How to bypass airport lines with the tips of your fingers

March 05, 2018
  • By Stephanie Rosenbloom
  • The New York Times
RICHARD PERRY/NYT
A security area at Kennedy International Airport in New York, May 28, 2014. More expedited security lanes, new biometric boarding passes and a free customs app that replaces paper forms aim to speed travelers out of the terminal and on their way. (Richard Perry/The New York Times)

Moving through the airport is becoming increasingly high-tech and, for many frequent flyers, faster. The percentage of air travelers who used automated methods (like Global Entry kiosks) during the international arrivals process soared to more than 50 percent in fiscal year 2017, up from about 3 percent in fiscal year 2013, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. And that number is expected to rise. 

In February, the Transportation Security Administration expanded its expedited screening program, TSA Precheck, to Air France, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, Brussels Airlines, Philippine Airlines and World Atlantic, bringing the number of airlines participating in the program to close to 50 across some 200 airports. The Global Entry program — where members scan their fingerprints and passports at kiosks instead of waiting in immigration lines — is also growing. It added another 11 international airports in November (including Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport and Denver International Airport), with more to come.  

Yet Customs and Border Protection has increasingly been pushing beyond fingerprint biometrics, testing facial recognition exit technology (not without concerns from privacy rights groups) last year at eight U.S. airports, including Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, John F. Kennedy International Airport and Miami International Airport. Facial recognition technology is also being tested during the boarding process at certain airports like Hartsfield-Jackson, Kennedy and Boston Logan International Airport. Delta, for instance, began allowing travelers to use their fingerprints rather than a boarding pass at Reagan Washington National Airport. The carrier subsequently began allowing travelers to check their luggage using their fingerprints as identification as well.  

The most effective airport timesavers, like Global Entry, require background checks and fees. Yet in the past year or so a free program that expedites the immigration process has become more popular, even with members of Global Entry.  

To join Global Entry you must complete a comprehensive online form about your travel history, have an in-person interview with a customs official, be fingerprinted and pay a $100 application fee (good for five years). It’s the most seamless way to move through customs: You simply stop at an automated passport control kiosk, identify yourself with your passport and finger biometrics, and tap a screen to answer a few questions. (Note: Global Entry is not strictly for U.S. citizens, nationals and lawful permanent residents; passport holders from Argentina, Colombia, Germany, India, Mexico, the Netherlands, Panama, the Republic of Korea, Singapore, Switzerland, Taiwan and Britain may also apply.) But a number of travelers (Americans and Canadian visitors) have been discovering a free program called Mobile Passport Control — the use of which has increased threefold from fiscal year 2016 to 2017.  

While not necessarily as quick as Global Entry, Mobile Passport Control still saves users the time and hassle of filling out a paper declaration form. And it doesn’t require any sort of advance approval or interview. Rather, it works through a free Customs and Border Protection app for iOS and Android called Mobile Passport and can be used at about 25 airports (in cities that include New York, Houston and Chicago), as well as at Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.  

To use the Mobile Passport app, users create a profile by adding their passport information (along with the passport information for each family member traveling with them). Then, when their flight lands at a participating airport, they follow signs to a designated fast Mobile Passport Control lane, open the app and answer five questions about their trip (on behalf of their entire family), submit it and then receive a receipt with an encrypted bar code. When they reach the Customs and Border Protection officer in their lane, they show their passport, scan the bar code on the receipt and go on their way.  

While the Mobile Passport app is not as comprehensive or ubiquitous as Global Entry (Global Entry is at more than 50 airports, while Mobile Passport is at fewer than half that), Customs and Border Protection says they are complementary programs. As veteran Global Entry members know, at certain times of the day and at particular airports there can be a line for the kiosks. Or a kiosk may not be working, slowing up an ordinarily smooth process. For that reason, Customs and Border Protection suggests having both programs so that whenever possible, you have the option of choosing the shorter line. 

(For those interested in enrolling in Global Entry, some credit cards offer statement credits to customers who charge the fee to their cards, like Chase Sapphire Reserve, Citi Prestige and certain American Express cards.)  

Members of Global Entry typically also receive membership in TSA Precheck, the expedited security program that allows them to use designated airport lanes that don’t require members to remove their shoes or their liquids and laptops from their bags (if you don’t do much international travel you can apply just for TSA Precheck; the fee is $85 for five years). For a while, some travelers who weren’t members of the program were being allowed to the use the Precheck lanes when they weren’t full. But last year the Transportation Security Administration began cutting down on that practice.  

If you’re a frequent traveler, you may also want to check out Customs and Border Protection’s Nexus and Sentri programs; Nexus is for those who travel between the United States and Canada (Canadian citizens and residents enrolled in Nexus are allowed to use Global Entry kiosks), while Sentri is for travel into the United States by land from Mexico. Another program, Clear, costs $179 a year for individuals and is not a government-run program. Although TSA Precheck allows you to join a lane with fewer security requirements, you must first still wait in line (albeit usually a shorter one) to reach a checkpoint where someone looks at your ID. With Clear, you go directly to a kiosk (where you scan your iris or fingerprints) and are then escorted to the physical security check, bypassing the lines to the identification checkpoints. If you’re also enrolled in TSA Precheck, you can step into that particular lane. If you don’t have Precheck, you join the regular lane where you must remove your shoes, belt and the usual items from your bags like liquids and laptops.