At the Cancún International Airport in Mexico, clearing passport control can now take less time than ordering a frozen drink at the Margaritaville bar in Terminal 3.
The Riviera Maya airport, which received a record 30 million passengers last year, introduced electronic gates last fall as part of a pilot program aimed at expediting the international arrivals process. The trial was deemed a success, and qualifying passengers can now skip the customs lines and face-to-face interviews with officers for the quicker option.
“E-gates are a great thing,” said Perry Flint, a spokesman for the International Air Transport Association, “but we’d like to see this go a lot further and get into contactless travel.”
The automated passport control machines are one of several innovations and programs that governments and airports are introducing to streamline and speed up the entry and exit process. Other developments that fall under this umbrella include electronic visas, FastTrack passes in the United Kingdom and Customs and Border Protection preclearance sites around the world.
In many cases, such as the e-gates, the equipment uses biometrics such as facial or fingerprint recognition. The burgeoning technology has signaled the end of cumbersome customs forms, winding border control queues and time-consuming interviews with government officials.
The downside: No more passport stamps. (If you are worried about biometrics invading your privacy, you can always go the old-fashioned route, though remember that your passport and boarding pass contain a wealth of personal information.)
“Your digital ID could become a way to move you through the airport,” Flint said.
What you need to use e-gates
To use an automated passport control gate, passengers must fit the criteria. Fortunately, it’s a short checklist.
For one, you must carry an e-passport, or a book with an embedded chip that stores the information on the photo page as well as a digital image of your passport photo. The State Department has been issuing electronic passports since 2007. To determine whether your passport qualifies, look for the chip icon stamped in gold foil under the “United States of America” lettering on the front cover.
Passengers must also meet a minimum age requirement, generally somewhere from preteens to late teens. In Australia, arriving travelers who are at least 16 can use the SmartGates at eight international airports, including Sydney, Brisbane and the Gold Coast. Passengers departing the country can scan their passports at self-service kiosks at 10 airports. There is no age restriction for departing travelers, but young jet-setters must be able “to follow the instructions without help,” according to the Australian Border Force.
The e-gates are a breeze to use. On a recent trip to Cancún, I followed the signs posted along the route from my arrival gate to passport control. Posters listed the requirements, all of which I fulfilled. I was carrying a U.S. e-passport that was valid for more than 180 days. I was older than 18. I was traveling for tourism purposes. And I didn’t have any children in my entourage.
I walked directly up to a machine and placed the photo page of my passport on the glass screen. An employee approached to assist; I waved her off. The gate opened and I stepped inside a transparent booth. I stood on a pair of footprints and my face flashed on a screen, followed by the word “processing.” The machine spit out a printout welcoming me to Mexico.
Minutes later, I was squinting at the blazing Mexican sun.
Which airports have e-gates
According to Flint, automated border controls have become so widespread that IATA stopped monitoring their worldwide implementation in 2019.
Canada has kiosks in 10 airports, from Nova Scotia to British Columbia. Last summer, Toronto Pearson Airport unveiled a dozen e-gates in Terminal 1, and the airport plans to install the machines in Terminal 3. Passengers who are younger than 16 years old cannot use the e-gates, but they can access the self-service kiosks, which can accommodate up to five travelers.
Nationality can also be a determinant. Several countries have recently expanded the group of nationalities permitted to use the machines. In June, Portugal started allowing U.S. passport holders to participate in its Rapid4All System. “This program is expected to significantly reduce the time it takes for citizens to get through immigration,” the U.S. Embassy and Consulate in Lisbon announced last summer.
In 2019, the U.K. invited seven new countries, including the U.S., to step up to its e-gates at 15 airports and rail stations. In France, U.S. travelers can now use its Parafe, or rapid automated border crossing service, at seven airports, including Roissy-Charles de Gaulle and Orly in Paris.
To avoid any hiccups, check your destination’s arrival and e-gate rules before you leave home. Some countries might require preregistration or a customs form that you must complete online or through an app. In addition, members of Trusted Traveler programs designated by the Department of Homeland Security, such as Global Entry, might earn the speedy privilege.
Where U.S. travelers can clear customs before boarding
With CBP’s preclearance program, all U.S. border control business takes place before boarding, so passengers can go directly home (or to Waffle House) after a long international trip.
The agency established is first foreign customs and immigration station at Toronto Pearson in 1952. It has since established 14 more preclearance locations across six countries: Ireland, Aruba, Bermuda, the United Arab Emirates, the Bahamas and Canada.
According to a spokesperson, CBP is eyeing four new spots — Amsterdam; Brussels; Bogotá, Colombia; and Taipei, Taiwan — and could open one or more of these sites in the next few years. The signs are promising: The agency signed a bilateral agreement with Belgium in September 2020, and a similar accord is being finalized with Colombia.
“Preclearance makes such a difference,” said Terry Dale, president of the United States Tour Operators Association.
Travelers departing countries with preclearance should allow themselves extra time at the airport. Kiosks are available for Global Entry members at all of the locations. Once travelers pass through customs, they are stepping onto U.S. soil, so agriculture rules apply. PSA: Eat your banana or salad before you step into line.
Global Entry and other timesaving measures
Frequent international travelers should consider applying for Global Entry, which costs $100 and is valid for five years.
Those with fewer trips abroad can shave some minutes with the Mobile Passport Control app, a free service available at 31 U.S. airports and 3 Canadian airports with preclearance.
For some countries that require a tourist visa, you can apply for the document online instead of at the airport. Among the countries with the e-visa option: Turkey, Vietnam, Kenya and Egypt.
The Canada Border Services Agency allows travelers to submit their customs and immigration declaration up to 72 hours in advance of flying into the country. At Pearson, passengers who complete the Advance Declaration form gain access to an express lane in the customs area.
The U.K. offers a FastTrack program at several airports. With the program, passengers pay a nominal fee to access speedier customs lanes. The Premium Gatwick Passport Control, for instance, costs about $12 and allows travelers to use exclusive lanes available to only 50 passengers per hour. Travelers can book at least four hours before landing or up to six months in advance. The program in Edinburgh, Scotland, costs less than $9.