What to do at an airport – step-by-step guide for first time international travellers

First-time international travelers are often anxious, almost petrified at the prospect of stepping into the airport. Check-in baggage, hand-baggage, security check, immigration etc. confuse and compound their fears. International air-travel is quite simple and this article explains the procedures in an easy to understand way.

Just the thought of being thousands of feet above sea-level, trapped in a metallic flying contraption that moves at almost the speed of sound, can be quite unnerving. It is normal to have your fears, especially if you are on your first ever overseas trip. But, let me put your fears to rest - flights, whether domestic or international, are generally safe.

The airline crew is always ready to assist you and take care of your comfort. It is best to sit back and enjoy your flight – watch something on the in-flight entertainment system or order yourself a drink (only on international circuit). Or better still take a snooze, so you arrive at your destination fresh and energized.

However, just the thought of being at the airport is known to make many a first-time flyer anxious. How to check-in baggage, what is hand baggage, what happens during the security check, what are the procedures for immigration etc., are countless questions that are known to give the jitters to people going abroad for the first time.

All these apprehension and embarrassment are quite honestly, unfounded, especially, if you know the airport procedures. I am writing this step b step guide, keeping in mind all the fears of first time international flyers. It will help you blaze through the 'difficulties' that you foresee at the airport.

Arrival at the departure airport

Railway trains depart from different platforms, similarly, aeroplanes depart from different terminals. It is advised to check the departure terminal before you arrive at the airport, so you do not waste precious time shuttling around, looking for the right terminal.

Ensure that you arrive ahead of time, as scheduled by the airlines. International flight check-ins usually begin three hours prior to departure. So, be there on time. Also, have your ticket and passport in hand, for they will be inspected at the gate before you are allowed entry into the airport.

If you are old and/or ill you can request the airline that you will be flying with for assistance. They will provide necessary support, including a wheelchair and an assistant, who will be with you until you board your flight. Personal attendants, without a valid ticket, will not be permitted inside the airport.

Entering the airport

Entry into the airport is allowed to passengers in possession of a valid ticket and passport. You will not be allowed to enter the airport, without these. Your flight must also be scheduled within the next couple of hours. You cannot enter the airport, even if you have a valid ticket and passport if your flight is scheduled the next day.

Transfer your luggage onto a trolley and stroll it into the airport.


Check-in is a procedure where you get a boarding pass, against your flight ticket, which you use to get on the flight. The boarding pass mentions –

  • your name
  • your seat number
  • the flight number
  • the departure time
  • the gate number

A number of airlines prefer that passengers check-in online. Some have begun charging a fee for airport check-ins. You can have someone to help you with online check-in or do it yourself, as it is fairly simple.

Check-in counters at airports allow manual check-ins. Once you enter the airport look for the check-in counters of the airlines you are flying with. There will be a queue. The check-in procedure entails three parts –

  • Actual check-in where you submit your ticket and passport to the airline staff. They check the same with the data they have to confirm that you are booked on the said flight
  • The next step involves handing the baggage to the ground handling staff. At this point your luggage will be weighed, to check if it conforms to the regulations. You will be asked to pay for excess baggage if your baggage weighs in excess of the permitted weight or the dimensions of the baggage do not comply with the luggage rules. Your baggage is tagged and placed on the conveyor belt which shifts it to the luggage hold of the aircraft. The number of pieces of baggage that you check-in, is endorsed on the ticket. You will receive the luggage at the destination airport. Your hand baggage is also checked for weight and dimensions and you'll be given tags to place on them
  • The airline staff will now hand you your boarding pass. This is a very important piece of document, so keep it as safe as your passport. You now proceed for the security check


The security-check generally has a long line. Once you reach your turn, place your hand-baggage, including all the gadgets that you are carrying for scanning and proceed for being frisked. This is a standard procedure, no need to get perturbed over it.

Carry a medical certificate in case you have foreign metallic objects such as artificial joints, pacemaker, plates and pins etc., fitted inside you.

The frisking is normally quick and over in the blink of an eye. The security personnel will stamp the boarding pass and allow you to move on. Only if there is a doubt will you be asked to proceed for further checks.

You can now collect your baggage and other possessions and proceed to Immigration and Customs controls.

Immigration and Customs controls

International travelers have to go through Immigration and Customs check. This is done at the point of Departure and at Arrival. This is again a standard practice and you should be fine if you adhere to precautions –

  • The Immigration Officer will ask to see your Passport, Visa and travel documents and ask the purpose of your visit
  • Adhere to the rules of items permitted to the country you are headed. Do not be in possession or carry any items that are banned. You must know that you will not be allowed to carry certain foods and plants because they carry the risk of spreading infection. Some countries are very strict about what they allow inside their country and you could face prosecution if found carrying banned goods
  • You are entitled to carry a fixed amount of foreign exchange on international flights. Make sure that the amount in your possession does not exceed that limit

Waiting Area/Lounge

Once the security-check is completed you will be seated in the waiting area/lounge until your flight is ready for boarding. Where you wait depends on the type of ticket you are carrying. Airlines have dedicated lounges for passengers traveling Business Class and First Class. Those traveling Premium Economy or Economy wait in the normal waiting area. A few Airlines will allow you access to the Lounge, at an extra charge.

While you wait you can make purchased at the duty-free shops or grab a bite at a restaurant.


Once an announcement that your flight is ready boarding is made, get your boarding pass in hand and head towards the gate. The ground staff will check your boarding pass and allow you to pass through and you can proceed towards the Passenger Boarding Bridge also called Jet Bridge and walk straight, into the aircraft.

Sometimes the aircraft can be parked away from the Terminal, in which case the Airlines will provide shuttle service to the tarmac.

Boarding is officially closed about 15-20 minutes before take-off. Announcements are made (by name) for passengers who fail to report for boarding. However, once the door of the flight is closed, the cabin crew will not anyone to board the flight.


A Flight Attendant will greet you as you board the flight. The seat numbers are displayed on the overhead panel. The numbering starts from the front, where the aircraft's nose is. So, the lower numbers will be situated in the front and the higher numbers closer to the tail. Ask the Flight Purser for assistance if you need help, locating your seat.

Do the following, once you get to your seat –

  • Store your hand baggage in the overhead compartment
  • Switch off your electronic devices or put them in Airplane Mode
  • Seat yourself and follow the safety instructions that will be announced shortly before take-off
  • Finally, put your seat in an upright and fasten your seat belt
  • If you have a window seat then keep the shade open on the porthole
  • In case you are seated by the Emergency Exit, the Flight Attendant will ask you if you are willing to operate the Escape Hatch door in case of an emergency. They will demonstrate what needs to be done. However, if you aren't confident to take over this responsibility, let the staff know. They will change your seat and delegate the responsibility to someone willing

The aircraft starts taxiing towards the runway and once it reaches the end of the runway the pilot revs up the engine. You will hear and feel the roar as the plane steadily gathers momentum. If you look out of the window, you will notice the plane whooshing past everything and soon it will gain the speed for the lift-off and you'll finally be airborne.


Once the plane has reached a safe height the seat belt sign will turn green, indicating that it is now fine to remove it and you are free to walk around the aircraft. Nonetheless, in case of air turbulence and rough weather the Captain will ask passengers to get back to their seats and put on the seat belt.

You can now explore the in-flight facilities available for your entertainment. Meals and drinks are served onboard international flights. You can state your meal and drinks preference and sit back and enjoy the flight.

Most captains speak to the passengers over the PA system giving relevant information. Such as the height the plane is cruising at, the weather at the destination city and the regions that the aircraft is flying over.


As the flight approaches its destination the plane will begin to descend. Passengers will be asked to be seated with the seat belts on. There will be no more food and drinks served and use of the toilet is prohibited.

You'll feel a small bump, as the aeroplane touches the tarmac. The plane will proceed to move on the runway, gradually slowing down, until it comes to a halt. Then it taxis to the bay and you need to remain seated, with the seat belt on, while that happens.

Once the seat belt sign turns green, you can get up and take your baggage from the overhead luggage bin and proceed towards the exit.

Final formalities

Once inside the airport terminal, you can head towards the baggage carousel to pick up your checked-in baggage. Next, go to the immigration counter (you'll probably find a long queue). Just wait your turn. The immigration officer will check your documents (passport and visa etc.) and ask you your purpose of visit. The officer will then stamp your passport and you can freely exit the airport and from thereon travel around the country as a domestic traveler.


  • Ques: How do you answer purpose of visit?
  • Ans: Be honest with your response. State the exact reason for your travel. If you are attending a wedding, show the wedding invitation as proof. If you are traveling on business or official purpose then tender relevant documents that show the appointment letter or conference invitation etc.
  • Ques: Where do you do your immigration check of you are flying for example, to London from Hyderabad via Mumbai?
  • Ans: The Hyderabad to Mumbai leg of the journey will be as a domestic flyer and will not require immigration check. The International flight will take-off from Mumbai, hence the immigration check will be carried out at Mumbai, where the international flight originates
  • What are the post-arrival immigration procedures?
  • You will go through immigration when you arrive at the international destination. There will be different queues for different categories of travelers. For instance –

    1. Queue for citizens of the host country
    2. In London you'll find a queue for travellers from EU nations
    3. A queue for non-immigrant visitors
    4. In the US there is a counter for Ex-Servicemen, and surprisingly, personnel from any nation who have served their nation can check in this queue. Ensure that you stand in the correct queue, to avoid unnecessary delays
    5. What questions are asked at the immigration?
    6. Always be courteous to the immigration officials, smile and say hello. Remember, they are just doing a job and it is their job to ask questions. You can be asked the following – What is the purpose of your visit? How long you intend to stay? What do you intend to do, during your stay? Where will you be staying? The questions are general and only if you raise suspicion will they probe and ask more searching questions or take you for further questioning
    7. Ques: What to do if the connecting flight is the next day?
    8. You will need to stay the airport and make use of the facilities available at the airport. You can leave the airport only if you have a Visa for the country of transit. And can do so only after an immigration check

    This should help you get over your fears. If you have any questions, feel free to ask them through the comment section.

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