Why Do You Have to Claim and Recheck Your Bag for a Connecting International Flight in the USA?

If you’ve ever wondered why you have to collect and recheck your suitcase after landing in the United States, we sought out some answers.

Suitcases on a baggage conveyor belt at the airport

Collecting luggage after a flight into the United States is a matter of national security.

Photo by Shutterstock

After landing in the United States following a recent international flight that had been delayed, I collected my checked luggage and walked a few hundred feet to the baggage recheck area, where I was told it was now too close to my connecting flight’s departure time and that my bag could not be rechecked. My suitcase and I would instead have to take the next available flight the following day. Had I not needed to recheck the bag, making that connection wouldn’t have been a problem (another point for Team Carry-On Only).

It struck me that when I fly to Europe with a layover, I am not asked to recheck my bags. In fact, most places I have flown to internationally, I can usually just anticipate that my bags will be checked through to the final destination. But that’s not the case upon arrival in the United States.

As frustrating and inconvenient as the situation was for me and every other traveler who has experienced a similar scenario during a layover flight in the United States after arriving from abroad, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the rechecking process is in place for several critical reasons. Here’s why you need to collect and recheck your bags when re-entering the United States after an international flight.

Why international travelers must collect and recheck bags for their U.S. connecting flight

The foremost reason fo rechecking your bag after an international flight is security.

“It’s part of our efforts to protect the country,” Tammy Melvin, a CBP public affairs spokesperson, told AFAR.

It’s required by several federal statutes and regulations, though the one CBP points to as the driving force appears in the Code of Federal Regulations (specifically Title 19, Chapter I, subsection 162.6), which states that “All persons, baggage, and merchandise arriving in the Customs territory of the United States from places outside thereof are liable to inspection by a CBP officer.”

“Basically, travelers and their items (including their luggage) are subjected to inspection and search upon entering the U.S., and when luggage is pulled and rechecked, it’s going through screening and inspection,” Melvin explained.

Between collecting your luggage and leaving the customs area, CBP officers can ask you to report to a secondary area for further screening of your baggage. Should you be selected, an officer will search through your suitcase to look for items that are not allowed into the country. Having your baggage with you at that time helps streamline that process.

Under that search authority, Customs officers can seize anything they know or have reasonable cause to believe violates a Customs and Border Protection law or Immigration and Customs Enforcement law, as well as laws from roughly 40 other government agencies. That can include items that are stolen or smuggled, controlled substances, or things that are considered unsafe to bring into the country (ranging from fresh fruits and vegetables that could introduce plant pests or disease to weapons and explosive devices), among other objects.

CBP said it also plays a role in enforcing import and export regulations, because when travelers arrive in the United States, they are required to declare certain items, such as gifts, duty-free purchases, or agricultural products. Requiring travelers to collect and recheck their bags, according to CBP, helps ensure that passengers declare all their items accurately, preventing illegal importation of restricted goods and ensuring that travelers pay appropriate duties on their purchases. However, CBP would need to find those goods in a search to be able to enforce those regulations.

Can you avoid rechecking your bag?

You can, of course, avoid rechecking by bringing only carry-on luggage with you, for one. But the only way around rechecking a checked bag for your connecting flight is by going through a preclearance facility before arriving in the United States. CBP has preclearance facilities at 15 locations in 6 countries worldwide, including:

  • Aruba
  • Bahamas (Nassau airport)
  • Bermuda
  • Canada (Calgary, Edmonton, Halifax, Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Vancouver, Victoria, and Winnipeg airports)
  • Ireland (Dublin and Shannon airports)
  • United Arab Emirates (Abu Dhabi airport)

Once through the preclearance facility, all onward flights operate like domestic flights.

What happens if you don’t collect your bag?

The official CBP line is “Baggage not obtained after your international flight will not get to your final destination.”

It’s hard to say whether they mean at all or just with you. If your bag got left behind or was put on the wrong flight and didn’t end up on the conveyor belt, the airline will typically get it to your home (or at least your home airport) as soon as it can, and you can continue your flight path as planned.

If you forget your bag (or claim to have forgotten it, perhaps to make a tight connection), the same may be true. Or it could be declared abandoned, in which case it’s anyone’s guess what will happen to it.

Bailey Berg is the associate travel news editor at AFAR, where she covers breaking news, trends, tips, sustainability, the outdoors, and more. When not interviewing sources or writing articles, she can be found exploring art galleries, visiting craft breweries, hiking with her dogs, and planning her next adventure (at present, she’s been to 75+ countries and hopes to spend time in every one someday).
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