How International Airports Differ from Those in the US

This is more of a beginner article, but may be useful to you if you’re going abroad for the first time. Airports in many countries follow a completely different system than what you might find in the US. I thought it might be useful to point out some of the major differences so that you’re not caught unawares.

Bring a Printed Itinerary to Get Into the Airport or Enter the Country

In some countries — India, Sri Lanka and Indonesia in my experience — there may be security agents at the entrance of the airport. You will need to show proof of an itinerary to even enter. This can present a “chicken and egg” problem if you were intending to check in and receiving a boarding pass inside. Often a digital itinerary on your phone or tablet won’t suffice, only paper. What do you do?

The solution is to ask your hotel to print your itinerary, or bring a complete copy of your itinerary with you before you travel. This can also help if you’re entering a country that wants to see proof that you have plans to exit as a condition for granting a visa.

Typically, an itinerary isn’t needed anywhere in Europe or most developed Asian countries, but further afield, bring a printed copy.

Likewise, if you’re going somewhere that needs a visa, print your visa or a visa-on-arrival letter before the first flight of your itinerary. I got an unscheduled tour of the Cathay Pacific offices in Taipei because I was continuing to Hanoi and thought I could simply print the letter en route in Hong Kong. (Thank you immensely to the really nice check-in agent there!)

Check-in Desks are Staffed by Different Airlines Throughout the Day


Unlike in the US, airlines don’t “own” a particular terminal or part of the airport in many cases. The Cathay Pacific check-in counter in the morning might become the Air France counter at night. In large international airports, check the monitors when you arrive to see where your airline check-in counter is located. Typically, it will specify a row of windows that are sequentially numbered, like 86-89. Often these banks are grouped together and there are big signposts labeled A, B, C, D, and so on to help you navigate. Find the letter, then your window number.


Keep it mind that unless your airline has a hub at the current airport, the check in window will likely not be open until three hours prior to departure. Getting the to airport four hours in advance might mean you are stuck in the departure hall for an hour with nothing to do.

Departure Fees May Occur (Rarely)

It’s increasingly rare, but some countries still require passengers to pay an exit tax or departure fee before admitting them into the secure area. Make sure you keep some money in the local currency if the country you are departing maintains this practice.

Security and Passport Control

After you receive your boarding pass at check in, you’ll be guided to a security checkpoint. This is pretty similar to the US, though you rarely will have to remove shoes or liquids (each container of liquid is still likely to be capped at 3.4 oz = 100 mL). Don’t expect exceptions to be made for juice or baby formula, and be sure to carry the written prescriptions or pharmacy receipts for any prescription medication.

Another major difference in security is the use of bins for your hand luggage and loose items. Unlike the US, where these bins are optional, and only for loose items like jackets or phones, they are often mandatory abroad for all items including roll aboard bags.

Passport control occurs after security if you have plans to exit the country, something that leaving the US does not require. Be sure to have your departure card (provided by some countries when you landed — keep it in your passport and don’t lose it!) and passport ready for the agent. They’ll stamp it on the way out.

Duty Free Shopping

International travel has been the hallmark of duty-free (or tax-free) shopping. Many luxury goods, particularly, alcohol, tobacco, specialty food, perfumes, and occasionally clothing will be sold at lower prices. You will typically need to show your boarding pass as your check out to demonstrate that you are taking these goods out of the country and qualify for tax-free treatment. The items you buy will be sealed in a bag that you should not tamper with until you are at home.

Americans should be aware that they are prohibited from bringing in meat or dairy products from Europe (no serrano ham or French Brie), any vegetables/fruits, and any Cuban-made goods (specifically cigars, Havana Club Rum or other alcohol and tobacco), though this ban will likely be lifted soon. These will be confiscated by customs agents upon discovery, so don’t buy it just as you are about to head home.


Alcohol is limited to 2 liters of DUTY-FREE purchase, but because the US has comparatively low alcohol taxes, you can always buy more, declare the value on the arrival form and pay a small fee if the customs agents decides you should.

Lounges Are More Common and Accessible

Lounge access is more common abroad if you are on a business or first class ticket or hold mid-tier status with an airline of the same alliance as the one you are flying with (oneworld Alliance, Star Alliance, or Skyteam). If you are flying in a premium cabin, it might be worthwhile to check out your airline’s lounge, or a contract lounge with the logo of the airline you are flying to see if you have access. There is almost always complimentary alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, pastries, and snacks (though quality varies widely by carrier).

If you’re not sure that your airline has a lounge, the free LoungeBuddy app can help. It may even identify multiple lounges at the same airport, some with better amenities than others.

Find Your Gate by Time, Not Destination

Unlike in the US, where destinations are listed alphabetically, nearly every airport abroad lists flights chronologically by departure time. If you go to any bank of monitors marked “Departures” and do not see your flight, wait for it to page through to your flight’s departure time. The monitors routinely scroll through both the local language and English, so be sure to wait until it’s gone through the entire cycle. If your flight is departing more than three hours from the current time, it may not be on the monitors yet.

Similar to check-in, gates are not “owned” by particular airlines at most airports. A gate may be used by one airline in the morning, and the signage and branding will change to a different airline in the afternoon.


Boarding by Bus and Stairs

Once you get to the gate, boarding will commence similarly to most flights in the US, with an added passport check (and possible security screening) just before you board the jetway or bus. In nearly every case, across most airlines in the world, you need to be at the gate 20 minutes before the scheduled departure time or you may be denied boarding.

Hand luggage size can also be an issue, since many carriers will not allow the larger sizes routinely allowed in the states and will put a sticker on “approved” hand luggage. Many overhead bins have not been enlarged to fit “American-sized” luggage. Pack light! Here are some tips for choosing appropriate luggage to take abroad.

Many times, large airports have outgrown their gate capacity and will use buses to ferry you and other passengers to a remote stand, where you will board the aircraft via a staircase mounted to the front or back of the plane. Be sure you are easily able to lift your hand luggage up a flight of stairs.

Once onboard, find your seat as quickly as possible. Most international carriers also expect you to keep your window shade open during taxiing, takeoff and landing, so do not fiddle with it until you are airborne or the crew may ask you to open the window again.


For many of you, this primer is old hat, but feel free to share with friends and family that are preparing for their first trip abroad, or are heading overseas for the first time in a while. Comment below if you have other tips or observations about how international travel differs from domestic procedures.

Featured Photo Credit: Robert Price

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *