Sounds easy. It wasn't.
First of all, while cats may not need visas to the US, they do need plane tickets, plane reservations, and if they are European cats, a passport. Even cats flying from one EU country to another need health certificates and rabies shots. And airlines and individual states can make their own rules. Although we were flying from Graz, Austria to San Francisco, we were changing planes in Frankfurt, Germany. The entire trip was booked through Lufthansa, but the flight from Frankfurt to San Francisco was on a plane run by United. Lufthansa said we didn't need the health certificates and rabies shots, because strictly speaking, we were not entering Germany, only the Frankfurt airport. But United said we did.
So off I went to the vet. By the end of the visit Tiger had received a set of vaccines against rabies, cat colds and other viruses, had been examined for all infectious or contagious diseases, had been microchipped and computer identified, and was issued a "Veterinary Health Certificate" in German and English, and a verifiable "Pet Passport" for the European Union. And I got a bill for 160€ (or $205).
We were ready to go. Or so I thought.
I wanted to take the cat with us into the cabin. Not so much because I was so worried about the cat having to stay in cargo as I was worried about my 12 year old daughter agonizing over Tiger's most certain and imminent death if he were not with us. Lufthansa said the cat carrier could be no larger than 55cm x 40cm x 20cm. United said the carrier could be no larger than 43cm x 30cm x 20cm. In any case, my carrier was a bit larger. I could not find a small enough carrier in the pet store. And the vet told me such a small carrier would certainly kill the cat.
In desperation I took my cat carrier with the cat inside it to the airport in Graz. It was in-between flights and the check-in attendants at Lufthansa were just sitting around chatting. I came up to the counter with the cat and they all immediately fell in love with Tiger. There is nothing like being the single male among a group of women. I told them I was flying out in three days and I wanted to know if I could take the cat just like this on the plane – with a ticket, of course. Of course! was the immediate answer.
And indeed, the flight from Graz to Frankfurt was a breeze. Tiger didn't even miaou. He was happy – but the flight was so late, that we had literally only 20 minutes to change planes in Frankfurt. We made the flight, miraculously and out of breath because Lufthansa personally escorted us through the back doors, and through security to United. While the German customs officer did check our passports, he didn't even glance at the cat.
United was so busy getting us on the plane that they didn't see the cat either. In fact, the woman sitting next to me on the flight didn't even realize we had a cat in a box by our feet until Tiger peed two hours before we landed in San Francisco.
US Immigration didn't give a hoot about Tiger. They didn't even ask for his fancy passport.
Tiger did get a bit of attention at the Baggage Claim area in the San Francisco airport. The dog working for the US Department of Agriculture couldn't keep his mind on sniffing out illegally imported German sausage or Dutch hashish and came around for several visits, much to the annoyance of his colleagues.
US customs didn't care about the cat either. The only thing they were worried about was the one small sealed free sample package of Royal Canine dry cat food that I had along for an emergency. It contained meat by-products and was banned from US entry.