Skip the Line: How to Get Through Customs Like a Pro

Streamline your trip through customs with these tips for a smooth arrival.

Every seasoned traveler has experienced it; no matter how quickly to seem to get to customs, you hit a line of people. But you don't have to get stuck standing in line for hours; thanks to the wonders of technology, you can breeze through the line as quickly as a flight crew through gets through security with these pro tips. 

Global Entry interview

Become a Trusted Traveler

The easiest way to get through customs quickly and efficiently is to become a Trusted Traveler. While U.S. Customs and Border Protection offers a few different options, the gold standard is Global Entry, which allows expedited clearance for pre-approved, low-risk travelers arriving in the United States.

"The use of automated technology allows for the customs declaration form process to start with the traveler," said Rob Brisley, U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesperson. "Global Entry is a valuable service for someone who travels numerous international trips, or even once or twice a year."

Travelers must be pre-approved for the Global Entry program. The first step is filling out the online application; once approved, they sit down at a Global Entry enrollment center for a face-to-face interview with a CBP officer, who will double-check the details.

As a Global Entry member, travelers proceed directly to the Global Entry kiosks upon arrival (Global Entry is available at approximately 60 airports worldwide), insert their passport into the kiosks, smile for their photo, then place their fingerprints on the scanner for verification and, lastly, complete the customs declaration questions.

"An additional perk of the Global Entry program," said Brisley, "is that members are also eligible to participate in TSA PreCheck, the Transportation Security Administration’s expedited security program.”

Once issued, the Global Entry card is good for a five-year period, and is renewable at Global Entry centers across the country. There are more than 40 airports worldwide with Global Entry enrollment centers.

"If you can get it, Global Entry is the way to go," said Christopher Elliott, consumer advocate and syndicated columnist. "Otherwise, get the Mobile Passport app."

Traveler on phone

Use Technology to Your Advantage

If Global Entry is not an option for you, take advantage of the free Mobile Passport Control app that is available for both Android and iOS. It's currently available for use at 21 airports—as well as Port Everglades—and will be debuting in many more markets soon.

MPC streamlines the customs process by allowing users to submit passport information and answer CBP questions before going through the line. Once this is completed, the app generates a bar code for the CBP offer to review and finalize. No pre-approval is necessary.

Working in complement with MPC is Automated Passport Control. Another free process that requires no pre-approval, travelers use self-service kiosks to submit their information, then bring their receipts to CBP officers to review. Families will want to use these kiosks; they allow people residing at the same address to be processed together. APC is currently available at 43 airports.

"If your port of entry has APC or MPC, it is always the best step, as it allows for officers not to have to input or review written travel documents," said Brisley. 

Welcome to the United States

Arm Yourself With Knowledge

Just as the early bird gets the worm when it comes to seat assignments and ticket booking, so it goes for navigating your way through customs.

"Don't wait until the flight has landed to fill out your paperwork," said Elliott, who noted that these are usually the people who hold up the lines. "And, bring a ballpoint pen," he added. "They're not going to hand them out if you're not in business or first class."

Elliott also recommended to make sure you are in the correct line, and, if possible, coming in on the first international flight arriving for the day. 

"It only gets worse as the day goes on, especially if you come in at a popular time," he said. 

Brisley said that airline schedules can determine a peak time of the day. 

"Packing patience is valuable when it comes to arrival into the U.S. during peak times," said Brisley.

According to Brisley, JFK, at 15.8 million, had the highest number of travelers going through customs in 2016; Halifax, Nova Scotia, at 179,000, had the fewest. 

You can also help expedite the process by having your travel documents current and by knowing before you go what items can't be brought back into the U.S.

"When unsure, declare items to the CBP officer," Brisley said.