a blue passport with gold text on it

America, land of the free, right? For reasons I’ll explain shortly, below, I waited over an hour to clear immigration as a US citizen yesterday. It wasn’t because there was a huge backlog of arrivals, either.

The wait was purely because US immigration is generally slow, inefficient and lacking a few features which many European and other airports have had forever. Should we have these features? I’d say yes. It can’t be any worse than it is.

a blue passport with gold text on it

But What About Global Entry?

Global Entry is a great US Immigration feature, which allows people to pay $100 for 5 years of access, and receive that access after a background check and interview. I have it, and I love it.

Unfortunately, because the US doesn’t miss a trick with paperwork or billing, our 2 year old daughter also needs it, otherwise we can’t use it when we travel with her. She is conditionally approved, but can’t use the service until she’s “interviewed.”

That’d be fairly simple in normal times, but backlogs for appointments are next to impossible. The next available appointment is currently in September. Don’t get me started on that. She’s two. I can’t wait to hear her responses to questions as to any links to extremist groups, or criminal records.

Global Entry is great, but I fear it may have created a backlog in tech updates for everyone else who travels internationally. US processing technology feels behind most others now. Arriving in the US is just slower than most other places.

Why No Family Lanes?

In Europe, people traveling with a child under the age of 3 always has a kind of priority access at airport immigration. Helpful agents seek families out and pull them out of line, if they don’t know about it. Tourists are seen as a priority.

Make no mistake about it: tourism is a huge, multi-billion dollar annual business to most countries, and smart countries do their best to make the formalities around any immigration procedures as pain free and fast as possible.

The US has never used family lanes, and I think it creates a bad visitor experience in comparison to current global benchmarks for travel experience.

Kids under 3, all of whom would’ve come off an international flight, are already at the end of the line with patience after arrival. Making them wait in long queues can ruin a trip before it starts. The UK also offers a dedicated family lane.

a row of blue and white machines

Other Countries Use E-Gates Like Global Entry

E-gates aren’t always your friend, but more often than not, they are. They are fast, they’re secure, they’re tech driven — and allow both citizens and residents, as well as foreign visitors to use them.

Facial recognition technology matches up identity with passport chips and all sorts of AI crazy stuff happens to validate travelers. Don’t forget, most risk assessments are done before a passenger boards a flight, not after they arrive.

This is where I wonder if Global Entry has sacrificed the overall US arrival experience, for the sake of making some extra bucks. I’m all for capitalism and creating new and better premium options, but not as much when it makes the general traveler options worse than other countries.

Americans arriving in the UK, Australia and a variety of others have access to e-gates, where staffing is never a concern. 20-30 lanes are always open, and with processing typically around 30 seconds each, 30 people are going through every 30 seconds.

On arrival in the United States, there were two (2!) US CBP officers staffed to handle the US citizen line at JFK on my arrival. There were three or four for the other arrivals lane. Each process took around 2-3 minutes, which meant we were processing around two to three US citizens, per minute or two.

There were no more than 60 people in front of us and it took over an hour.

It just doesn’t have to be this way. The US easily has the technology to use e-gates like most of the rest of the developed world, for both US arrivals and foreign visitors. It’s so much faster, and has never been known to be less secure. Hello, big data.

The gates can still refer people to secondary screening and manual checks from CBP officers, if there are any questions or concerns. If anything, it creates an extra layer of security.

It seemed like things were going in this direction in the US, with the birth of Mobile Passport and more kiosks, but at least in JFK T7, they were nowhere to be found this time around. A long evening became painfully long for the 300 people on my flight. It was the same story in Austin just a week or two before, for my colleagues.

American Tourism Growth Has Lagged

Some have blamed political issues in the last few years, others have blamed a rise in gun crime, but for many frequent travelers, the visitor experience is often the culprit for prioritizing other destinations.

High value travelers have prioritized other countries with better visitor experiences and the numbers don’t lie. In 2019, as the world of tourism was surpassing records the US was one of the few countries in the top 10 not keeping up with growth.

Similar trends have continued in 2022, though other factors like travel restrictions are other factors. The US hasn’t prioritized visitor experience at airports. Tourism driven countries have.

The Maldives created a loyalty program for visitors, with special perks for frequent trips, including special fast tracks and destination discounts. The US is a tourism driven country, it just doesn’t like to act like it.

Improving The Visitor Experience

The US hasn’t invested time and resources into modernizing airports and the US CBP arrival experience the way other countries have. Global Entry is the noted exception, but its criteria for enrollment remain challenging, and scheduling an interview is near impossible at the moment.

I’m all for creating more premium features to see what travelers are willing to pay for, like the public-private partnership with PS @ LAX, but I’d love to see the baseline travel experience improved for all visitors.

It sends the wrong message to make people queue for hours, when they’re coming to spend money in your country.

Gilbert Ott

Gilbert Ott is an ever curious traveler and one of the world's leading travel experts. His adventures take him all over the globe, often spanning over 200,000 miles a year and his travel exploits are regularly...

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  1. The tech is coming but like with all things government, its taking a while. Did you inquire about Interview on Arrival for your child’s GE interview when passing through Customs? Finally, I doubt a one or two hour wait at immigration is the sole reason an international visitor would choose not to experience NYC, Vegas, or Disney lol.

    1. Indeed. The officer said they were “closed for the day” with a sound of doubt in their mind. While you are fairly correct about leisure travelers, business travelers actively avoid trips to certain countries based on experience. This is a fact.

  2. Agree with all you say. As a UK citizen, I find immigration control arriving in the US to be the most unpleasant of any country I travel to (in pre covid times probably around 15 a year). Waits of 2+ hours are common at SFO and the processing seems pointless.

  3. Not going to defend CBP (who leaves most of the machines at IAD unavailable because no one will change the paper rolls in them) but there was sign this morning in BAD that says if you are conditionally approved, you can interview on the spot.

    Or you can come in over the Southern border. no checks at all there.

  4. It’s going backwards at ORD. They used to have the customs machines that cleared you instead of the blue forms that were given out on the plane. Good idea. Last time though there someone is giving out those old blue forms when you get off the plane. Why? Because they’ve taken out all those machines. This resulted in all those in line trying to shuffle forward filling out a form whilst holding a bag. Those that had pens anyway. Stone age stuff.

  5. Agree with the article but last time at immigration at Slc they did not even want to see my passport. Just look here and can go. I was in quite a shock.

  6. Came through JFK T7 a week ago…nightmare… although with my US GE, got ticket straight away, had to then join a queue to talk to a CBP officer to ask the usual questions? Why? The point of GE was to speed up processing. Also my partner had UK GE, theirs (and I think all non US passports) failed for some reason at GE machine. Cue confusion and being sent to the back of the standard line…why again? In the end, it only took them about 20mins longer to get through CBP than it did for the bags to get to the belt…but it was well over an hour after we got off the plane so really annoying when it feels like 3am in your body.
    Will probably avoid BA into JFK until they move into T8, but not much hope that’ll be any better (apart from a newer terminal….so maybe less like being held in a 1960s holding pen)

  7. Absolutely correct! The other point is the need of a transit visa for many foreigners….see on Facebook! Free Transit Travel. US Airlines miss Millions of passengers, costs of flights are way higher around USA, yearly costs of control Transit Passengers costs USA Billions of Dollars.

  8. Gilbert – I’m a big fan. I’m really surprised though. You’re complaining about the long wait for your daughter’s appointment. You could have done the interview upon arrival on this most recent entry that you’re complaining about. I just did it at SFO and had my approval and global entry card within a few days. So for everyone reading this please research interview upon arrival. At SFO the sign for the global entry lane also has a reference to interview upon arrival. It’s simple you do your normal process and at the same time the agent asks you a few questions. It could not have been easier. Appointments at any eligible airport in Northern California were not available for months and months. Now I use global entry and breeze through. And another question for you Gilbert – I don’t know the answer to this since I don’t have children. Can you use the Mobile Passport app with your daughter? It’s much faster than standing in line.

    1. Interview on arrival sadly wasn’t available. “They’re closed now because it’s late” was the word. I knew it likely wasn’t true.

      1. What about Mobile Passport Control? If you’re a US citizen and don’t have Global Entry you can use the Mobile Passport Control app. It’s really brilliant. Before I had Global Entry I made it through immigration faster than two friends using their Global Entry when we flew into IAH from Mexico.

  9. Passed through DFW last week from Mexico. It was the fastest [NON=Global Entry] I have ever encountered in The World and I have Multiple Residency/Citizenship. Do not really know how the system operated, but seems much like a Las Vegas Casino.

    Think they match your face pic when you approach the desk with Government files e.g. Florida Driving. The desk agent then sees they match and just waves you through.

    All took less than a minute. Even more outstanding, I have an out of Date Green Card and the awful 1-979. Possible I was prechecked whilst flying. But certainly a terrific advance.

  10. I flew ZRH-MIA last November.
    There were 40 immigration gates actually numbered.
    Only 6 were open and the whole process took 1 hour 50 from joining the line.

  11. ESTA is a whole new world post China Virus. It used to be those of us on a new ESTA Visa would line up for hours like those countries that cannot get ESTA. Then once used, any subsequent entries to the USA, we could use the same kiosks as the Yanks. Not now. Post China Virus and US opening up finally, we on ESTA now need to line up every time. Land of the fee, home of the long-lines ( for everything ). So 1 hour is a breeze. Try 4 hours in a heated hall with rude agents yelling commands at the foreigners arriving to spend money. MIA was 4 hours, IAH was 2, LAX was 3. Unfortunately I have one more trip in through IAH ( I cannot cancel unfortunately ) so I will need to endure another 2,3 possibly 4 hour line. But this is the last time. It seems the Yanks have allowed this to happen. They have become the Land of accepting the mundane. They authoritarians only get away with it because Yanks allow it and don’t question it. We pay more money than ever, they have more authoritarian bureaucrats than ever and it takes longer than ever.

  12. I would add that US customs agents could learn some civility. Typically they are rude, unfriendly and aggressive even to tourists like myself coming into places like Miami. My worst experience was on a business trip tat LAX after a 16 hour flight from Singapore. The officer could see from my boarding card, luggage and length of trip plus my reason for visit, that I was on a short business trip. Without explanation I was pulled aside for questioning and made to wait in an airless room along with dozens of others for ‘extra screening’. There was an elderly, exhausted and clearly frightened couple on holiday from New Zealand sitting next to me. After a two hour wait, an officer asked me why I was there, shrugged her shoulders and without apology just said “next”. I was furious, tired and upset but there was nothing I could do. I never go to the US any more unless I absolutely have to

  13. My view about “family” on airlines is different. If the child is not mature enough to travel alone, s/he will not benefit from international travel which is now particularly stressful to a child (perhaps more than to an adult). Leave them with a grandparent if at all possible. Traveling with babies and toddlers may even be unhealthy for them. Secondly, if a child will not respect others’ space and peace of mind, they should not be traveling and it is disrespectful of caregivers to do so unless for serious reasons (medical care trip, adoption, custodial change, refugee…). Until airlines have a separate section for families, other passengers should not have to countenance screaming, kicking, hyperactive children that their parents cannot control.

    1. Travel must be incredibly disappointing to you haha. Breaking news: kids aren’t going anywhere. It’s up to you to deal accordingly.

    2. How narrow minded! I don’t have kids and, pre pandemic, travelled a lot. I can honestly say that I don’t recall any instances of having a flight/travel experience disrupted by a child. I’ve seen plenty bad behaviour from adults, who should know a lot better.

  14. I am renewing my Global Entry card.
    I applied and paid on Feb 2, 2022. Still waiting on new card (6/29/2022)???????????????

  15. It’s a sort of Heritage thing, keeping alive the memory of the old Soviet Union with its long lines of people waiting hours in shuffling queues. And for the those tourists who are keen to get the full Soviet experience, huge long lines of slow shuffling queues, they book a visit to Disneyland.

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