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How to Avoid Lengthy Customs Lines This Summer

If you haven't already locked in your summer foreign travel, try to fly back to the U.S. through Atlanta or Seattle. Peak-period customs waiting times there, at 25-40 minutes, are lowest among the biggest U.S. airports; that's according to a report prepared by the Gateway Alliance, based on data from the Customs and Border Protection Bureau.

A 40-minute wait is bad enough, but if you're unlucky enough to have to enter the country at JFK's Terminal Four during peak arrival periods, you could spend more than an hour and a half going through the lines. Miami is next worst, at more than 70 minutes, followed by Dallas-Ft. Worth at 67 minutes, and Chicago O'Hare at 64 minutes. The other big international gateways come in at under an hour, but not by much.

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Fortunately, you can sometimes avoid the worst waits:

  • Try to schedule your arrival at off-peak times, when waits are lower—often much lower. At JFK, for example, the wait during the off-peak times is down to 36 minutes from the mind-numbing 94 minutes at peak times. On my trip last year, I encountered no wait at all for an off-peak arrival at Newark.
  • Some big U.S. airlines operate their own international arrivals areas, with shorter waits; the report did not cover these terminals.
  • Consider a smaller gateway. On my recent trip, I found no wait at all arriving at Salt Lake on the one daily transatlantic arrival. 
  • The Global Entry program lets you bypass some of the arrival hassle. The hassle is to get enrolled, but once you are, you're in better shape, at least at those airports with special lanes. Currently, airports with Global Entry include almost all the big gateways: Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Charlotte, Chicago O'Hare, Dallas-Ft. Worth, Denver, Detroit, Ft. Lauderdale, Houston/Bush, Honolulu, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Miami, Minneapolis-St. Paul, New York/JFK, Newark, Orange County, Orlando, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Portland, Raleigh, Salt Lake City, San Diego, San Francisco, San Juan, Sanford, Seattle-Tacoma, Washington/Dulles, plus the Canadian and Irish airports with pre-clearance. Check the website for enrollment details.

Nevertheless, long customs and immigration waits are a national embarrassment and a major hassle—especially for travelers who are jet lagged after sitting for many hours in a too-small economy seat. Some sources say that long immigration waits actually deter international travel to the U.S. and hurt the economy. That's probably true, but as far as I can tell, there will be no fast relief for international travelers: You just have to go with the flow, no matter how slow the flow may be. Feh!

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