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Dual Citizen? What Passport to Use at the Airport

Updated: May 13

When I became a dual citizen of the US and Italy, I really didn't know when to use each passport at the airport. I admittedly still just fan out the whole card deck of family passports in front of check-in agents and let them help me figure it out, but that is a crutch. Here is a quick reference guide not only for me to refer back to, but for fellow Americans traveling abroad.

A fanned out hand of five passports
As a dual citizen, it's hard to remember which passport to use at the airport.

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If you are an American with dual citizenship leaving the US on a trip, follow these general guidelines for which passport to use. Here, I use the EU as an example because I have dual citizenship with Italy (EU).

Outbound US to EU:

  • Checking in for a flight: Either passport

  • Boarding the plane: EU passport

  • Arriving in Europe: EU passport

Consider this: when leaving the United States, you are effectively "checking out" of the country. You aren't actually passing through any customs controls, but they know you are leaving. Using your EU passport at this point has no relevance, so just keep it in your pocket until you get off the plane in Europe.

Go ahead and flash everyone

When you arrive in Europe, pop that US passport in your bag, because from here until you leave, you are a European. Bypass crazy lines for foreigners and get straight to the front with your European passport. Just flash it around so all the Americans don't give you the hairy eyeball.

Other travelers will want to wring your neck when they hear your English and see you smiling and sauntering past what could be an hour long wait. They’ll probably mutter that you’re a stupid American and in the wrong line. Just keep flashing that passport and that smile, because you’ve got dual citizenship, baby!

Note that families traveling with children (typically 18 and under) cannot go through the turnstyle lanes that you may find at some customs facilities, and they will need to bypass the line anyway to a booth style customs agent. Flashing your EU passport is always the best bet, and someone will lead you to the correct line.

Inbound to US:

  • Checking in for my return flight: U.S. passport ALWAYS

  • Exiting Europe: EU passport

  • Pre-flight passport check: U.S. passport ALWAYS

Note: If you had used your EU passport they'd ask for an ESTA or VISA to enter the US

  • Entering America: U.S. passport

Think of it like checking in and out of a hotel

In reverse when you head home to the US from Europe, you need to make sure you are saying, “America, I’m coming!” by checking in with your US passport. This “checks you back in” to the country, and your EU passport is not needed at that point.

You DO need your EU passport to “check out of Europe”, though.

Is this making sense?

Think of it like a hotel.

  • Check out of the US to go to the EU.

  • Check into the EU.

  • Check out of the EU to go to the US.

  • Check into the US.

You’ll use that EU passport at customs before your departing flight home, but that’s it. At check in and boarding you’ll show your US passport.

Dual Citizen Confusion In the airport

When you show your passport to people like at security, check in and even getting into the Priority Pass Lounge, keep whatever passport handy that is going to be the most useful for the situation. Lounges don’t really care, and at security, same thing. It’s just when the passport is being scanned for identity that you need to follow the above rules. 

I.e., checkin, boarding and customs.

For more information on obtaining your dual citizenship, consult the following resources:

My personal experience getting dual citizenship with Italy, along with step by step instructions

International Living’s instructions for obtaining citizenship abroad (find out more by clicking the banner).



Hi, I'm Maria!

Globetrotting since 1995, I'm not a digital nomad or a social influencer.

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