Whether you’re an avid traveler or just curious, you may have wondered what exactly makes an airport “international.” With over 40,000 airports around the world, only a fraction of them have achieved this coveted designation.

If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer to your question: An airport is considered international if it has customs and immigration facilities to handle international commercial flights and passengers.

But if you’d like a more in-depth look at international airport requirements and operations, read on as we explore the key factors that define these major transportation hubs.

Customs and Immigration Facilities

When it comes to determining whether an airport is international, one of the key factors to consider is the presence of customs and immigration facilities. These facilities play a crucial role in ensuring the smooth flow of passengers, goods, and services across international borders.


Customs refers to the government agency responsible for regulating and controlling the import and export of goods. At international airports, customs officers are stationed to inspect and process passengers’ baggage and ensure compliance with various customs regulations.

They are responsible for collecting duties and taxes on imported goods, preventing the entry of prohibited items, and enforcing trade laws.

Customs procedures can vary from country to country, but generally involve the declaration of goods and the payment of any applicable taxes or duties. Passengers are often required to complete customs declaration forms, indicating the value and nature of the items they are bringing into the country.

Customs officers may conduct random inspections or targeted screenings based on intelligence or risk assessment.

For more information on customs procedures at specific airports or countries, you can visit the official website of the respective customs agency, such as U.S. Customs and Border Protection or HM Revenue and Customs.


Immigration refers to the process of entering or leaving a country for the purpose of establishing residency or visiting. At international airports, immigration officers are responsible for verifying the identity and legal status of travelers.

They review passports, visas, and other travel documents to determine whether individuals are eligible to enter the country.

Immigration procedures can involve various checks, including biometric scans, fingerprinting, and interviews. Immigration officers may ask questions about the purpose of the visit, intended duration of stay, and accommodation arrangements.

They are also responsible for detecting and preventing the entry of individuals who may pose a security threat or have violated immigration laws.

Each country has its own immigration policies and requirements, so it is important for travelers to familiarize themselves with the specific rules and regulations of their destination. The official websites of immigration authorities, such as U.S.

Citizenship and Immigration Services or UK Visas and Immigration, can provide detailed information and guidance.


In addition to customs and immigration, quarantine facilities are another important component of international airports. Quarantine measures are in place to protect public health by preventing the spread of infectious diseases across borders.

These measures can include screening for symptoms, such as fever or respiratory issues, and conducting health assessments on arriving passengers.

In some cases, passengers may be required to provide proof of vaccinations or undergo medical examinations as part of the quarantine process. Quarantine officers work closely with public health agencies to identify and respond to potential health risks, ensuring the safety of both travelers and the local population.

For more information on quarantine measures and health requirements at specific airports or countries, travelers can visit the official websites of health ministries or international health organizations, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the World Health Organization.

International Flight Capabilities

An airport becomes international when it meets certain criteria that allow it to handle flights to and from other countries. These criteria include international air service agreements, long runways, and extended operating hours.

International Air Service Agreements

One of the key factors that make an airport international is the presence of international air service agreements. These agreements are bilateral or multilateral agreements between countries that allow airlines from those countries to operate flights to and from each other’s airports.

Such agreements govern various aspects such as the number of flights, routes, and passenger rights. They facilitate international travel and promote economic and cultural exchange between nations.

For more information on international air service agreements, you can visit the website of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) at www.icao.int.

Long Runways

Another essential requirement for an airport to be classified as international is the presence of long runways. International flights often require aircraft with larger wingspans and higher takeoff and landing speeds.

Therefore, airports need longer runways to accommodate these larger aircraft safely. Longer runways also provide the flexibility to handle a greater number of flights and a wider range of destinations.

According to data from the Airports Council International (ACI), the average length of runways at international airports is around 3,000 meters, compared to around 2,500 meters at regional airports.

Extended Operating Hours

International airports typically have extended operating hours compared to domestic airports. This is necessary to accommodate the varying schedules of international flights from different time zones. Extended operating hours ensure that flights can arrive and depart at any time, allowing for seamless connections and reducing travel disruptions.

Additionally, international airports often have 24-hour customs and immigration facilities to handle the influx of passengers from different countries.

According to a survey conducted by the Airports Council International (ACI), 85% of international airports worldwide operate 24 hours a day, compared to only 40% of domestic airports.

Passenger and Cargo Volume

One of the key factors that determines whether an airport can be classified as international is its passenger and cargo volume. International airports are typically characterized by their ability to handle a significant amount of passenger traffic from various countries around the world.

Similarly, these airports also have the capacity to handle a considerable volume of cargo, facilitating trade and commerce between different nations.

Serving Diverse Global Traffic

An international airport is expected to serve a diverse range of global traffic. This includes passengers arriving from and departing to different countries, representing a wide array of nationalities.

These airports have the infrastructure and resources to accommodate flights from multiple airlines, allowing for seamless travel connections between different parts of the world. Additionally, international airports often have designated immigration and customs areas to process international travelers efficiently.

Ability to Handle High Capacity

International airports must be capable of handling high passenger capacity to meet the demands of international travel. These airports have multiple runways and terminals to accommodate a large number of flights simultaneously.

They are equipped with adequate facilities such as check-in counters, security checkpoints, and boarding gates to ensure smooth and efficient passenger flow. International airports also have a wide range of amenities, including lounges, duty-free shops, and restaurants, to enhance the overall travel experience.

Cargo Infrastructure

In addition to passenger traffic, international airports also play a crucial role in handling cargo shipments. They have specialized cargo infrastructure, including warehouses, freight terminals, and dedicated cargo aircraft parking areas.

These facilities are equipped with state-of-the-art handling equipment and security measures to ensure the safe and efficient movement of goods. International airports act as important hubs for global trade, facilitating the transportation of goods between countries and continents.

According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the world’s busiest international airport in terms of passenger traffic is Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in the United States, followed by Beijing Capital International Airport in China.

In terms of cargo volume, Hong Kong International Airport is one of the busiest in the world, handling millions of tons of cargo each year.

Infrastructure and Services

When it comes to determining whether an airport is international, the infrastructure and services it offers play a crucial role. These factors not only enhance the overall passenger experience but also ensure smooth operations for airlines and other stakeholders.

Multilingual Signage and Announcements

One of the key features of an international airport is the presence of multilingual signage and announcements. This is essential to cater to the diverse range of passengers from different countries and language backgrounds.

By providing information in multiple languages, airports can effectively communicate with passengers and help them navigate through the airport easily. Whether it’s directional signs, flight information displays, or announcements over the public address system, having multilingual support ensures that language barriers are minimized and passengers feel welcomed.

Currency Exchange

Another important aspect of an international airport is the provision of currency exchange services. Travelers from different countries often need to convert their currency to the local currency or vice versa.

International airports typically have currency exchange counters or kiosks where passengers can conveniently exchange their money. This service saves passengers the hassle of finding currency exchange facilities outside the airport and provides them with the convenience they need while traveling.

Global Cuisine and Shopping

International airports are known for their wide range of dining and shopping options. These airports often feature a variety of restaurants and eateries offering global cuisines to cater to the diverse tastes of passengers.

From local delicacies to international chains, there is something for everyone. Additionally, international airports also have a wide selection of shops and boutiques, allowing passengers to indulge in some retail therapy before or after their flights.

Whether it’s luxury brands, duty-free shops, or local souvenirs, international airports provide a unique shopping experience.

International Recognition and Designation

An airport is considered international when it meets certain criteria that enable it to handle flights to and from other countries. This recognition and designation is granted by various international organizations and is based on factors such as infrastructure, services, and legal requirements.

ICAO Designation

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) plays a crucial role in determining whether an airport can be classified as international. ICAO assigns a unique four-letter code to each airport worldwide, known as the ICAO code.

This code is used for communication, navigation, and identification purposes in the aviation industry. To obtain an ICAO designation, an airport must comply with ICAO standards and regulations, ensuring safety and efficiency in air travel.

For example, London Heathrow Airport has the ICAO code EGLL, while Los Angeles International Airport is designated as KLAX.

Customs Territory Status

Another important aspect of international recognition for an airport is its customs territory status. When an airport is designated as a customs territory, it means that it has the necessary facilities and procedures in place to handle customs activities, such as the inspection and clearance of goods and passengers arriving from or departing to other countries.

An airport with customs territory status enables passengers to go through immigration and customs checks, allowing for the seamless movement of goods and people across international borders. This designation is crucial for airports that serve as major international hubs, facilitating global trade and tourism.

International Reputation

Airports with a strong international reputation are more likely to be recognized as international airports. This reputation is often built through a combination of factors such as the number of international destinations served, the frequency and reliability of international flights, the quality of services and facilities, and the overall passenger experience.

For instance, airports like Singapore Changi Airport and Dubai International Airport have gained worldwide recognition for their state-of-the-art facilities, exceptional customer service, and extensive network of international flights.

It’s worth noting that international recognition and designation can have significant economic benefits for an airport and the surrounding region. International airports attract foreign airlines, businesses, and tourists, resulting in increased revenue, job opportunities, and economic growth.

To learn more about airport designations and international aviation standards, you can visit the ICAO website.


In summary, for an airport to achieve international status takes a mix of governmental agreements, operational capabilities, infrastructure, and global reputation. While most major airports around the world meet some of these criteria, only the top tier facilities can truly call themselves international airports.

From customs and immigrations processing millions of global travelers each year, to runways and terminals that accommodate continuous long-haul flights across continents, international airports form the backbone of our global air transportation network.

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