I’m travelling to the USA in November, but friends have told me the immigration queues in American airports can be very long. How can I avoid this?
International travellers arriving at some big US airports usually face at least an hour waiting in line for immigration. Statistics for 2015 show that JFK in New York tops the list of the longest waits, with San Francisco, Los Angeles, Miami and Houston not far behind. Earlier this year, there were even reports of some passengers having to wait up to three hours at JFK airport! US immigration halls are often hot and uncomfortable and you run the risk of missing an onward connection too.
The easiest way to avoid long queues is to try to arrive at a quiet time. Amazingly, the US Customs and Border Agency has a website at http://awt.cbp.gov that monitors passenger waits at all American international airports, so you can check to see times. For example, on 8th August, at Washington’s Dulles Airport, the website showed that 12pm to 1pm was busiest with a maximum wait of 75 minutes. Since many large airlines like BA offer several flights a day to busy destinations, you could try to pick a different flight.
One option could be to clear immigration before your flight to the USA – and that means flying to Ireland first. Passengers taking US flights from Dublin and Shannon can clear US immigration in Ireland, which means you effectively arrive in America as a domestic passenger, with no onward formalities to clear. Just pick up your luggage and go.
A more direct option, but only for well-heeled UK-based travellers, is to take the British Airways flight from London City Airport to JFK. This is a business class-only aircraft and uses a small Airbus A319 rather than the usual larger planes. It means you have to make a one-hour refuelling stop in Shannon, conveniently allowing you to clear immigration before getting back on the plane.
There are plans to introduce a similar system at Manchester and Heathrow although this hasn’t been implemented yet.
If you’re a frequent traveller to the US, the new ‘Global Entry’ programme, recently opened to UK citizens, could be a good option, although it’s complicated to apply. Basically, once you’re registered, you’ll be able to skip the queues at 46 American airports. First, you’ll need to get a background check by applying on the UK Government site, at a cost of £42. Then you’ll apply to Global Entry, which involves a face-to-face interview and a $100 fee for five-years membership. Those interviews take place in London.