Customs self-service kiosks, which aim to cut down the time travelers are stuck waiting after traveling abroad, are being installed at major airports around the globe. But do they save time? Traveler investigates.
The strong dollar is inspiring more American travelers to plan a trip abroad this summer—but will customs clearance facilities be ready for them when they return home? Customs and Border Patrol officials claim they’re far better prepared than in recent years, when a shortage of inspectors led to hellish lines and waits of more than three hours at peak times in major gateways like New York and Miami.
One difference this year: Banks of self-service kiosks that let U.S. passport holders and other eligible travelers zip through formalities. Approximately 900 machines have been installed at 34 airports, including seven U.S. preclearance facilities located in foreign countries. San Francisco and Las Vegas are the latest gateways to get the gizmos, which Customs claims can reduce the average wait time at some locations by as much as 25 to 40 percent. Anyone can use them, as long as they’re from the U.S., Canada, or visa waiver approved countries. It’s separate from the Global Entry program, which requires payment of a fee, a background check, and finger printing for members, who then can re-enter the country through expedited lanes.
I got a taste of how this works last month when I returned from a trip to Curacao on JetBlue, whose new international arrivals facility at JFK’s T5 opened with a full complement of the machines. All you have to do is swipe your passport, get your photo taken, answer some routine questions, and submit your declaration. You’ll get a printed receipt that you hand to an officer, who by that point will simply need to verify your identity. You then collect your belongings and exit. I was able to dispense with the entire drill in less than 20 minutes, luggage retrieval included—the shortest wait I’ve ever had at that airport. (If CBP decides you need further scrutiny or if you have to pay duty, then of course that’s a different story.)
One problem is that even airports with the kiosks may not have them at all terminals. At JFK’s Terminal 4, the country’s single busiest international terminal, the new technology has noticeably reduced the backlog, according to a recent study from the Global Gateway Alliance, an advocacy group in New York that is pushing for improvements in the region’s airport infrastructure. Comparing data from 2013 with last year, the group said wait times at terminals with kiosks dropped by 22%, while at other terminals, there was virtually no improvement.
That means passengers arriving at the same airport may have a very different experience, depending on their carrier. For example, Kennedy’s Terminal 1, served by Air France, Japan Airlines, Lufthansa, and more, has the technology, but at Terminals 7 and 8, home to American, British Airways, and other major carriers, they’re still waiting. At Newark Airport, Terminal C—United’s stronghold—has the machines, but Terminal B does not. "The government needs to step up and bring the technology and manpower to every international terminal," said Joe Sitt, chairman of the alliance, pointing out that JFK and Newark combined handle some 19 million international arrivals each year.
But at least CBP is trying to innovate; it’s also rolling out a mobile app for arrivals at certain airports, including Atlanta and Seattle, so travelers may fill out customs declaration forms before even arriving.
And, if you want to brace yourself for the worst, the CBP publishes wait times on its site, but that data is historical—though it’s useful to predict which days and times tend to be busiest.
Here’s a list of the major airport terminals that have the kiosks:
Atlanta (ATL): E and F terminals
Chicago (ORD): Terminal 5
Washington-Dulles (IAD): A and C terminals
Newark (EWR): Terminal C
New York (JFK): Terminals 1, 4, and 5
Los Angeles (LAX): Terminal 5 and Tom Bradley International
Orlando (MCO): Terminals 1 and 4
Miami (MIA): North and South Terminals, also referred to as D and J
Minneapolis (MSP): Terminal 1 (Limbergh)
Toronto (YYZ): Terminals 1 and 3
San Francisco (SFO): Terminals A and G