To some extent I expect – or at least look for – what’s different when I revisit foreign destinations, especially London. I try to spend at least a few days there very year and, at the very least, make time to see if there is new artwork sitting atop the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square.
What I don’t expect to change is the process of returning to the USA and coming through customs and passport control.
When I came through passport control at JFK in NY in January this year (2014), nothing had changed from previous experiences. I still filled out the blue and white Customs declaration, queued up to be seen by one of the officers who would ask a few questions, mark the form, stamp my passport and “let me in” so I could retrieve my bag from the carousel and turn the Declaration form to another officer. No big deal.
More recently, returning in September, I was introduced to the new Automated Passport Control kiosks. It was a bit chaotic – the US citizen queue and “others” queue were both dumped into this free-for-all space. One official repeatedly announced that we should step up to any machine that showed a green light. I think there were probably 20 or 30 stations, each with a computer screen and keyboard and not a green light to be seen. This was the first bit of confusion. I stood in front of a screen waiting for a green light which never came on so I tried to swim upstream looking for a green light. Finally, I saw one and was close enough to get there before anyone else. Really? (Were these things programmed by the same dolts who worked on the Healthcare website, I wonder?)
Not every US airport taking international passengers has this system installed yet; their website has a list. Essentially, each passenger has to process him or herself – sliding the passport, open to the profile page, into the reader and then answering questions on the screen very similar to the questions on the paper Customs Form but fewer of them. This may vary depending on who you are – after all, the computer knows who you are now!) Then, you must look at the screen, which has gone Skype-y and hit the button to print out your photo and a copy of the screen questions. I’m trying to remember if I also needed to add my signature; probably. To one side of the keyboard is a screen for fingerprinting non-US citizens or some other subset of incoming travelers.
Then, rejoin the queue to be processed by an actual person face to face. What surprised me was that nobody took the paper customs form so this bit may be eliminated sometime in the future. The official website in the link above says the paper form can be turned over for shredding but that didn’t happen. Tsk-tsk!
It was hard to tell how much the process was speeded up – I still had to wait at the luggage carousel for my luggage. There was a bit of a bottleneck at the forms collection point, but this may only be because I had landed at the same time as several other flights. First week of September is still practically high season for travel.
Still, the official doing the final inspection said “Welcome home”. As much as I long to live in Europe, I still love to hear that.