Background photo by Melinda Crow. Photo compositing by Barry Kaufman.
There's always that moment of letdown as you return from an overseas trip when you remember that you still must clear immigrations and customs. You know the party's really over when the flight attendants burst your vacation bubble with those pesky customs forms.
Frequent international travelers will tell you that Global Entry is the way to go. It's like First Class service through the ICE experience. The downsides are the cost and the headache of a security interview to gain approval. If you don't travel outside the country often it's probably not worth the cost and inconvenience. But there's an alternative that's almost as good, and it's free. The Mobile Passport app is approved by the U. S. Customs and Border Patrol and available for use at twenty major airports. The full list is at mobilepassport.us.
The premise is simple; download the app before you leave home. Enter your passport information and take a selfie. You can do your whole family on one device; there's no need to have the app on separate devices. Your passport information is secured with a four-digit pin code. While everyone else on the plane is filling out the paper forms, you open the app and answer those same questions about your trip on your mobile device.
A code is then generated for scanning by customs officials. When you arrive in the immigrations area, look for Mobile Passport signs, where you get to breeze through shorter lines. You will still be required to show your actual passport at some point; it's not an electronic replacement of that, just a replacement of the re-entry form.
I recently tested the app at the Dallas-Fort Worth airport and was overwhelmingly surprised. Three international flights arrived in my terminal at about the same time, creating an enormous crowd in the arrival hall. Signs directed me right past the long lines to a designated area with no line at all. Zero waiting.
I simply showed the code in the app to the officer and proceeded to the luggage claim. After retrieving my luggage, I did have to stand in the normal customs line, where I presented my passport and the code on my phone was scanned. Total time saved was most likely twenty minutes given the length of the lines.
The app does not help when you return to the country by any other method than flying; sorry, you are still going to have to stand in line after your cruise. It is nice, however, to have another secure place to keep your passport number stored.
The day may come when a larger number of travelers will choose this simple digital option, lengthening the lines somewhat. But for now, being an early adopter definitely has its perks.