Customs is getting faster with e-gates and preclearance programs


At Mexico’s Cancún International Airport, passport control can now take less time than ordering a frozen drink at Bar Margaritaville 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 process was deemed a success, and eligible passengers can now skip customs lines and face-to-face interviews with officials to get the faster option.

“E-gates are a great thing,” said Perry Flint, a spokesman for the International Air Transport Association, “but we’d like to see this go much further and move into contactless travel.”

The automated passport control machines are one of several innovations and programs that governments and airports are introducing to streamline and speed up the entry and exit process. Other developments falling under this umbrella include electronic visas, FastTrack passports in the UK and Customs and Border Protection pre-clearance points around the world.

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In many cases, such as the e-gates, the devices use biometrics such as face or fingerprint recognition. The burgeoning technology has heralded the end of cumbersome customs forms, snaking lines at border control and time-consuming interviews with government officials.

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

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

What you need to use E-Gates

To use an automated passport control gate, passengers must meet the criteria. Luckily, it’s a short checklist.

For one, you need to carry an e-passport or 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 under the words “United States of America” ​​on the front cover.

Passengers must also meet a minimum age, which is generally between preteens 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. Passengers leaving the country 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 instructions unaided”, according to the Australian Border Force.

The e-gates are very easy to operate. On a recent trip to Cancún, I followed the signs along the route from my arrival gate to passport control. Posters listed the requirements, all of which I met. I carried a US e-passport that was valid for more than 180 days. I was over 18. I was traveling for tourist purposes. And I had no children in my entourage.

I went straight to a machine and placed the photo page of my passport on the glass pane. A staff member approached to help; I waved her off. The gate opened and I stepped into a see-through booth. I stood on two footprints and my face flashed on a screen followed by the word “Processing.” The machine spat out a printout that welcomed me to Mexico.

Minutes later, I squinted into the blazing Mexican sun.

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Which airports have E gates

According to Flint, automated border controls are so widespread that IATA stopped overseeing 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 e-gates in Terminal 1, and the airport plans to install the kiosks in Terminal 3. Passengers under the age of 16 cannot use the E-Gates, but they have service kiosks that can accommodate up to five travelers.

Nationality can also be decisive. Several countries have recently expanded the range of nationalities allowed to use the machines. In June, Portugal allowed US passport holders to participate in its Rapid4All scheme. “This program aims to significantly reduce the time it takes citizens to 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 enter its e-gates at 15 airports and train stations. In France, US travelers can now use its parafe, or fast automated border crossing service, at seven airports, including Roissy-Charles de Gaulle and Orly in Paris.

To avoid hiccups, 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 need to fill out online or via an app. In addition, members of Trusted Traveler programs designated by the Department of Homeland Security, such as B. Global Entry, get the Speedy privilege.

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Where US travelers can clear customs before boarding

With CBP’s preclearance program, all US border controls take place before boarding, allowing passengers to go straight home (or to the Waffle House) after a long international journey.

Founded in 1952 in Toronto Pearson, the agency is the first foreign customs and immigration station. Since then, it has established 14 additional pre-clearance offices in six countries: Ireland, Aruba, Bermuda, the United Arab Emirates, the Bahamas and Canada.

According to a spokesman, CBP is eyeing four new spots – Amsterdam; Brussels; Bogota 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 plan a little more time at the airport. All locations have kiosks for Global Entry members. Once travelers clear customs, they step onto 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

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

Those with fewer international trips can save a few minutes with the Mobile Passport Control app, a free service available at 31 US airports and 3 pre-approved Canadian airports.

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

The Canada Border Services Agency allows travelers to file their customs and immigration declarations up to 72 hours prior to entering the country. At Pearson, passengers who fill out the pre-registration form will be granted access to a fast track in the customs area.

The UK offers a FastTrack program at several airports. With the program, passengers pay a small fee to gain access to faster customs lanes. Premium Gatwick Passport Control, for example, costs about $12 and allows travelers to use exclusive lanes that are only available to 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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