These 3 simple strategies can help you get through customs faster

Nov 26, 2021

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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):

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 photo by Getty Images

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