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10 Ultimate Tricks Airline Pilots Use to Pass US Customs – FAST

Customs at JFK

As an airline pilot and explorer of the world, I’ve been lucky enough to explore over 85 countries on six continents – sorry, I’m not sure what customs in Antarctica is like. And as a normal human being, I hate waiting in line.

With the extensive travel my job requires, every minute wasted waiting for customs is time away from family, friends, and fun. So I’ve studied the customs process to try and streamline this pretty big part of my life.

Along with my airline colleagues, here are the tricks we use to get through customs as quickly – and painlessly – as possible.

1) Use the Mobile Passport App

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 often nonexistent. This is one of the quickest options to get through customs, sometimes 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.

2) Global Entry: the quickest way to get through customs in the US

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

3) Have your COVID-19 info accessible

A big holdup I’ve seen recently in customs is people scrambling to find their Covid-19 test results or vaccine records.

Related: How to Find COVID-19 Rapid and PCR Testing Internationally in 3 Steps

Make sure to have everything prepared. You should either print everything and keep it in a folder, or my favorite: screenshooting everything so it’s all together in my camera roll.

Research all the COVID-related forms you need to fill for the country you’re entering. These days, most of the forms are available online. And some countries, such as St. Maarten, actually require an online application completed at least 12 hours before departure.

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.

4) Take the stairs!

The Fast and Furious: Part… 11?

Don’t laugh this one off – it’s one of the best ways to pass a LOT of people.

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.

5) Book a seat at the front of the airplane

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 you’re flying on a Boeing 757, there’s a 90% chance that the exit used is the L2 door located behind business class.

Related: An Airline Pilot Shares the 10 Best Ways to Avoid the Middle Seat on Your Next Flight

6) Choose the right line

Apart from picking the correct line for your passport status, you can save a ton of time simply by paying 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.

7) Use the lavatory on the airplane

This might sound weird, but I always consider it a huge waste of time to have to use the bathroom after 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 to avoid before going through customs

8) Avoid bringing forbidden items, such as fruit and meats.

A quick way to get detained and ruin your day is by bringing in stuff you’re not supposed to.

Some countries, like New Zealand and Palau, are extremely particular about this. You can be fined over $10000!

The “gotcha” here is that these are sometimes given to you by the airline on your flight (example: an apple, banana, or a slim jim), so make sure to discard them before getting to customs.

9) Watch your alcohol!

Apart from being good guidance at the bar, you should be careful going through customs with a bit too much in your bag.

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?

10) Avoid bringing items you need to declare.

Bringing more than $10000 with you in cash or foreign instruments? Good for you! I’m kind of jealous.

But you will have to declare it. See you on the other side of customs!

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.

Strange Times

During this pandemic, international travel has been reduced enormously.

However, this doesn’t mean you should let down your guard. There are less border agents working – especially with vaccine mandates, and they have so much more to check in terms of Covid-19 related documents. This is especially true in countries with stricter travel restrictions.

I have seen a noticeable improvement in the US since May 2020. Back then, it took me two hours to get through customs. Me! On my more recent trips, it’s taken mere 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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