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These 3 simple strategies can help you get through customs faster

Nov. 26, 2021
7 min read
These 3 simple strategies can help you get through customs faster
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We’ve all been there: Waiting for what seems like an endless amount of time for your customs and immigration documents to be examined, whether you’re abroad or arriving back to the United States.

At New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK), one of the nation’s busiest, wait times for customs screening on a recent Friday afternoon shortly before Thanksgiving was as long as an hour. As travel into and out of the U.S. is expected to pick up during the holiday season, you likely don’t want to spend a large part of it waiting in lines.

Here are three simple but effective ways to get through customs and immigration quicker this holiday season.

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Global Entry is your friend

(Photo by Arne Beruldsen/Shutterstock)

Whether or not you’re a frequent flier, you should look into getting a Global Entry membership. It’s a Trusted Traveler program that allows low-risk, pre-cleared travelers to clear U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) much faster than those without.

Global Entry members don’t need to fill out cumbersome paperwork or wait in processing lines. Instead, Global Entry members can use a kiosk where they present their passport (or, in some cases, just their face). The kiosk prints a receipt that travelers show an officer before exiting the baggage claim area. (Note that Global Entry members can still face further questioning or examination upon arrival into the U.S., just like non-Global Entry members.)

To begin, you’ll have to submit your application online through the CBP website, along with a $100 nonrefundable application fee. Once you’ve been conditionally approved, you’ll need to schedule and complete an in-person interview.

Did you know you can get your Global Entry fee reimbursed? That’s right -- many credit cards will reimburse you for the Global Entry application fee. Typically, this credit is available once every four years.

Here are our top picks for low-fee cards to use that offer a Global Entry credit (up to $100):

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And here are some of the best premium cards that offer the benefit (up to $100):

If you already have a membership, most of the credit cards that offer an application-fee waiver allow you to buy Global Entry for someone else. So you can gift your credit for the cost of membership to a friend or relative.

However, while Global Entry is a fantastic travel perk, you may have to wait a while to get approved -- or even get an interview. The Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the Global Entry program, says processing times can vary by applicant. However, especially due to the coronavirus, it can take an average of six months to be conditionally approved.

Some airports in the U.S., as well as a handful abroad, have what's known as "Enrollment on Arrival." This allows travelers who have already been conditionally approved for Global Entry to complete their applications upon arrival into the U.S. Travelers finishing their Global Entry applications this way must have their passport on hand, as well as documents, such as a driver's license or residential lease, that prove residency.

Get the free Mobile Passport app

(Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

If you don’t want to pay for Global Entry or if you're waiting for your application to be processed, you can download the free Mobile Passport Control app. Before getting Global Entry, I used Mobile Passport fairly often as a college student.

It's a lot less-known than the highly-popular Global Entry, but it can potentially save you hours in time.

Travelers can download the Mobile Passport app the Google or Apple app stores to generate a digital version of the required customs form instead of filling it out by hand. Then, a CBP officer scans the QR code on your Mobile Passport digital receipt. Note that Mobile Passport requires users to submit the passport form every time they enter the country. Mobile Passport is available to U.S. citizens and Canadian B1/B2 citizens visitors at 30 U.S. airports and four seaports.

However — and this is important — once your Global Entry membership is valid, you can't use it and Mobile Passport. As we've previously written, using Mobile Passport effectively “cancels” your Global Entry if you try to use both programs during a single trip.

Bring a pen

(Photo via Getty Images)

This is something I always forget — and I regret it every single time. Unfortunately, the most critical documentation for travel purposes is still filled out by hand in many parts of the world.

When you fly to many countries, flight attendants generally distribute customs forms in the air for you to fill out. Of course, you don’t have to fill them out during the flight. But it’ll make things quicker and a lot smoother if you do, so you should pack a pen in your carry-on luggage to fill out the forms on the plane. It also means you don’t have to ask a seatmate for theirs, especially during COVID-19.

When I’ve forgotten to bring my own pen, it’s cost me hours while waiting in line to go through customs abroad. When I remember to do this, I’ve often gotten to skip ahead of the travelers sharing pens and struggling to fill out forms on the ground. This recently happened on my flight to Mauritius, where I had to fill out my customs forms on the ground. Dozens of travelers were able to jump ahead of me in line and what could have been a 20-minute wait turned into more than an hour.

In Thailand, where I visited last summer, authorities won’t even let you get into line until all of your documents are completed. You then have to wait for someone to check your documents before you’re cleared to wait in the customs line -- and this added two extra hours to what was already a long travel day. All that to say, remember to bring a pen in your purse or backpack.

Featured image by Getty Images
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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TPG featured card

Best premium travel card for value
TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
4 / 5
Go to review

Rewards

1 - 10X points
10xEarn 10x total points on hotels and car rentals when you purchase travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards®.
5xEarn 5x total points on flights through Chase Ultimate Rewards®.
3xEarn 3x points on other travel and dining.
1xEarn 1 point per $1 spent on all other purchases

Intro offer

80,000 bonus points
Earn 80,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $1,200 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®

Annual Fee

$550

Recommended Credit

740-850
Excellent
Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

Why We Chose It

If you are looking to take your premium rewards to the highest level, this card is really a no brainer in our eyes. Chase's Ultimate Rewards make points easy to redeem, with a wide range of 10 airline and three hotel transfer partners and a friendly user interface. Despite the high annual fee, Chase is consistently adding new benefits to keep the card competitive in a fierce premium rewards field.

Pros

  • $300 annual travel credit as reimbursement for travel purchases charged to your card each account anniversary year
  • Access to Chase Ultimate Rewards hotel and airline travel partners
  • Unlimited 3x points on the broad category of travel and dining
  • 50% more value when you redeem your points for travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
  • Broad definitions for travel and dining bonus categories

Cons

  • Steep $550 annual fee
  • May not make sense for people that don't travel frequently
  • You must spend the $300 travel credit before earning 3x points for travel and dining
  • No automatic hotel elite status
  • Earn 80,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $1,200 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
  • $300 Annual Travel Credit as reimbursement for travel purchases charged to your card each account anniversary year.
  • Earn 5x total points on flights and 10x total points on hotels and car rentals when you purchase travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards® immediately after the first $300 is spent on travel purchases annually. Earn 3x points on other travel and dining & 1 point per $1 spent on all other purchases
  • Get 50% more value when you redeem your points for travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards®. For example, 80,000 points are worth $1,200 toward travel
  • 1:1 point transfer to leading airline and hotel loyalty programs
  • Access to 1,300+ airport lounges worldwide after an easy, one-time enrollment in Priority Pass™ Select and up to $100 application fee credit every four years for Global Entry, NEXUS, or TSA PreCheck®
  • Count on Trip Cancellation/Interruption Insurance, Auto Rental Collision Damage Waiver, Lost Luggage Insurance and more
Best premium travel card for value
TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
4 / 5
Go to review

Rewards Rate

10xEarn 10x total points on hotels and car rentals when you purchase travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards®.
5xEarn 5x total points on flights through Chase Ultimate Rewards®.
3xEarn 3x points on other travel and dining.
1xEarn 1 point per $1 spent on all other purchases
  • Intro Offer
    Earn 80,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $1,200 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®

    80,000 bonus points
  • Annual Fee

    $550
  • Recommended Credit
    Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

    740-850
    Excellent

Why We Chose It

If you are looking to take your premium rewards to the highest level, this card is really a no brainer in our eyes. Chase's Ultimate Rewards make points easy to redeem, with a wide range of 10 airline and three hotel transfer partners and a friendly user interface. Despite the high annual fee, Chase is consistently adding new benefits to keep the card competitive in a fierce premium rewards field.

Pros

  • $300 annual travel credit as reimbursement for travel purchases charged to your card each account anniversary year
  • Access to Chase Ultimate Rewards hotel and airline travel partners
  • Unlimited 3x points on the broad category of travel and dining
  • 50% more value when you redeem your points for travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
  • Broad definitions for travel and dining bonus categories

Cons

  • Steep $550 annual fee
  • May not make sense for people that don't travel frequently
  • You must spend the $300 travel credit before earning 3x points for travel and dining
  • No automatic hotel elite status
  • Earn 80,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $1,200 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
  • $300 Annual Travel Credit as reimbursement for travel purchases charged to your card each account anniversary year.
  • Earn 5x total points on flights and 10x total points on hotels and car rentals when you purchase travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards® immediately after the first $300 is spent on travel purchases annually. Earn 3x points on other travel and dining & 1 point per $1 spent on all other purchases
  • Get 50% more value when you redeem your points for travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards®. For example, 80,000 points are worth $1,200 toward travel
  • 1:1 point transfer to leading airline and hotel loyalty programs
  • Access to 1,300+ airport lounges worldwide after an easy, one-time enrollment in Priority Pass™ Select and up to $100 application fee credit every four years for Global Entry, NEXUS, or TSA PreCheck®
  • Count on Trip Cancellation/Interruption Insurance, Auto Rental Collision Damage Waiver, Lost Luggage Insurance and more