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Going Home: Navigating the St. Thomas Airport

Landing at the STT airport is always so exciting! Leaving = not so much.

You’ve made it. You’re here! You just landed at the Cyril E. King (STT) airport on St. Thomas, and you are excited to get off the airplane and start your vacation. When all of a sudden, an airport employee comes on the plane’s intercom and tells you to arrive three hours before your departing flight. What??!! Can this be real? Well, unfortunately it can be for many folks. Today’s post is all about navigating the St. Thomas airport when it’s time to go home.

So let’s start with the three-hour protocol. Is that real? Honestly, it really depends. If you are traveling on a Saturday and are checking a bag, then yes, you should get there as close to three hours before your flight as possible. Are you flying out on a Tuesday with carry on bags only? Then you’re pretty safe with only two hours.

Tip #1: If you can download your boarding pass on your phone or print your boarding passes in advance, I strongly urge you to do so. This will allow to to skip the counter if you are traveling with carry ons only. Checking a bag? Then it doesn’t really matter, because you have to go to the counter anyway.

Step One: Checking Bags (Skip to Step Two if you plan to travel with carry on luggage only.)

If you are checking bags, the first thing you need to do it get your bag tags. Once you receive them, the airline does not take your bags. You actually keep them with you until you pass through Customs & Border Patrol, which is step number two.

Step Two: Customs & Border Patrol

Now you may be wondering why you have to go through Customs & Border Patrol if the US Virgin Islands are part of the United States. The reason is because we are outside of the “customs territory.” Therefore we have to pass through and answer some relative quick and easy questions. The agents will ask if you have any souvenirs, the value of the souvenirs, if you have fruits, vegetables, alcohol or tobacco, where you are heading, where you stayed, etc. Families or groups living in the same household can go up to the agent together.

You do not need a passport for Customs (or to visit the US Virgin Islands), but if you have one, bring it. You will get through Customs much faster with one. However if you do not have one, a driver’s license or state ID is fine. And for families with small children, just bring along a copy of your child’s birth certificate.

Have Global Entry? Lucky you! There is a special lane for you right in the center when you walk through the glass doors and into the Customs area. (Heads up: You must have your physical card with you to utilize Global Entry in St. Thomas.) Just lift up the belt, and let yourself in. There are two separate lanes – one on the right and one on the left – for those of us who do not have Global Entry.

Tip #2: Do not bring pork products to the airport in the USVI. 

You cannot bring certain pork products through Customs, and those that you can bring, must be in a sealed container. Here is the official verbiage from the USDA:

The revised Federal Order also allows travelers to bring certain processed swine products and byproducts in passenger baggage. These products must be shelf stable, packed in hermetically sealed containers and cooked by a commercial method. Unprocessed swine products and byproducts in passenger baggage will not be allowed to enter any other States or Territories.

Click here for more info on that. 

Step Three: Dropping off your luggage (Skip to Step Four if you have a carry on only.)

Once you leave the Customs area, you will see a sign indicating that baggage drop off is ahead to your left.

Step Four: Security

Ok, so the people dropping their bags go to the left. The people with carry ons only go in the middle. The people with precheck go to the far right against the wall. If you have precheck, and this is a service you can sign up for, you do not have to take off your shoes, belts or a light jacket, and you do not have to remove your electronics or liquids from your bag. It’s a real time saver. The application fee for precheck is $78, and it is good for five years. Click here to learn more. 

Checked bags get dropped to the left.
Passengers with carry ons only (and no precheck) go in the middle. Precheck goes to the far right against the wall.
Precheck to the right.

So as you can see, if you are checking a bag, it’s a four-step process. If you are not checking a bag and have your boarding passes ahead of time, it’s only a two-step process.

Tip #3: Avoid Saturdays, if possible

Saturday is the busiest day at the St. Thomas airport. This is due to the fact that most villas rent Saturday to Saturday. Also, it’s because it’s easier to travel on the weekend for many. If you are traveling on a Saturday, I would arrive as close to three hours as possible, especially if you are checking a bag. The St. Thomas airport is packed on Saturdays, and oftentimes there are more people than actual seats inside the terminal. Fridays and Sundays are pretty busy too, but not as bad at Saturdays. So if you can travel Monday through Thursday, the airport will be a bit better.

Tip #4: Hire a Porter

If you get to the airport and the Customs line is out the door, you can always hire a porter. They charge a nominal fee per bag, and they have the ability to bring you to the front of the Customs line. You can find them outside of the Customs area and near the airline counters. The porters can be easily identified by their red shirts.

Ok, so you’ve made it. You’re finally inside the St. Thomas airport! Now you may be wondering about the food and drink available inside STT. I wrote about this topic a couple of months ago. Click here to read Airport Eats: What to Expect at the St. Thomas Airport. 

Did you miss our post on How to Get to St. John? You can find that article at

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  1. Greg

    We usually travel on Tuesdays/Thursdays as airfare for us is normally cheaper those days, so I can’t compare to Saturdays. We normally shoot for 3-4 hours early rather than roll the dice on what the customs line will be like. One trip last summer we arrived 4 hours before departure and arrived at our gate with only 20 minutes to spare. It was the longest customs line I’ve ever seen (line went from customs, to baggage claim and wrapped back all the way down past American ticketing counters). If you are a relatively new visitor to the St John, don’t assume the 3-4 hour announcement is just some blah, blah, blah stuff. Sometimes you need it. Other times, you simply go hangout in the new bar that opened up last year. 🙂

  2. Kerry Long

    If your flight gets delayed past 6:00PM remember that Customs closes at 6PM regardless. Do not go to airport at 8PM for your 11PM delayed flight like we did. You will show up at a totally closed entrance to the airport, even though you showed up 3 hours before your flight! The airlines don’t tell you this, unfortunately.

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    • Jenn Manes

      You would first drop your bags at the left. Then you would walk around to the precheck lane which is against the wall on the far right.

  5. LaCasha

    What about people who need wheelchair assistance?
    Stateside airports hire companies, who hire workers to push the disabled throughout the airport, to the gate area.

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