Customs speeds up with electronic gates and preclearance programs


At Cancun International Airport in Mexico, going through passport control can now take less time than ordering an ice cold drink from the Margaritaville bar in Terminal 3.

Riviera Maya Airport, which handled a record 30 million passengers last year, introduced electronic gates last fall as part of a pilot program to speed up the international arrivals process. The trial was deemed a success and eligible passengers can now skip customs queues and face-to-face interviews with officers for the fastest option.

“Electronic gates are a good thing,” said Perry Flint, spokesman for the International Air Transport Association, “but we’d like to see it go much further and embrace contactless travel.”

Automated passport control machines are one of many innovations and programs that governments and airports are implementing to streamline and speed up the entry and exit process. Other developments that fall under this umbrella include e-visas, FastTrack passes in the UK, and Customs and Border Protection pre-clearance sites around the world.

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In many cases, such as e-gates, the equipment uses biometrics such as facial or fingerprint recognition. The booming technology has meant the end of cumbersome customs forms, winding border control queues and time-consuming interviews with government officials.

The downside: no more passport stamps. (If you’re worried about biometrics invading your privacy, you can always go the old-fashioned way, but remember that your passport and boarding pass contain a wealth of personal information.)

“Your digital ID could become a way to get around the airport,” Flint said.

What you need to use electronic portals

To use an automated passport control gate, passengers must meet the criteria. Fortunately, this is a short checklist.

On the one hand, you must carry an electronic passport or a book with an embedded chip that stores the information on the photo page as well as a digital image of your passport photo. The Department of State has been issuing electronic passports since 2007. To determine if your passport qualifies, look for the gold foil-stamped chip icon under the “United States of America” ​​lettering on the cover.

Passengers must also meet a minimum age requirement, usually somewhere between tweens and late teens. In Australia, arriving travelers aged 16 and over can use SmartGates at eight international airports, including Sydney, Brisbane and the Gold Coast. Departing passengers can scan their passports at self-service kiosks at 10 airports. There is no age limit for departing travellers, but young jet-setters must be able to “follow directions without help”, according to the Australian Border Force.

E-gates are child’s play to use. On a recent trip to Cancun, I followed the signs posted along the road from my arrival gate to passport control. Posters listed the requirements, all of which I met. I carried a US ePassport valid for over 180 days. I was over 18. I was traveling for tourism purposes. And I had no children around me.

I walked straight to a machine and placed my passport photo page on the glass screen. An employee approached to help; I waved him away. The door opened and I entered a transparent cabin. I stood on a pair of footprints and my face flashed on a screen, followed by the word “treatment”. The machine spat out a print welcoming me to Mexico.

A few minutes later, I was squinting into the hot Mexican sun.

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Which airports have electronic gates

According to Flint, automated border controls have become so widespread that IATA stopped monitoring their global implementation in 2019.

Canada has kiosks at 10 airports, from Nova Scotia to British Columbia. Last summer, Toronto Pearson Airport unveiled a dozen electronic gates in Terminal 1, and the airport plans to install the machines in Terminal 3. Passengers under the age of 16 cannot use the electronic gates, but they can access self-service kiosks, accommodating up to five travelers.

Nationality can also be a determining factor. Several countries have recently expanded the group of nationalities allowed to use the machines. In June, Portugal began allowing US passport holders to participate in its Rapid4All system. “This program is expected to significantly reduce the time it takes for citizens to clear immigration,” the US Embassy and Consulate in Lisbon announced last summer.

In 2019, the UK invited seven new countries, including the US, to switch to its electronic gates at 15 airports and stations. In France, American travelers can now use its Parafe, or rapid automated border crossing service, at seven airports, including Roissy-Charles de Gaulle and Orly in Paris.

To avoid any mishaps, check your destination’s arrival and e-gate rules before you leave home. Some countries may require pre-registration or a customs form that you must complete online or via an app. Additionally, members of Department of Homeland Security-designated Trusted Traveler programs, such as Global Entry, could earn the fast track privilege.

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Where U.S. Travelers Can Clear Customs Before Boarding

With CBP’s preclearance program, all U.S. border control activities occur before boarding, so passengers can return directly home (or to Waffle House) after a long international trip.

The agency established the first foreign customs and immigration checkpoint at Toronto Pearson in 1952. Since then, it has established 14 other preclearance points in six countries: Ireland, Aruba, Bermuda, United Arab Emirates, Bahamas and Canada.

According to a spokesperson, CBP is considering four new spots – Amsterdam; Brussels; Bogotá – Colombia; and Taipei, Taiwan – and may open one or more of these locations in the next few years. The signs are promising: the agency signed a bilateral agreement with Belgium in September 2020, and a similar agreement is being finalized with Colombia.

“Preclearance makes such a difference,” said Terry Dale, president of the United States Tour Operators Association.

Travelers leaving countries with preclearance should allow themselves extra time at the airport. Kiosks are available for Global Entry members at all locations. Once travelers clear customs, they enter US soil, so agricultural rules apply. PSA: Eat your banana or salad before you get in line.

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Global Entry and other time-saving measures

Frequent international travelers should consider applying for Global Entry, which costs $100 and is valid for five years.

Those who travel less abroad can save a few minutes with the Mobile Passport Control app, a free service available at 31 US airports and 3 Canadian airports with preclearance.

For some countries that require a tourist visa, you can apply for the document online rather than at the airport. Among the countries with the e-visa option: Turkey, Vietnam, Kenya and Egypt.

The Canada Border Services Agency allows travelers to submit their customs and immigration declaration up to 72 hours before flying into the country. At Pearson, passengers who complete the pre-declaration form gain access to an express lane in the customs area.

The UK offers a FastTrack program at several airports. With the program, passengers pay a nominal fee to access faster customs lanes. Premium Gatwick Passport Control, for example, costs around $12 and allows travelers to use exclusive lanes accessible to just 50 passengers per hour. Travelers can book at least four hours before landing or up to six months in advance. The program in Edinburgh, Scotland costs less than $9.

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