So you thought that being in transit through an airport in the United States wouldn’t involve immigration checks. How wrong you were, my dear friend.
And how wrong I was too. It was only one week before travelling via the USA that I realised I would need an ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization). Even though I would be on US ground only for two hours, and never leaving the airport. I would be “in transit”.
An ESTA is granted upon application to citizens of countries that are part of the Visa Waiver Program, there is also a payment of US$14 fee. You must have been granted an ESTA before you start your trip and the official website to use is https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov. An ESTA is usually granted within hours, at the most, but leaving it to the last minute is never a good idea. Also steer away from any third-party websites that offer to assist with your application: they charge extortionate fees and it is unclear what they do with all confidential data collected!
As you check-in and drop your bag at departure, you will be asked about your ESTA approval. It is a good idea to keep a screenshot of your approval number on your smartphone.
Once you land at your transit airport in the USA, you have to use self-service machines to scan your passport and provide your fingerprints. The machine then spits out a slip that you will show to the immigration officers. If you have the “right” slip, you will be directed to the way out, i.e. the baggage claim area. If instead your slip has a big “X” in the middle – like it happened to me – making you feel like you are about to be refused permission to remain on US ground, you get directed to the immigration desks where your passport will be re-scanned and all your fingerprints will be taken again. Any complicated immigration issues will be assessed on an individual basis by the officers.
And yes, you still get an entry stamp on your passport!
Finally you reach the baggage claim area, most likely confused as to what you are supposed to do (“didn’t my luggage get checked in all the way to my final destination?” will pop up in your mind), where you see a sign for Connecting Flights in the distance.
It all seems a bit over the top for a transit through an airport in a country where you will not stay. But I guess these days it’s better to be safe than sorry.
One final comment: having transited through both Miami and Dallas-FortWorth airports I can only support the comments from my American friends that immigration at Miami airport is the worst in the country!