If it’s your first time taking an international flight, the process at the airport can seem daunting. After taking dozens, maybe even hundreds, of international flights, here is my advice for what to expect at the airport.
Getting to the Airport
A big difference between international flights compared to domestic ones is that you should get to the airport much earlier. It’s best to check your documentation closely to see exactly what time frame is recommended for the airport you are leaving from. I have seen anywhere from 2-4 hours.
I personally always arrive at least three hours before my flight. It’s stressful enough dealing with airport chaos, long lines and potential issues without putting yourself under time pressure too.
Note though, that unless you are flying on an airline from its home port (think Qantas from Sydney, Singapore Airlines from Singapore or Emirates from Dubai) you will not be able to check in your bags early.
You will then end up standing waiting with your luggage waiting for the check-in to open. This means you don’t want to get there too early either. It can be a fine balance sometimes.
What to Expect at the Airport
Let’s break down what to expect step by step when you hit the airport. Ready to dive into this exciting journey beyond your home country?
Note: Occasionally these steps may be in a different order. For example, sometimes passport control is before security, but the basic process is the same.
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Check-in and Drop Off Your Bags
As soon as you enter the airport, you’ll spot the check-in counters. These are your starting point. Here, you’ll get your boarding pass and hand over your luggage if you’ve got any. Just keep your passport and any other documentation handy, as they’ll want to see it to make sure everything’s good.
Often the customer service officer will check things like your visa or ETA, if your passport has enough validity for the country you are going to, and whether you have transport booked to leave the country (if required).
If you’ve got a suitcase, they’ll put a tag on it and send it to your destination. They will also run through a list of forbidden items.
Common items that can cause issues are power banks and liquids, so ensure you understand the rules for the country you are leaving, the country you are arriving at and any airports you may transit through along the way.
Security can seem a bit daunting, but it’s all about keeping everyone safe. As you enter the queue, pay attention to what others are doing and any signs or screens in the area. It often seems that every airport has different requirements for the security check.
Some airports even have slightly different requirements side by side. At my home airport, they have three older-style scanners and one new one. The new one does not require anything to be removed from bags, whereas the older ones still require it.
International security has limits on liquids and gels (LAGS). In many countries, domestic flights have the same requirements, but here in Australia, it’s only international.
This means that all liquids have to be in containers less than 100ml and they all need to fit into a single sandwich-sized (20cm x 20cm) snap lock bag. For the US it’s a quart-sized bag. In the UK it’s a bag with 1 litre capacity.
These sizes are all pretty much the same but do check what the requirements are for your flights.
As you approach the belt, put your bags, jacket, and anything metal in those plastic bins. Sometimes you will be asked to take off your shoes, but mostly you will not.
You’ll walk one by one through a scanner that checks if you’re carrying anything you shouldn’t be. There are different versions of these, and you will be given instructions if they are required.
If the scanner beeps, a security officer will either wave a wand over you or perhaps do a physical check of the area with an issue. You will always be allocated an officer of the same gender to do the check.
Some airports in more conservative countries do these checks in small private booths like a store change room, but generally, it’s a five-second check in which they barely make contact. If a more thorough check is required, you should be able to ask for a private area.
You may also be pulled aside as you walk away from the security belt to do an explosives test. This is generally random, not everyone is checked (although I seem to get chosen more than the average!).
A wand with a small swab on the end will be used to touch various items of clothing, like your sleeves and shoes, and inside any hand luggage you are carrying. The swab will be put in a machine, and seconds later you will be given the all-clear.
Passport Check and Immigration
This is where things get official, you are leaving the country! Head to the immigration counters. They’ll stamp your passport and give you the green light to leave the country.
In many countries now this is an automated process using autogates. You won’t even speak with a person during the process, just slide your passport into the machine.
It will get you to stand on a spot and look at the camera. Your face will be scanned and biometric data used to process your exit from the country.
If the machine doesn’t recognise you or perhaps the chip in your passport is damaged, you will be sent to the manual processing line to wait for an immigration officer to process you manually.
Once you’re through this step, you’re on your way to being an international traveller!
Now, get ready to do a bit of shopping. Walk through the duty-free stores and grab some cool stuff like souvenirs, chocolates, or even a little bottle of local wine. And the best part? You won’t pay extra taxes on these items.
And that’s it! You’re now waiting for boarding. The above process could take 15 minutes or it could take two hours depending on the size of the airport and how many other flights leave around the same time.
If you are doing a tax refund claim, now is the time to do it. Usually, the office will be well-signed, and you will want to give yourself as much time as possible. I have seen huge lines, but they do tend to move quickly.
You can continue to browse the shops in the airport, grab some food in one of the food outlets, or head straight to the gate and get started on reading that holiday book you brought.
Another alternative is to enjoy an airport lounge. While it does vary, many of these lounges provide a range of food and drinks (including alcohol), business services, a peaceful atmosphere and occasionally, showers.
Often the lounges are reserved for high-tier frequent flyers or those that buy an annual club pass, but there are some lounges that offer single entry for a fee. Take a look here to see if your airport is one of them.
Tip: If you bring an empty reusable water bottle with you, you can find a water fountain now and fill it up to take with you on the plane.
This will be allowed in most airports, but there are occasional airports where there is another security check at the gate, Singapore, for example. You will have to wait and fill it up after that check.
Getting on the Plane
While you are shopping or eating, keep an eye on the screens to find out which gate your flight is leaving from. You may have been told which gate at check-in, but often things change between then and your plane arriving.
When it’s time, head to your gate and wait for your turn to board. They usually call passengers row by row or zone, so take note of your seat and zone and just wait to be called.
Show your boarding pass and passport to the staff as you enter the aerobridge. Your boarding pass will be scanned. Make your way towards the plane, taking note if you have to enter through a different door.
Show your boarding pass again to the staff as you enter the plane and off you go to find your seat.
Put your hand luggage in the overhead bin or under the seat in front of you. Get out all the things you are going to need for your comfort, including your water, lip balm, tissues, book and neck pillow.
Most international flights (at least long-haul flights) will supply you with a small pillow and blanket. Some will also offer a small pack containing various items, such as hand sanitiser, ear plugs and an eye mask.
Get comfortable, fasten your seatbelt, and get ready for takeoff! The flight attendants are there to help, so don’t hesitate to ask if you need anything.
Entertainment and Food on the Plane
Long flights are a breeze and generally have some entertainment. Most planes have screens with movies, shows, and games to keep you busy.
It is worth mentioning though, that some planes do not – particularly if you are flying on a budget airline. Check your documentation if you are not sure what your airline offers.
If entertainment is not included, perhaps download some moves of a tv series to a tablet or your phone. I also like to have a pile of podcasts downloaded, especially if I’m on an overnight flight. I find listening to one helps me to block out the aircraft noise when trying to sleep.
Of course, you can also take a book or some magazines, or perhaps a puzzle book. I can do hours or Sudoku or a crossword to keep me busy.
Many airlines will have power in the seats so you can recharge your devices, but again, budget airlines may not, so be prepared with a power bank to keep everything going (but make sure it is within the requirements allowed by the airline – search their website).
And don’t worry about food – they’ll serve you some grub to keep you full. You might have to pay for it though if you are on one of those budget airlines. If you’re on a full-service airline, you will end up with more food (and probably alcohol) than you know what to do with.
When the food is not being served, consider getting up and walking around a little. It’s always a good idea to move to help avoid DVT. Other tips include wearing compression socks and drinking more water than you think is necessary.
Some destinations will require you to fill out an Incoming Passenger Card (Australia is one) and these will be handed out by the flight attendants during the flight. Make sure you read them carefully and fill them out truthfully.
Welcome to Your New Destination!
Landing time! You’ve arrived at your destination. If this has been a long-haul flight, you are likely to be tired and disorientated.
Mostly you will be able to simply follow the crowd to Immigration (if not, look for the signs), where they’ll check your passport again and ask a few questions about your trip. Some countries will require you to provide your fingerprints on entry too.
You might also use e-gates here at your destination, which will again mean simply inserting your passport, reading the instructions, and having your face scanned.
Grabbing Your Bags
Time to reunite with your luggage! Head to the area where bags come out and look for the screens that will tell you what belt your luggage will appear on. Some baggage halls are huge, and sometimes each belt will have luggage from more than one flight on it at a time.
Keep an eye out for yours on the moving belt. Sometimes it can take more than an hour in extreme cases for your luggage to appear. It may seem like there is no more luggage appearing and yours is not there, but it still could be coming.
When I start to worry (which is common because my bags regularly seem to end up in the last few) I take a look around. If there are still a reasonable amount of people waiting for luggage I don’t panic, especially if they are people I recognise from my flight.
If the whole baggage hall empties out and you still don’t have your bag, then there is a very good chance it has gone missing. Somewhere in the baggage hall will be an office where you can report your luggage lost and find out the next thing to do.
Don’t worry too much, most bags are returned within 24 hours, but once at your accommodation it is still a good time to re-read the terms of your travel insurance to find out what and when they cover.
When this happened to me, I was only entitled to compensation once my bag had been missing for more than 24 hours. It ended up being returned to me on the exact same flight the following day, so I didn’t need that insurance after all.
When you do get your luggage, it’s like a little reunion with your stuff!
It’s almost time to exit the airport, but there is just one more step. In some countries, Customs will be almost unnoticeable as you leave. There might just be a luggage scanner off to the side and perhaps one or two staff you can talk to if you know you have something to declare.
You may be asked to put all your luggage through a scanner. Sometimes everyone is scanned, sometimes it’s random, and other times no one is scanned.
For some other countries – like Australia – customs and quarantine are serious business. This is when your luggage may be checked for items that are not allowed into the country. This could be things like food items, cigarettes, alcohol, wooden or animal products etc.
It could even mean your boots, camping and outdoor equipment are checked for soil and sprayed if required. Make sure you are aware of the rules for the countries you are visiting.
While this might all sound daunting, if you carefully read the arrivals card and declare anything you think might be an issue, it’s not usually an issue – you might just lose the item, pay for it to be fumigated or have to pay extra customs tax.
Let the Adventure Begin!
And just like that, you’re in a whole new place! Take a deep breath, get excited, and get ready to explore everything this new adventure has in store for you.
So there you have it, first-time international traveller! The airport process might seem a bit overwhelming, but it’s all part of the amazing journey.
Get out there with your passport and a heart full of wanderlust, and have an incredible time exploring new horizons. Safe travels!
Before you go….
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TRAVEL PLANNING ESSENTIALS
Find flights – I always use Skyscanner as my starting point when searching for flights. One search will give many options including airlines I may not have thought of. This means I can find the best possible flights to suit my needs
Book accommodation – my go to is always Booking.com for the best places to stay. It’s not just hotels anymore, but hostels, apartments, B&Bs and more. I love that the bookings are usually cancellable, and that I can book now and pay later.
Hire a rental car – RentalCars.com is my go to here. It allows me to do just one search and it finds cars from many of the different supplies, so no checking multiple websites to compare.
Get travel insurance – you would have heard by now that saying “if you can’t afford travel insurance, you can’t afford to travel”. If we’ve learnt anything from the last couple of years it should be how essential travel insurance is. I use CoverMore for my insurance.
Pick up an eSIM – I tried an eSIM on my last trip and it was fantastic. I set it up before I went so it was ready as soon as I landed, and I still had access to my home number for emergencies. Get your own eSIM at Airalo.
Book activities, tours & attractions – I use a few different websites for this. Viator and Get Your Guide tend to be the first places I look. In Asia, Klook often has more options, and in Australia it’s Experience Oz.
Manage your money – the best way to manage your different currencies is with an account from Wise. You can hold money in many different currencies, and use them with the ATM card or from your phone.
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