Some people like to call airports “mini-cities” because they have everything you need: restaurants, shops, and lounges. If you have a few hours to kill before or after your flight, you could spend the time there and take full advantage, right? Maybe, but first you have to learn a few things.
In this article, we’ll explain everything you need to know about staying in airports for long periods of time, whether it’s 2 hours or 24.
Airports are generally divided into two zones: the land side and the air (transit) side, and both have different rules about how long passengers can stay there.
The ground area is the area of the airport that can be accessed by anyone, with or without a ticket. It is the first zone when entering an airport. It usually has check-in counters, baggage drop counters, airline ticket vendors, some shops and the arrivals area.
The boarding area (transit) is the part of the airport that is accessed after going through security control. You will need a valid airline ticket to enter the airside of an airport. In the area of operations you will find all the boarding gates (each plane departs and arrives through a different gate), waiting areas, duty-free shops, restaurants and airport lounges. The area of operations is considered an international area, so you will need to show your passport to enter or exit it.
How long can you stay at an airport after landing?
After landing you can usually stay inside an airport in the security (transit) zone for as long as you like. This means that when you land, you should think twice before going straight to arrivals, especially if you have a few hours to kill. During this time you can use the airport’s VIP lounges, dine in restaurants or simply relax in the waiting areas, which are equipped with WiFi, power outlets, benches and toilets. As soon as you pass through customs or arrivals, you will not be able to re-enter the airside without a new flight ticket.
That being said, there are some exceptions to staying in the area of operations:
- If you have checked baggage. Checked baggage is usually released only after leaving the boarding area, just before customs and immigration. In theory, you can leave your checked baggage in the baggage claim area. Airport staff would end up picking it up, and you could pick it up later, but it increases the risk of theft.
- The airport forces you to go through customs as soon as you land. Some countries, such as the United States, require all passengers arriving from international flights to go directly to Customs and Immigration, which means that you will have to leave the area of operations. This does not usually apply to domestic flights or within the European Union.
- The airport closes overnight. Many small airports typically close between 12 midnight and 4 am, at which time all passengers must leave the airfield and sometimes the entire airport.
If, for any of the above reasons, you have to leave the area of operations, you can also stay on the ground area (accessible to the general public) for as long as you want and even sleep overnight. In fact, most airports have waiting areas there with seats, toilets, WiFi and some shops. However, if the airport closes overnight, including the ground area, you will be asked to leave.
How long can you stay at an airport before the flight?
If you plan to wait for your flight on the ground (accessible to the public) area , you can usually wait there for as long as you want and even sleep overnight. It is very common for people to do this, especially for very early flights. There is usually a seating area, a few shops, a public toilet and free WiFi.
If you want to wait in the air traffic zone (after going through security), you can usually get in just a few hours before your flight. If you have checked baggage, you will need to wait for the check-in counters to open (usually 2-4 hours before your flight) before you can pass through security.
If you don’t have checked baggage, it really depends on the particular airport. The general rule is that airports let passengers through security only on the date of the flight. At most airports, security is closed at night and opens only two hours before the first flight (usually 4-6am).
At most US airports, you will be able to go through security:
- If you leave before 12 midnight, you can go through security at any time on the same date of the flight.
- If you leave very early, you will be able to go through security after 4:30 PM the day before.
How long can you stay in an airport lounge?
In most airport lounges you can stay for 2-3 hours before departure or after landing. Some also offer extended stays of more than 5 hours. However, these time limits are rarely enforced. Normally, if you walk into a VIP room, no one cares how long you stay there, which means you can even spend the night there (of course, if the room doesn’t close at night). This also largely depends on how crowded the lounge is: if it’s full, the lounge staff will start paying attention to who stays too long.
Can you sleep in an airport if you have a night layover?
If you have an overnight layover booked on the same ticket, you will be able to stay in the security (transit) zone until your next flight. This is because on connecting flights, passengers generally do not need to leave the transit area. In fact, on international flights, they are not allowed to do so, because this would mean they would be entering another country, possibly requiring visas and other formalities. Even if the layover airport requires you to go through customs, you will be transferred back to the transit area as soon as you have cleared.
However, if you have booked a connecting flight with separate tickets, the usual rules apply. If you have checked baggage, you will need to pick it up, go through customs and sleep on the ground until the check-in counters open. If you don’t have checked baggage, but you still need to clear customs, you may or may not be able to enter the transit zone immediately, depending on whether security is open and if you are allowed through.
How long can you wait in the arrivals area?
In theory, you can wait in arrivals for as long as you want, because you don’t need to show a ticket to get in, and nobody usually pays much attention to who is waiting in arrivals. So if, for whatever reason, you want to arrive very early and need to kill a few hours, you can spend it in the arrivals hall. It usually has public toilets, a seating area and free Wi-Fi.
However, if you want to pick someone up at the airport and not wait too long, you should arrive at arrivals a few minutes after the flight lands. At smaller airports, people usually get from landing to arrivals in about 10-20 minutes. In medium airports, it should be around 20-40 minutes, and in large ones, it will take a minimum of 40 minutes (closer to 60 minutes on average). This also depends on how crowded the airport is: in high season it will take longer.
A smart idea would be for the pickup driver to arrive a few minutes before the scheduled arrival time and park somewhere nearby. When the passenger arrives, he should call the driver to pick him up, so he can reach the arrivals pick-up point in a few minutes.
Is it possible to live inside an airport indefinitely?
You may have seen the movie “The Terminal” starring Tom Hanks, in which Hanks lived inside an airport for years. Well, it turns out that this movie is made based on real events. She is based on Mehran Karimi Nasseri, who lived inside the Paris airport from 1988 to 2006. She was fleeing Iran to England with a connecting flight in Paris, and was stuck in Paris indefinitely when England denied her entry, and it was not possible to arrive back to Iran. He couldn’t fly back, or leave the airport, or fly anywhere else, so he had to stay in the air traffic portion of the airport, which is considered an international zone.
And it was not the only one, there have been many other cases like this. In 2021, an Estonian man lived in the transit area of the Manila airport for 110 days, when upon arrival in the Philippines, the country went into lockdown and there were no flights back to Estonia.
So yes, it is entirely possible to live inside an airport indefinitely. This can happen when you arrive in a country, but for whatever reason, you’re denied entry, and you can’t come back either. This usually happens with refugees, who cannot return because they are fleeing and the other country does not want to let them in, or with people who have some kind of problem with their passports. Although it may seem like a good idea, we don’t recommend it, because it would feel more like a prison than a nice airport retreat.