7 Tips for Expediting Airport Customs

Tired of long lines and surprise customs duties? Check out these tips to help navigate airport customs and get you moving faster after that overseas flight. Read More

The agony of airport customs (Source: iStock / Anna Bryukhanova)

International air travel has become increasingly complicated. Finding the right ticket at the right price, navigating complex security protocols, and maneuvering through busy crowds are just some of the challenges we’ve come to expect. Getting stalled in a long customs line or being hit with a surprise customs duty just adds injury to insult. To make your next trip a little less stressful and a lot more efficient, then, we’ve curated our 7 best airport customs tips to get you moving faster and feeling a little better about your next trip overseas. Have a look.

1:  If you’re a frequent international traveler, get Global Entry.

If you’re a frequent international traveler, this is probably the number-one improvement you can make to help get you through airport customs more quickly. Like TSA Precheck, Global Entry is a government-run, trusted traveler program designed to expedite security screenings at over 70 U.S. airports. But Global Entry includes all the benefits of TSA Precheck plus faster U.S. customs screening when you’re arriving at selected U.S. airports from overseas. Global Entry is also administered by U.S. Customs and Board Patrol (CBP) rather than the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).

Instead of waiting in long lines to speak with a customs agent, Global Entry has its own dedicated line with unmanned kiosks. Present your passport, digital fingerprint, and completed customs declaration form at a kiosk for review. Once approved, the kiosk will issue a receipt and you’re on your way.

A five-year membership to Global Entry costs $100 (though select credit card companies will reimburse the cost) and the application process requires an in-person interview. These days, the application and approval process can take six months or more, so if you’re keen on using Global Entry before your next overseas trip, we suggest you apply sooner rather than later.

2: Alternatively, download the Mobile Passport app if you fly internationally less often.

The Mobile Passport app may be best for occasional overseas trips. (Source: Shutterstock / Postmodern Studio)
The Mobile Passport app may be best for occasional overseas trips. (Source: Shutterstock / Postmodern Studio)

Like Global Entry, the CBP-authorized Mobile Passport app enables expedited airport customs inspection at select U.S. airports, but there are important differences. For one thing, Global Entry is available at many more airports than the Mobile Passport app; as of this writing, the app works at 25 major airports and four sea ports. Global Entry also includes TSA Precheck privileges for domestic flights. The Mobile Passport app, however, is free and can be used immediately.

Here’s how it works: Download the free app from Google Play or the App Store. Create a profile with selected passport information. When returning from abroad, complete the “New Trip” section on your phone with your airline, arrival airport, selfie photo, passport number and expiration date, and responses to questions typically found on the paper customs declaration form. After submitting the information through the app, you’ll receive a digital receipt with a QR code. Present your paper passport and the QR code to a CBP agent (Mobile Passport users also have their own dedicated queue) for expedited review and approval.

A premium version ($15 annually) allows you to scan your passport so that your passport number and expiration date don’t have to be reentered for each arrival. Bear in mind though, $15 per year for five years is $75, which is almost as much as Global Entry but without TSA Precheck privileges. In short, the Mobile Passport App works best for those who have the occasional overseas trip, but still want to expedite their customs approval process.

3: Know the duty-free personal exemption / allowance limits before you land.

If you are declaring overseas purchases at the U.S. border, make sure you know whether there’ll be a duty owed. Nothing slows down airport customs inspection like an unexpected payment. And if you appear surprised or uncomfortable with these fees, the customs inspection agent may just decide to do a more thorough search of your luggage. Check out our piece on duty-free shopping for tips and additional information.

 4: Get a seat at the front of the plane.

Get off the plane more quickly with a seat up front. (Source: iStock / RUBEN RAMOS)
Get off the plane more quickly with a seat up front. (Source: iStock / RUBEN RAMOS)

It will likely come as no surprise that where you sit on the plane can impact when you reach airport customs by 15 minutes or more. By the time you deplane from row 36, rows one through 20 have already made it to the terminal and are likely ahead of you in the customs line. A seat farther to the front will enable you to deplane ahead of others and get to customs more quickly.

5: Walk quickly through the terminal.

Sure, you’re fried after a long flight, but now is not the time to stroll through the terminal. Instead, pick up the pace and reach airport customs before others who dilly dally. This means less time waiting in lines which, in turn, means you’re on your way sooner to your destination.

6: If you can, use the stairs instead of the escalator.

The escalator may actually take longer (Source: Shutterstock / fongbeerredhot)
The escalator may actually take longer (Source: Shutterstock / fongbeerredhot)

This may sound counterintuitive, but consider this: If given a choice, most people will opt for the escalator over the stairs, no matter the length or direction. That often means long lines just getting on the escalator and no room to move on it when you’re finally “on board.” If you’re up to it, take the stairs instead. In most cases, you’ll reach the top (or bottom) more quickly and beat the escalator crowd to customs.

7: Finally, visit the restroom while on the plane or after you’re through airport customs.

Lines for airport customs can grow quickly, especially if several international flights are landing at the same time. If necessary, consider visiting the restroom a bit before landing (as permissible), or wait until after you’re through customs. Even a few minutes in the restroom can add significant waiting time to your airport customs process.