How to Get Through Customs and Immigration Faster

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April 20, 2024

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Why stand in line for an hour or more after a long flight? In this post, you’ll learn nine steps to help you speed through immigration and get through customs faster.

One of the frustrating things about an international trip is going through immigration and clearing customs, especially at an airport. Long lines, confusing procedures, and strict security measures can all contribute to the frustration.

Follow the 9 steps below to help you get through immigration and customs faster, whether you're entering the United States or a foreign country.

What’s the Difference Between Immigration and Customs?

Man handing passport to immigration officer. papers are organized to get through customs quicker.When you reach your final destination in another country, you need to present your passport, visa, and other necessary documents to an immigration officer or scan them at a kiosk. You'll also answer some questions to ensure you're legally allowed to be there. You also may have your photo taken and be fingerprinted.

Once you’ve been approved to enter the country, you’ll pick up your checked luggage and proceed to the customs area. The customs officer's job is to ensure you’re not bringing prohibited items into the country and assess customs duties on things like excess tobacco and alcohol.

Some countries, like Canada, Ireland,  the UAE, and others, have preclearance, which means you clear customs before you board the plane. You'll still need to go through immigration when you arrive.

How Long Does It Take to Clear Customs?

The time it takes to pass through immigration and clear customs depends on the number of recent international flights and the staffing level.

I've gone through the process in as little as 5 minutes, but it can take up to an hour or more. To learn about the wait time at your airport, search online for "customs wait times."

Nine Tips to Speed Through Immigration and Get Through Customs Faster

1. Sign up for expedited screening programs before you leave

If you're a frequent international traveler, signing up for one of the following Trusted Traveler Programs offered by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is a great way to get through immigration faster.

A turquoise purse with a passport and Global Entry card peeking out of the cornerAt most international airports, Global Entry provides low-risk travelers with expedited clearance through immigration when they return to the U.S.

If you travel frequently between the U.S. and Canada or Mexico, NEXUS and Sentri provide similar services.

You can start the application process for any of these programs here. Processing times can be 6-14 months, so start now if you're interested.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection also offers a free Mobile Passport Control app (MPC) for Apple and Android. Available at certain airports, you answer questions on your phone instead of on paper, and depending on the airport, there may be a shorter MPC line.

Other countries are also allowing travelers to fill out immigration and customs forms online. For example, Canada uses the ArriveCAN app at many of its international airports. So, I suggest you check online with the country you'll be traveling to.

2. Know what you’re allowed to bring into the country

Many countries have strict regulations on certain foods, plants, and other items that might threaten their ecosystems or agriculture.

Did you know that the Mediterranean fruit fly outbreak during the 1980s, which cost about $100 million to eradicate, came into the country on one contaminated piece of fruit? These rules are in place for a reason!

The list of prohibited and restricted items published by U.S. Customs and Border Protection provides more information about what you can and can’t bring into the U.S.

To learn the guidelines for other countries, search online for the country's name and then “customs guidelines.” If you bring in something you're not supposed to, you'll be pulled aside, and that will take more time. Plus, you may be fined!

3. Pack smart

If you’re packing anything that may need to be inspected, like electronics, medication, medical equipment etc., pack it where you can easily access it for inspection.

4. Get to the front of the queue

Customs lines can be long, especially if several international flights have landed at the same time. So to get through customs faster, choose a seat near the front of the plane, walk quickly to immigration, take the stairs instead of the escalator or elevator, and skip a visit to the bathroom.

Have mobility issues? Notify your airline prior to departure, and they should have someone meet you at the plane to escort you through the process.

5. Have your travel documents ready

Customs declaration form on top of a map of Germany.The flight attendant will give you immigration and customs declaration forms on the plane. Fill these out when you receive them.

You'll need to estimate the value of anything you purchased while you were away, as well as any gifts you received. You don't need to include personal belongings or anything you brought from home.

Unless you’re using Global Entry or another of the expedited services above, you’ll be asked to present your passport, visa, green card, immunization documents, etc., when you reach immigration.

Having these documents in hand will help streamline the process and reduce the time you spend waiting in line.

You'll present your customs forms to the customs officials after you've picked up your luggage.

6. Choose the right line

To save time, check to be sure you’re joining the right line. For example, if you’re a citizen or resident of the country you're entering, you may be able to use a line in immigration for citizens or residents.

Some airports have a separate line for travelers with special needs.

And if you have a connecting flight, follow the signs to the transit lounge where you'll be able to make your way to your next flight.

If you’re using Global Entry, look for the line for the Global Entry kiosk. There might be a separate line for Mobile Passport Control as well. Choosing the right line can save you a significant amount of time.

In many airports, there are automated passport control kiosks where you just scan your passport, have your photo taken, and answer a few questions before being cleared. Other countries are implementing these as well.

Woman having her luggage inspected by customs.

Photo by CDC on Unsplash

Once you've picked up your luggage, you'll enter the customs area.

If you don't have anything to declare, there will usually be a separate line to exit. However, beware! People in this line are sometimes randomly selected to have their luggage inspected, and if you have something in your bag you haven’t declared, you will probably be issued a fine.

If you do have something to declare, enter that line and follow instructions from the customs officer.

7. Follow instructions carefully

Customs procedures vary from country to country, so if you want to get through customs faster, it’s a good idea to pay attention and follow instructions to the letter.

This may include filling out a declaration form, providing additional documentation, or answering further questions.

Airports differ as well. In some, it will be a short walk to pick up your luggage, clear customs, and then drop your bags off again if you're continuing your trip domestically. In others, you'll need to collect your luggage, clear customs, and then transport it yourself to your next flight. You may even need to go through security again.

Read signs, follow instructions, and ask someone if you're not sure what to do.

8. Be honest and straightforward

Customs and immigration officers are trained to detect when someone is lying or withholding information. So it’s essential to be honest and straightforward when answering questions about the purpose of your trip, your itinerary, where you're staying, your occupation, how long you intend to stay, and any other questions you're asked.

If you’re caught lying or trying to hide or understate the value of something, you could be subject to additional screening and delays, not to mention hefty fines.

The safest thing to do is to have receipts. Bring receipts for things you're bringing from home (like a new camera, a laptop, or expensive jewelry) and for items you bought on your trip. If there’s any question, you’ll have proof of where you purchased the item and its cost.

9. Be polite and respectful 

Finally, be polite and respectful to the immigration and customs officers you encounter. They’re just doing their job and they're there to keep everyone and their country safe.

Being polite and respectful can go a long way in making the customs process a more pleasant experience for everyone—and quicker, too. If you cause a problem or start arguing, you’re more likely to be pulled aside, which will NOT help you get through customs faster!

Conclusion

Getting through customs quickly and efficiently requires a bit of preparation, patience, and common sense.

By following these nine steps, you can streamline the process and reduce the amount of time you spend waiting in line.

Remember to stay calm, be honest, and follow instructions. You’ll be through customs in no time.

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Pin for How to Get Through Customs faster showing a map and a customs declaration form

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