The United States is a popular destination for travellers from the UAE, and anyone flying stateside from the capital can clear US immigration before departing.
The UAE is one of only six countries in the world to offer this service — the others are Ireland, Aruba, the Bahamas, Canada and Bermuda.
The service is available at Abu Dhabi International Airport on daily Etihad flights to Washington and Chicago, and on the airline's 11 flights per week to New York. It allows passengers to clear security, customs and immigration before getting on flights.
This means that on arrival in the US, travellers are processed as domestic rather than international arrivals, which allows them to skip on-arrival customs and security checks, and go directly to any connecting flights.
All passengers flying from Abu Dhabi must clear US immigration in the UAE, and there’s a few things to know before you go. Here’s The National’s guide to navigating US pre-clearance at the Abu Dhabi International Airport.
1. Get your paperwork in order
The documents needed for entry to the US depend upon the reason for travel, nationality and length of stay, so make sure the right paperwork is organised beforehand.
If flying under the visa waiver Esta programme, which allows people from 40 countries to travel visa-free, apply for approval at least three days before the flight. This service costs $21, payable on application. It allows travellers to stay in the US for up to 90 days so long as they have a machine-readable passport and a confirmed return or onward flight ticket.
For those flying on a US visa, it’s a longer process, which takes anywhere from a few weeks to a few months. Once the relevant paperwork is approved, it will reflect on the US immigration system, and officers will be able to see it at the Abu Dhabi airport.
2. Stay up to date on Covid-19-related travel rules
At present, most travellers flying to the US must show proof of vaccination against Covid-19, or a valid exemption certificate. Vaccines need to be one of those approved by US authorities and the second dose must have been received at least 14 days before arriving in the US. Children under 18 and US citizens are exempt.
Face masks are still required on all Etihad flights, and the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also recommends wearing masks on public transport and in closed spaces. No PCR tests are required for travel to the US since the country eased travel restrictions in June.
3. Complete preflight departure forms
To clear US immigration in Abu Dhabi, there are a few forms that need to be filled out. Etihad’s combined disclosure and attestation form is mandatory as per CDC rules. It requests basic details about the trip, such as the passenger's name, flight number and departure date.
A contact tracing form is also mandatory for all travellers. To complete this, a booking reference number and an address in the US, which can be a hotel or an Airbnb, is needed. This must be completed no more than 72 hours before flight departure, and families travelling together only need to complete one form. It’s available on Etihad’s website.
4. Pack to US security standards
US Customs and Border Protection officers enforce strict guidelines on liquids being less than 100ml in size and fitting into one single zipped plastic bag. This applies to all liquids, including those purchased at duty free, even if they are in sealed airport shopping bags.
Several food, plant and other products are also prohibited from being taken to the US, so it's worth double-checking on any souvenirs carried on. The list of what is and isn’t permitted on international flights here.
5. Give yourself plenty of time
Clearing immigration in Abu Dhabi adds a little time to the journey before departure, but saves time on the other end, so it's worth organising plans to have more pre-departure time than normal.
Check-in for all Etihad flights to the US closes two hours before departure. After that, there’s an initial security check — the same one that all Abu Dhabi airport passengers go through, followed by a second security checkpoint located near gates 58 and 61, reserved for US-bound travellers.
If flying business, skip the line for security, but the subsequent US immigration checkpoint does not offer fast-track for premium passengers and lines can be long. The pre-clearance service closes 60 minutes before departure, so make sure to keep a little more than an hour before flight time.
6. Expect to answer some questions
The immigration desks are manned by US border patrol officers who will ask questions about the trip. Some basic ones include where, why and for how long the passenger will be in the US, and travellers may also be asked follow-up questions such as what their occupation is or if they’ve ever travelled to the US before.
If flying with more than $10,000 worth of cash, it will have to be declared, as will confirmation of not carrying prohibited items such as seeds or meats.
Many travellers arrive at these immigration point with reams of paperwork, but in reality, if completed properly, all that is needed is a passport, boarding pass and visa copy, if applicable. Travellers will also have their picture taken for US authorities, and be asked to identify their checked luggage — which will be shown on a monitor by the border patrol official.
7. Make use of Etihad's US lounge
There are a handful of gates on the other side of US pre-clearance, as well as a small retail kiosk. Economy passengers can proceed directly to their gate, while premium travellers can access a dedicated Etihad US lounge.
This is a smaller version of Etihad’s Business class lounge and has comfortable sofas, bathrooms, Wi-Fi, complimentary drinks and a small selection of light bites and snacks. For passengers flying economy who want to access to the lounge, there's an eight-hour pass for Dh185 for adults, and Dh90 for children, subject to availability.
8. Hit the ground running
When landing in the US, there’s no need to go through any additional checks or security clearances. Simply disembark and follow signs to baggage collection or connecting flights if travelling to another destination in the US.