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.