How to beat Uncle Sam's customs queues
Clearing US immigration need not be a hardship – there are ways to expedite it, writes Susan Morrell
So you think clearing US immigration is a necessary hardship to be endured with gritted teeth as part of your American holiday? The truth is it doesn't have to be a headache. With a little planning before you get to the airport, your experience getting through US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) can be smooth and painless.
With increased capacity on several airlines to places such as New York and Washington DC, and the launch of Aer Lingus's new route to San Francisco next year, Dublin Airport is shaping up to be busier than ever with US-bound travellers.
Despite what some believe, the process of getting through CBP is actually getting easier. Yes, we're still taking off our shoes (sometimes) and carrying 100ml containers of liquids, but according to Guillermo Carattini, area port director of the US Department of Homeland Security at Dublin Airport, "we've come a long way".
Since 2009, Dublin and Shannon Airports are the only European locations to operate US CBP preclearance for the majority of their flights from Ireland to the US. This facility really is a godsend to travellers flying to the US, as the experience is remarkably calmer and less crowded than the equivalent procedure Stateside.
Upon arrival in the US, you're likely to find massive lines snaking around the immigration desk. But the lucky preclearance travellers will be treated as domestic arrivals, so they can make connections quicker or simply grab their bags and go.
Paper immigration and customs forms have been replaced by online registration for ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization), which costs $14 and saves a lot of time at the immigration desk.
The Visa Waiver Program (VWP), of which Ireland is a member, ensures that normal holiday and business travellers with stays of less than 90 days in the US do not need to apply for visas. "The huge bulk of Irish citizens visiting the United States never need to apply for visas," says Kees Davison, chief of the consular section at the US Embassy, Dublin. "They work through ESTA and preclearance."
That's not to say that ESTA approval means guaranteed entry to the US – the CBP officer on the day makes the final call – but with a little preparation, you can coast through primary clearance (the desks where the CBP officer asks the basic questions, takes your fingerprints and snaps your photo) with ease. What you don't want is to be referred to "secondary" for further questioning and a potentially missed flight.
You'll need to register your personal information and travel itinerary (including details of your mandatory round-trip flight) on esta.cbp.dhs.gov in advance of your travels. Carattini cautions against the use of third-party websites. "There are some websites out there that will get you the same result, but cost you a lot more," he says.
Your ESTA is valid for two years (or until your passport expires, whichever comes first) and is good for multiple entries in the US during that time. Carattini advises keeping the travel information on your ESTA record up to date with each trip you take.
Another useful website is that of the US Embassy in Dublin – dublin.usembassy.gov – where you can find a link to the official ESTA website or get information on visas if your trip does not qualify for the VWP/ESTA system.
Make sure your information is entered correctly on your ESTA application. Carattini cites incorrect information (like zeros swapped with Os) as one of the most common causes of delays at CBP.
Don't wait until the last minute. Sometimes your ESTA will be approved in a day, sometimes not. Three days ahead of travel is the minimum recommendation, but the US Embassy recommends playing it safe and applying at least two weeks ahead of your trip.
Anyone concerned about being ineligible to enter the US – due to overstaying a visa in the past or a criminal record – is advised to apply for ESTA well in advance. If you don't get ESTA approval, you may need to apply for a visa and getting an appointment at the US embassy could take weeks.
As for preclearance, be sure to get there as soon as possible after check-in to avoid delays.
The shift to online authorisation for travel doesn't mean it's not smart to bring a few documents with you. These aren't mandatory, but they may help expedite any delays at the CBP desk.
Carry a print-out of your ESTA in case the computer turns up a discrepancy. Also, bring a copy of your travel itinerary and the address where you'll be staying. If your intended stay is unusually long, be ready to explain why and show documents to show that you can support yourself.
You might have kept your shoes on upstairs, but at US preclearance you'll have to go through a second security check run by the US Transportation Security Administration (TSA). This is to cover any discrepancies between Irish and US security regulations.
Wear shoes and belts that can be removed easily, and pack your carry-on for easy access to your laptop and liquids.
Leave the sausages
Your friends and family in the US may be missing their black pudding, but you can't pack it in your suitcase due to US agricultural restrictions. You can find a list of prohibited and restricted items on cbp.gov.
Next year, the area around preclearance at Dublin Airport is getting a makeover, which will expand the security check area and further improve the flow of passengers. An automated passport control system is also being piloted in Canada and may arrive in Ireland in the near future.
So the once-stressful process is being continually streamlined, which should be music to the ears of frequent Irish visitors to the US.