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U.S. Customs & Immigration – Express Lanes

Our U.S. Customs & Immigration experience On an average year we pass through Customs & Immigration almost a dozen times. Years ago, when returning to the United States, there weren’t a lot of choices getting through Customs & Immigration. You fill out your custom declaration form before arrival, pick a line (always the slowest moving) and wait for your turn with an agent. Rarely did things go quickly. Today there are a number of options for speeding up the process of getting through Customs & Immigration.

Currently The Options To Speed Through Immigration Include:

  • TSA Pre-Clearance – Costs $85 and gets you through airport security with a faster screening. Doesn’t apply to Customs & Immigration.
  • Global Entry – Costs $100 and gives you a fast-pass through immigration and includes TSA-Pre-Clearance.
  • Nexus- Costs $50 and allows Americans and Canadians fast immigration checks at airports and boarder crossings.
  • Sentri – Costs $122.50, is similar to Nexus and includes Mexican citizens.
  • Mobile Passport an app for your cellphone that allows you to clear immigration and customs before you enter the customs facility and use a special fast lane where generally you show a bar code on your phone and walk through.

Of these the Global Entry and Mobile Passport are the most practical for personnel international travel.

A couple of years ago we applied for Global Entry since we would be leaving and re-entering the United States at least six times and would also be flying with a number of airlines that did not normally provide us with TSA Pre-Clear. In January of 2020 we applied for Global Entry and while delayed because of the pandemic, we both now have it.

When we went for the Global Entry interviews with Homeland Security we spent some time talking with Customs and Border Patrol agents and they had a number of surprising suggestions and some good advice. First, they highly recommended the Mobile Passport app even if you have Global Entry. While it doesn’t provide for TSA-Pre it often gets you through immigration faster than even Global Entry and at $15 a year it’s well worth it for frequent international travelers. One confession they made was often the Global Entry system at their booths don’t work, but they still just wave Mobile Passport people through. A couple of years ago we started using Mobile Passport and added the app to our phones and it really did work. It does exactly what it claims and quickly gets you through immigration.

While we were excited a number years ago with the new self-service kiosks that were being installed at CBP locations, after a few times using the system it was obvious this wasn’t the answer to most travelers prayers. It just didn’t go that fast. You had to scan your passport and everyone had to do it – not just the head of household. You had to get your picture taken by the kiosk than respond to CBP inspection questions and submit biographic information, whatever that was. After that you were given a printout strip and than you still had to go stand in line again anyway.

How Global Entry Works

When you get to Customs & Immigration go to a Global Entry kiosks, present your machine-readable passport or U.S. permanent resident card, place your fingers on the scanner for fingerprint verification and complete customs questions. The kiosk issues you a transaction receipt and directs you to baggage claim and the airport exit.

No more customs forms!

Unfortunately the United States has not been a leader in making CPB easier and faster. While traveling we have come to realize that some countries have figured out how to speed people thru the process. Our favorite is Australia – scan your passport at a kiosk, tick off a couple answers and show the receipt to the nice person as you exit. Probably the online visa Australia makes you get helps them with this process. Worst of all going through our CPB process doesn’t make us feel any safer coming into America than I felt entering Australia or a dozen other countries.

With Global Entry and Mobile Passport things are now getting better.

Starting three years ago we started using the U.S. CBP approved app Mobile Passport. First you have to download the Mobile Passport App on your iPhone or Android device, the basic one is free but for $15 per year the Mobile Passport Plus version will save you images and information to the app’s system.

Using Mobile Passport

Here’s how it works arriving back in the U.S. using the Mobile Passport website.

  • Once you arrive at your port of entry (airport or sea port), open the app and connect to cellular wireless or local wi-fi.
  • fill out the information including a customs declaration using your phone and click to submit your data to CBP. Remember: when you submit, you are confirming under penalty of law that your information is correct.
  • Within a few seconds, you will receive a CBP receipt with an encrypted barcode. Your receipt/barcode will now be valid for 4 hours.
  • Follow the Mobile Passport Control signs to the designated Mobile Passport Control line.
  • Show your passport to the CBP officer, they scan the barcode on the digital CBP receipt.

And that’s it! You’re in in a matter of seconds.

The system is currently active at twenty-seven U.S. airports and six cruise ports and counting. Often the system isn’t up and working but the agents will tell you and that doesn’t slow you down. If you have the app and are displaying the bar code, CPB has captured your information and they just wave you through (when it’s down – it’s even faster).

While there is still a free app, pay the $15 annual subscription fee for Mobile Passport+ in order for Mobile Passport to store your passport and additional information and that’s a small price to pay.

Current Mobile Passport points of entry.

A Final Note: Recently we were in Chile and before we boarded the plane I realized that I had changed phones from an iPhone to an Android and hadn’t loaded the app. Even with the slow 3G at the airport it only took five minutes to download the app, take my picture (it was terrible), scan my passport and register in the system. I would recommend avoiding that panic and make sure you have the app working before you travel.

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