Let's say somebody charters a small airplane from Canada and flies into the US (after receiving clearance from the US ATC). After crossing the border, they land on a small airstrip in the middle of nowhere instead of going to an airport with a customs facility.

Would anything stop them from doing so? Would the police be notified immediately by the ATC? Is all international air traffic closely monitored until they pass through customs?

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    $\begingroup$ If one wanted to smuggle across what is famously "the longest undefended land border in the world", there would be easier ways than using a plane! $\endgroup$
    – AakashM
    Commented May 7, 2014 at 14:44
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    $\begingroup$ What happens is it crashes at a large airport and nobody notices for hours. $\endgroup$
    – fooot
    Commented May 7, 2014 at 15:10
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    $\begingroup$ @NateKerkhofs for mechanical issues when you need to get tot he ground NOW and the middle of nowhere strip is closest $\endgroup$ Commented May 8, 2014 at 8:45
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    $\begingroup$ en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mathias_Rust even the USSR failed to act on an intrusion like that, and their air force had standing orders to force to land any intruder and shoot if that didn't work... The US are more friendly. $\endgroup$
    – jwenting
    Commented May 8, 2014 at 11:08
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    $\begingroup$ Just admit it: you were not thinking about the Canadian/US border, but in the Mexico/US border. $\endgroup$ Commented May 8, 2014 at 11:20

3 Answers 3


It is usually required to file a flight plan for international flights (with very few exceptions), and I'll assume this is the case for Canada/US as well, but I'm not 100% sure of this. In this case you have two options

  1. You close your flight plan and let ATC or FSS know where you are, they'll note it's an international flight that landed somewhere without customs, and you're likely to end up in trouble.
  2. You don't close your flight plan, and you'll trigger a search-and-rescue operation as you'll eventually be overdue, drawing attention to yourself, and you're equally likely to end up in trouble. Not to mention that you'll probably be liable for the cost of the search-and-rescue.

You could of course file a plan with a drastically reduced TAS, do a very quick stop, and arrive at the original destination within the grace period. I don't know if that will trigger any surveillance systems though.

If you don't file a flight plan and cross the border anyway, I'm guessing that you will indeed trigger some alerts though.

  • $\begingroup$ So, to answer, the OP, it's legally required that you go through customs the first time you land in the US, and if you chose to go to a field with no customs office (whether in a filed plan or not), you would be in trouble? That is, assuming you don't have a good excuse such as an engine failure. In such cases, are you supposed to notify the local police to get on record as having "properly" entered the country? I've heard of international flights being diverted to an airport with no customs (or closed for the night) and they kept everyone on board all night. $\endgroup$
    – Phil Perry
    Commented May 7, 2014 at 17:10
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    $\begingroup$ @PhilPerry In the event of an emergency landing, all persons and cargo must remain on board the plane until customs and immigration agents arrive to admit them legally—whether that takes one hour or ten hours. If the plane is on fire, they might make an exception. $\endgroup$
    – StephenS
    Commented Feb 22, 2020 at 16:14
  1. Nothing would stop them from doing this unless someone dropped a dime on this flight with credible evidence that this would happen.

  2. Yes police or the DEA would be notified. This is the profile of a drug smuggler.

  3. If you act like a drug smuggler, expect to be treated like a drug smuggler. Is all traffic scrutinized? I cannot confirm that all traffic is so closely monitored. But much of it is. Currently there has been more than a few encounters with local police notified by the CBP for "suspicious" flight between California and points east with no border crossing and no probable cause. These flights have been met with up to a dozen officers with arms drawn. Illegal stops, IMHO but I am no lawyer. So if they stop a plane after it flew from San Diego to Albuquerque (as one example) it is highly likely that they would meet a plane that diverted to a different destination than it had filed for, coming in from Mexico or Canada.


When considering flying an aircraft across the U.S. border, you also have to consider that there is extensive radar coverage of all airspace within the U.S., with varying flight ceilings for different classes of aircraft. Monitored not just by the FAA, but also the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Defense.

This isn't just a safety issue of resolving conflicting flight paths, maintaining air corridors, managing airport capacities, and avoiding collisions. This is also an issue of safeguarding national boundaries and preventing smuggling and terrorism by tracking authorized and unauthorized entries.

Entering the country by crossing into its airspace without filing a valid flight plan and having a valid visa/proof of citizenship would constitute a crime of illegal entry. Landing in an out of the way location without a valid customs zone could be construed as trying to avoid registering your presence to the U.S. government, declaring imported goods, paying taxes, or a more nefarious purpose.

The worst case scenario, depending on what the current DHS security level is, could result in you picking up an escort of F-16s to take you to a secured airfield where federal agents will take you into custody, do an extensive full body cavity search, grill you to the nth degree as to your origins and purpose, and detain you for prosecution on any number of charges that are based on what they dig up on you. And don't forget that the NSA has been collecting a vast amount of information on everybody.

Department of Homeland Security U.S. Customs and Border Protection: Pleasure boats and private flyers


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