Customs is getting faster with e-gates and preclearance programs


At Mexico’s Cancun International Airport, clearing passport control can now take less time than ordering a frozen drink at the Margaritaville bar in Terminal 3.

The Riviera Maya airport, which received a record 30 million passengers last year, introduced electronic gates last fall as part of a pilot program aimed at speeding up the international arrivals process. The trial has been deemed a success and qualified passengers can now skip customs lines and have face-to-face interviews with officials for quick selection.

“E-gates are a great thing,” said International Air Transport Association spokesman Perry Flint, “but we want it to go much further into contactless travel.”

Automated passport control machines are one of the many innovations and initiatives being introduced by governments and airports to streamline and speed up the entry and exit process. Other developments that fall under this umbrella include electronic visas, FastTrack passes in the United Kingdom and Customs and Border Protection preclearance sites around the world.

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In many cases, such as e-gates, the devices use biometrics such as facial or fingerprint recognition. The emerging technology could mean the end of cumbersome customs forms, border control queues and time-consuming interviews with government officials.

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

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

You have to use e-gates

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

One, you must carry an e-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 State Department has been issuing electronic passports since 2007. To determine if your passport is eligible, look for the chip symbol stamped in gold foil with the letters “United States of America” ​​on the front cover.

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

E-gates are a breeze to use. On a recent trip to Cancun, I followed the posted signs along the route from my arrival gate to passport control. The posters listed requirements, all of which I fulfilled. I have a US e-passport valid for more than 180 days. I am 18 years old. I am traveling for tourist purposes. And I have no children in my entourage.

I went straight to a machine and placed my passport photo page on the glass screen. An employee approached for help; I gasped her. The gate opened and I stepped inside the transparent booth. I stood on a pair of footprints and my face flashed on the screen, followed by the word “Processing”. The machine spit out a printout welcoming me to Mexico.

A few minutes later, I see the Mexican sun shining on it.

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Which airports have e-gates?

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

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

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Nationality can also be decisive. Many countries have recently expanded the group of nationals 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 citizens get through immigration,” the US Embassy and Consulate in Lisbon announced last summer.

In 2019, the UK invited seven new countries, including the US, to access its e-gates at 15 airports and railway stations. In France, US 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 hiccups, check your destination arrival and e-gate rules before you leave home. Some countries may require preregistration or a customs form that you must complete online or through the app. In addition, members of trusted traveler programs such as Global Entry designated by the Department of Homeland Security may receive expedited authorization.

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US passengers can clear customs before boarding

With CBP’s preclearance program, all US border control business takes place before boarding, so travelers can go straight home (or to Waffle House) after a long international trip.

Established in 1952 at Toronto Pearson, the agency was the first overseas customs and immigration station. It has established 14 more preclearance locations in six countries: Ireland, Aruba, Bermuda, the United Arab Emirates, the Bahamas and Canada.

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

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

Passengers departing for countries with preclearance should allow extra time at the airport. Kiosks are available at all locations for Global Entry members. Once travelers pass through customs, they are stepping onto US soil, so agricultural rules apply. PSA: Eat your banana or salad before you step 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 with shorter trips abroad can shave minutes with the mobile Passport Control app, a free service available with preclearance at 31 US airports and 3 Canadian airports.

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

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

The UK offers a FastTrack program at many airports. With the program, passengers pay a nominal fee to access fast-track customs lanes. Premium Gatwick Passport Control, for example, costs around $12 and allows passengers to use special lanes that are limited to 50 passengers per hour. Passengers can book at least four hours before landing or six months in advance. The program in Edinburgh, Scotland costs less than $9.


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