Avoiding the long wait at Customs and Border Protection when returning to the US

Global Entry Kiosks, photo courtesy of CBP

While TSA checkpoint lines at US airports are moving quickly, for now, the same isn’t true at Customs and Border Protection (CBP). Wait times are approaching 3 hours at some airports during peak hours for international travelers waiting to check in with CBP upon arrival in the US.

At New York’s JFK International Airport, American Airlines Terminal, CBP reports that in May, the last month reported, during the peak morning time from 7 a.m. to 8 a.m., the wait time to get through Customs averaged 55 minutes, but was as long as 1¾ hours. Even in the hour before and after that slot, the wait at Customs averaged almost 40 minutes, and peaked at more than 1¼ hours.

At JFK’s Delta Terminal, it was even worse in their peak afternoon time, with wait times as long as 2 hours.

While CBP has been hit by “sequester,” like many government departments, I don’t think that’s a reasonable excuse for airport Customs’ wait times being that long.

The times for many incoming international passengers arriving to Miami International’s North Terminal have been worse yet.

In May, the average wait time from 5 a.m. through 9 p.m., almost the entire “flight day,” was just 4 minutes short of 2 hours, and was as long as 2¾ hours.

Can you imagine standing in line for 2 to 3 hours waiting to see the US Customs agent after flying for 6 to 9 hours or more, before you’re allowed to retrieve your luggage at the carousel and go home? Frankly, I’m astonished. “Sequester” or no “sequester,” it’s outrageous!

At Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), from 10 a.m. through 4 p.m., the average Custom’s wait time this May was more than an hour, and it peaked at more than 1½ hours. USA Today reports that at one point the situation in Customs got so bad, LAX officials held passengers on board their planes for up to an hour before letting them deplane into their terminal to walk to Customs, then wait in long lines.

Even at the next tier of airports, ranked by the number of passenger boardings, the news isn’t very good. At my home airport, Philadelphia International (PHL), for example, at the peak international flights’ landing time of 1 p.m. to 5 p.m., the average wait at Customs exceeded 1 hour in May, with peak wait times of an hour and 20 minutes.

Beyond the ridiculous waste of time international travelers are enduring at Customs upon their arrival in the US, the wait times can result in another problem for travelers.

In my column, 10 tips for retrieving your luggage at baggage claim, I discussed the escalating problem of luggage theft at baggage claim. While it’s unlikely that theft rings could operate inside the secure Custom’s area, it’s not hard for a passenger to pluck someone’s else’s luggage from the carousel in addition to their own, and take it with them through the final customs check. In the Customs luggage area, security for ensuring each bag belongs to the person carrying it is almost non-existent.

Is there something you can do about the long wait time when returning to the US by air?

Yes, you can sign up for Global Entry.

I wrote about Global Entry last year in my column, Reduce your TSA and border control airport hassle with Global Entry. With Global Entry, instead of waiting in long lines to see a CBP officer, you walk to a Global Entry electronic kiosk. At the kiosk, you scan your passport, look into a camera, and have your fingerprints electronically scanned, all to confirm your identity. If everything is working right, the kiosk will print a receipt for you to use to leave the CBP secure area with your luggage, which you retrieve after finishing at the CBP kiosk.

When using Global Entry to reenter the country, it’s taken me about 3 minutes to use the kiosk. Once I retrieve my luggage, it takes just another 3 to 4 minutes to turn in my receipt and leave the secure Customs area. At times, I’ve gotten to the carousel so quickly, I’ve had to wait for my checked luggage.

The online Global Entry application takes about 15 minutes to fill in and submit. The application fee is $100, but if you’re accepted into the program, your membership won’t expire for 5 years. Generally it takes two weeks to do your background check and obtain preliminary Global Entry program approval, but apparently they’re backlogged right now, so it may take somewhat longer. Once you get preliminary approval you must schedule an interview at the nearest Global Entry location to your home. The interview, final approval, and kiosk training takes about 20 minutes. You’ll receive a Global Entry membership card a week or so later in the mail, but you don’t need it at the kiosk.

Global Entry membership has the bonus of making you eligible to participate in TSA’s Precheck program.

At US international airports in the “Model Ports” Program, CBP can allow passengers with tight connections to have their arrival screening expedited. If you have a concern you could miss your connection, see a CBP officer to find out if your screening may be fast-tracked.

  • mike313

    Ned – You mention a “Global Entry” membership card. Strange, I’ve been a member since the program started and have never received such a card, nor do you need one to use the system (unlike NEXUS, to which I also belong, where there a card, but you do not need it to use the NEXUS system)

  • dfe

    Ned–How do they clock these wait times? No one time stamps you when you get in line and then clocks you on your way out. How can they possibly be accurate? I have seen situations at ORD (even before sequestration) where I would bet that the wait time went well beyond 3 hours. People backed up way out into the concourse even before they could get around the corner and get in the conga line I have GE (since 12/15/08) so I don’t stand in line but I witness the lines as I walk on my way to the GE kiosk. The lines are worse than Disneyworld and a total embarrassment to our country. I have never, ever experienced anything like this in any other country–and I travel a lot By the way I enrolled early and have never been offered a GE membership card–not like I really need it since the passport scans just fine–and the CBP sticker on the back is really all I need.

  • James Penrose

    Demand more. Write your Congresscritter and demand staffing get beefed up at the crowded entry ports.

    Quite a bit of your ticket price is assorted government “security” fees. make them do something with all that money..

  • NSL14

    The original members of Global Entry received no membership card. As you said, and I stated in the article, you don’t need the card to use the kiosks at CBP. There you only need your Passport.CBP began issuing Global Entry radio frequency identification (RFID) cards on July 12, 2011, to new Global Entry members who are U.S. citizens.

    CBP accepts Global Entry cards for lawful U.S. entry at land and sea ports of entry. Global Entry cards have radio frequency identification, which enables their use at SENTRI and NEXUS expedited travel lanes entering the U.S. Global Entry cards are not valid for entry into Canada via the NEXUS lanes and kiosks.

    Global Entry cards must be activates within 30 days of receipt or you will be unable to use your card at the Trusted Traveler lanes for SENTRI/NEXUS.

  • NSL14

    CBP has employees assigned to track waiting times at the ports of entry. I don’t know how they measure the times and if they use statistic extrapolation in determining the times.

    The wait times are monthly by both day of the week and hour of the day at each CBP entry hall. There are multiple halls at some airports in the US.

    I have been through EWR and PHL enough to believe the times are generally accurate.

    I certainly agree that the lines are an embarrassment, and they’re unnecessary too. I can’t say I haven’t seen worse conditions in some countries, however. One in particular, comes to mind; Buenos Aires, Argentina. There have been times I’ve waited for what seemed forever in Frankfurt, Germany, and St. Petersburg, Russia.

    See below for my explanation about the Global Entry membership card.

  • NSL14

    James, I agree with you completely. I have written my Representative and my Senators. I have also offered to come to Washington and testify about the problems at CBP at airport ports of entry. I will second your comment to “Demand more.”

  • madtad1

    But Ned, how can you advocate for Global Entry and TSAPreCheck when your fellow columnist, Charlie Leocha, says they are elitist and only for the upper crust of travelers, not poor plebeians like him! Are you one of those elitists Charlie warned us about? 8-)

    Frankly I found it to be worth every penny, and I travel internationally about twice a year and domestically about 10 times a year. My wife, who travels 160K+ actual miles a year for her job, including many international trips, finds it a godsend.

  • Charles Leocha

    When did I say that? My articles praise Global Entry. Your st have mixed up with someone else.

  • NedLevi

    Hi M.

    I’ve never heard or read where Charlie said anything against Global Entry. Not only that, as publisher he’s never been anything but supportive of my articles concerning Global Entry. In fact, I’ve found Charlie supportive of all my writing over the years; news articles and my column.

    Like you, I find Global Entry to be worth every penny. This past winter, returning from Buenos Aires, for example, while I got through customs at EWR in about 5 minutes, picked up my luggage as it came out of the carousel about 10 minutes later, and was out of Customs in another couple of minutes, others were still in long lines, waiting to have their passport checked, while I was in the car on my way home.

    As to TSA Pre√, originally it seemed as though it was quite elitist, when you had to be in the upper levels of frequent flier programs to be “invited” to be eligible. But then they opened the program to members of CBP’s Trusted Traveler programs, including Global Entry, SENTRI, and NEXUS to which any US citizen can apply.

  • Tressa Iris Mattingly

    U.S. passengers are currently experiencing long customs lines
    (up to three hours at some U.S. airports) and, at times, missing connections due to the excessive wait. This is unacceptable at best and egregious at worst.

    Reducing wait times at U.S. ports of entry should be a top priority of Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP). Instead they plan to use U.S. tax dollars to establish a preclearance facility in Abu Dhabi that disadvantages U.S. citizens and visitors who are not adequately served at U.S. entry points and benefits a foreign government and single foreign airline competitor. Setting a risky precedent, DHS would enter into an agreement with the UAE government for a reimbursement of roughly 80 percent of the costs associated with clearing passengers for entry into the U.S.

    Several organizations like Consumer Travelers Alliance have
    joined A4A’s efforts as part of the “Draw the Line Here” campaign to call on DHS to drop plans for a preclearance facility in Abu Dhabi. The campaign’s website http://www.DrawTheLineHere.com
    invites Americans to sign a petition letting Washington know we need to fix customs lines in the United States first.

    Domestic CBP facilities are partially funded by passengers
    entering the U.S. through $1.5 billion in annual user fees. This pay-to-play construct would create a long-term incentive for DHS to shift its sources of funding for a critical national security function. Thousands of letters from U.S. citizens have already been sent to the White House and DHS expressing their concerns, and recently, the U.S Congress unanimously approved an amendment that prohibits the use of taxpayer dollars for a preclearance
    facility in Abu Dhabi. Learn more at http://www.DrawTheLineHere.com.

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