribbean airports are in general only connected to other Caribbean airports and to airports in the US and Canada. Santo Domingo, Punta Cana and Havana have a range of flights to mainland Latin America, and some airports in the southern Caribbean have services to Caracas and Bogotá.