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10 Ways to Get Through Customs Fast: Tricks From an Airline Pilot

Customs at JFK

As an airline pilot and avid traveler, I’ve piloted and flown to over 60 countries on six continents. (Sorry, I’m not sure what customs in Antarctica is like). Let me share my tips and tricks to getting through this annoying process of your trip as quickly as possible.

What Can I Do to Skip the Line?

Download the Mobile Passport App. This is such an overlooked option. It’s so easy to use and the Mobile Passport line at customs is always nonexistent. This is currently the quickest option to get through customs, usually even faster than global entry.

  • Available on the App Store, for US and Canadian citizens, and it’s FREE!
  • Allows you to answer inspection-related questions before you even get to customs & border protection
  • Available for: BWI, BOS, ORD, DFW, HNL, IAD, DEN, FLL, IAH, HOU, LAX, MIA, MSP, JFK, EWR, OAK, MCO, PHL, PHX, PUT, PDX, SAN, SFO, SJC, SJU, SEA, TPA
Mobile Passport App. It’s that easy! The paid version is easier, but not necessary.

Enroll in the Trusted Traveler Program. Get Global Entry and literally go through an automatic kiosk that takes seconds. The fee is $100, but many credit cards will reimburse you. The only catch is that you have to interview ahead of time, but this can also be done on arrival in most cases. The interview takes less than 5 minutes, usually.

  • Global Entry is available at most US airports, more than Mobile Passport
  • No processing lines, no paperwork – but you do have to touch a screen
  • Expedited entry in some other countries
  • Citizens from these countries can also enroll in Global Entry: Argentina, India, Colombia, UK, Germany, Panama, Singapore, South Korea, Switzerland, Taiwan, Mexico

Research COVID-related forms you need to fill. These days, most of the forms are available online. Many people don’t know this, so if you arrive with your forms pre-filled, you can skip most of the line. This doesn’t apply to the US at the moment, but I experienced it arriving and departing Mexico on a recent trip.

Here are some tips for traveling safely and responsibly during COVID.

What Tricks Can I Use to Get Through Customs Fast?

Walk fast and take the stairs. I guarantee that you will pass about half of the people on the escalators if you take the stairs. Plus, it’s healthy! Great way to stretch those legs after a long international flight. I always do this myself, even if I’m first off the plane. In cases where the escalators go in zig zags (Washinton-Dulles, Denver, etc.), the elevator is often faster too.

The Fast and Furious: Part… 11?

Book a seat at the front. Pay attention to the exits; 99% of the time, it’s either the front left exit (L1) or the second left exit from the front (L2). If you’re really in a hurry, it’s worth booking that Premium Select or Comfort+ seat to be closer to the exit. Business class is even better!

If there are different line options, pay close attention. Look to see how many agents are attending a particular line, how wide AND long each line is, and choose wisely. Sometimes the “Visitors” line may be quicker than “US passports”, but usually the “Mobile Passport” line will be shorter than both.

Use the facilities on the airplane before landing. I always see hoards of people rushing to the toilets at the airport after landing. If you can save 3 minutes there, you might save yourself 10-15 minutes of waiting in line.

What Should I Avoid?

Make sure to not bring forbidden items, such as fruit and meats. These are sometimes given to you by the airline (example: an apple or a slim jim), so make sure to discard them before getting to customs.

Bringing too much alcohol. Check out this list to see how much you can take. Don’t try and drink it all while waiting in line, that will probably take even longer (or get you arrested)!

JFK on a busy day. I expect you’ll walk fast enough to be blurry too?

Avoid bringing items to declare. Here’s the list of prohibited items and here is a sample declaration card. Note that if you have Global Entry or Mobile Passport, you won’t have to fill this out unless you have items to declare at customs.

Make sure to enter the correct line! I’ve seen foreigners enter the US Passports line, make it all the way to the front, and get turned around. It happens! I know you’re probably tired, but be careful.

Strange Times

During this pandemic, travel has been reduced enormously. Lines everywhere are much, much shorter. However, they tend to be slower. There are less border agents working, and they have more to check, especially in countries with travel restrictions. I have seen a noticeable improvement in the US since May. Back then, it took me two hours to get through customs. On my more recent trips back in August and October, it’s taken minutes. I hope this trend continues!

Keep Exploring the World

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  1. […] Check out these tips from the Pilot Who Explores […]

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