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Customs & Immigration: get through fast and stress-free

The final segment of any travel adventure to a foreign destination is returning home to deal with re-entry into the U.S. through customs and immigration, also known as Passport Control.

While Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has always been tasked with keeping our citizens and country safe, post-9/11 procedures have changed dramatically. With the addition of recent new technology and practices, some travelers can be left confused by or unsure of current protocols.

The good news is that with a little understanding of the system and some advanced planning, getting through this last part of your journey can be a smooth and stress-free process.

The biggest change to Passport Control is the new computer-based Automated Passport Control (APC), a kiosk system being implemented at most major international airports in the U.S. (as well as airports overseas that pre-screen passengers departing for the U.S.).

Instead of filling out that well-known blue form while onboard a U.S.-bound flight, passengers simply line up for a kiosk at Passport Control. After completing the passport scan, short questionnaire (that takes the place of the blue form), and required photo, travelers are issued a receipt and proceed into another line for an in-person review by an ICE officer.

APC is designed to be quicker and more efficient with the main drawback (besides travelers who are uncomfortable with this new technology) being multiple simultaneously-arriving flights that can create long lines at the kiosks.

But technology has an answer for that as well.

Enter the Mobile Passport app for smartphones, officially authorized by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Created for both Android and Apple devices, this handy application lets users skip the APC kiosk step completely and proceed directly to the ICE review line.

Download and install the app on your phone before you leave for your trip—making sure to follow all the steps to enter and securely store your passport information. After you board your return flight home, use the app to enter details about your current trip and snap a photo of yourself.

If your flight has Wi-Fi (most international flights do now), you can submit your details while still in the air, as long as you go through Passport Control at your destination within four hours of submitting your travel information. Alternatively, you can submit your information after you deplane and enter the terminal, using the airport Wi-Fi.

The CBP system will review your submission (usually within a minute or two) and send you a receipt. Proceed to Passport Control and show the receipt to an official, who will send you to the second line for your in-person review with an ICE officer. Even more useful, multiple family members can be loaded on the same submission, so only one phone is needed.

Helpful points to remember:
• Become familiar with current customs and immigration protocols, and read more on APC here.
• Install the Mobile Passport app before your trip. The program will walk you through what you need to do both before and during your flight home.
• Keep track of your shopping expenses while abroad to know if you go over the $800 per traveler limit (items totaling less than $800 are exempt from duty tax).
• Know what you can and cannot bring back into the U.S. See full details here.
• If possible, walk briskly to Passport Control. The longer it takes you to get there, the longer the line may get.
• Finally, pack your patience and a smile, and most importantly, have a great trip abroad!