Thursday, September 21, 2006

USA in transit

When looking for flights to see Bee in Canada, I was delighted to learn that Waterloo has, indeed, an International Airport, and that the connection by Northwest/KLM from Frankfurt, either directly or via Amsterdam, is even quite inexpensive. OK, direct means in any case that you have to change planes in Detroit, MI. I do not know whether you are planning to travel to Canada (or to some other country) via the US, but I found the current procedures for transit quite remarkable.

The first, positive thing is that - besides all things fluid or gely outside your body - you are allowed to bring carry-on luggage on board as always. I had the impression that there is quite an incertitude about this among travellers (I was not sure myself before whether I could bring my ibook into the cabin), since I have never before seen the overhead compartments as empty as this time: most overhead compartments on the Amsterdam-Detroit flight were not even half-filled.

But then, the lady at the KLM desk at Frankfurt had told me that my suitcase would be checked through straight to Waterloo. This was not true. At Detroit, all passengers had to collect their luggage at the baggage claim, and go through immigration and customs, including leaving fingerprints and being photographed. Of course, I also had to fill a visa waiver from. I did not really expect to be subject to this whole procedure, since I had a ticket to leave the US two hours later. So, the green from was stapled in my passport, and keeping in mind that you never ever should leave the states with this piece of paper still in your hands to avoid any trouble when you ever should have to go back there, I insisted that the lady at the boarding for the turboprop to Waterloo took it out.

That would not have been necessary, as I learned on my way back. This time, I even had already a boarding pass for the flight to Frankfurt, but immigration and customs were unavoidable. I had to fill, again, a visa waiver form, which I could get neither in Waterloo, nor on the plane to Detroit. Fortunately, there were forms available at the immigration post, and a German speaking Northwest employee was very helpful and even borrowed me her pen. And no Jumbo from Tokyo or so had just arrived, so the huge immigration hall was essentially empty, and the immigration officers quite relaxed and friendly. And, after fingerprinting and photographing, I was told that I can, indeed, keep my visa waiver form in the passport when leaving the US for Canada for a period of less then 30 days. On the other hand, filling that form is no big deal compared to the whole immigration/customs/security recheck procedures...

But this was not the end of the measures necessary for a simple transit: I just had decided, one hour before boarding, to spend the $9.95 for a non-resident access to the Detroit Airport Wireless to transfer my million of Perimeter photos to the Frankfurt server, when a TSA agent informed all of us waiting passengers that right now, fingerprinting and photographing was also required when leaving the US. This is comparably easy, since it is done by machines which scan the passport, give exact instructions what to do with your fingers and where to look for the photo, and finally print out a paper slip with a picture-like pixel code, but you have to walk back the mile or so from the gate to the centre of the terminal, where the machines are located. I was a little upset, since I would have had plenty of time before if anyone had told it me, but now I had to interrupt the file transmission and hurry to these machines, since I did not know how long all this would take...

I the end, all went fine, I got the plane in time, and even all my picture files arrived in Frankfurt 8 hours before me.

However, I really wonder if it is necessary that my fingerprints and my portrait are taken twice within two hours, just because I happen to change planes in Detroit. And, for my next visit in Waterloo, I will probably be looking for affordable flights via Toronto...



  1. The economic tactic is to travel one-way, overstay your visa, and be deported. The food is probably better, too.

    Jackbooted State thugs impressing warrantless search and seizure at airports couldn't catch a cold. It is a crass violation of 4th Amendment rights (re colonial writs of assistance).

    "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."

    The Founding Fathers - petty criminals, libertines, and small business owners to a man - anticipated Bush the Lesser and his thugs in the Second Amendment:

    " ...the right of the People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed."

    Support evolution - shoot back.

  2. Wow, sounds like the hassles are getting even worse. Sadly, Canada is also doing away with 'in transit' status for travellers.

    I would definitely recommend getting flights directly to Canada these days. It often costs more, but I've generally found it a fair trade for the reduced time and hassle.

  3. Dear Stefan,

    I am sorry about the misunderstanding, I guess you took the advice with the I-94W from me. Its not necessary you give it back if you have an opportunity to do it later but still in the time limit. What you should NEVER do though is leave the US without returning the form and not come back within the 30 day period. Then, the next time you try to enter the US, you technically haven't even left and exceeded the 30 days, which can cause a lot of trouble.

    Best, B.

  4. Btw, for visa holders the fingerprints were taken also on leaving the US already last year. I also have some of these printout from the machines. They initially had some problems with reading the passports, so there were always officers standing next to these things.

    I have to admit though this really annoys me. This kind of increased security is not solving any problem. Especially the no-liquids rule is ridiculous, one would think they'd be able to come up with something more sensible (how about you have to take a sip of your beverage?) I mean, they could at least sell soft drinks after the security check or so. The last time I was flying, the stewardesses were running around all the time to distribute water, which people usually bring bottled on a long distance trip.

    Also, it's totally silly you have to pick up your baggage when on transit only. I mean, it's a security RISK, if you have access to your baggage, since you can potentially take out stuff and put it in the hand baggage. What sense does this make?

    When I was at Skyharbour last month I overheard two employees complaining that nobody really knows what is allowed and what not, and where what is allowed and that the regulations about the screening change every day.

    It turned out though that despite all the huge signs they didn't scan the hand baggage and I could have bought some Coke on the gate. Did they really check your baggage when you went on board?

    Best, B.

  5. Dear Bee,

    I guess you took the advice with the I-94W from me.

    No problem - and I got this advise not only from you, Nicole had told me the same. And the website of the US embassy is quite explicit in this respect: Failure to turn in your I-94 (or I-94W) when you leave the U.S. can create a serious problem.

    OK, they also state, in small print, on the general page for the Visa Waiver Program: After entering the US you may travel to Canada, Mexico or the Caribbean within 90 days and re-enter the US using any mode of transport.

    I could have remembered that, though, since I had used this option when we went to Puerto Penasco from Tucson.


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