Plot: Former Krakozhian Viktor Navorski is almost in New York City for the first time in his life. "Former" and "almost"?: while Viktor is flying to JFK Airport, Krakozhia has been overthrown as a country with no nation recognizing the new regime, therefore all government papers such as passports, visas and currency issued by Krakozhia are also not recognized internationally. With only these papers in hand when Viktor arrives at JFK, he is not allowed entry into the United States. All air service in and out of Krakozhia has been suspended and thus Viktor cannot even be sent back until Krakozhia's situation is resolved. Frank Dixon, Director of Customs and Border Protection at JFK, allows Viktor to stay in the international lounge until the problem is resolved. Dixon gives Viktor enough meal vouchers to last for a day or two, with Dixon expecting Viktor to secretly escape the lounge into the outside world. Viktor, however, wants to be as proper as possible and decides to stay in the lounge. Viktor poses a problem for Dixon, as Viktor may be the black mark in his promotion to head of the department. Their relationship becomes an antagonistic one, where Dixon will now do whatever he can to prevent Viktor from ever entering the country even if he ever did learn the heartbreaking reason for Viktor's visit. As Viktor stays in the lounge, he only has limited resources on which to live and a limited understanding of the English language. Viktor's encounters with lounge employees is also initially antagonistic, but they all learn to live in harmony and friendship as Viktor's stay increases. The one person Viktor would like to meet and know is United Airlines flight attendant Amelia Warren, who is in transit through JFK every few weeks and who seems to be dealing with her own personal demons.
Alternative Plot: When Viktor Navorski (Tom Hanks), an Eastern European tourist, arrives at JFK in New York, war breaks out in his country and he finds himself caught up in international politics. Because of the war, the Department of Homeland Security won't let him enter or exit the United States. He's trapped at JFK -- indefinitely. While living at the airport, Viktor falls for a flight attendant (Catherine Zeta-Jones). She may have feelings for him too. But what good is love if Viktor can't leave the terminal?