ATW Editor's Blog

China’s immigration and customs process bests US international airports


I’m on work travel that is taking me from my Washington DC base to Germany and China. Though I travel a lot, even I was amazed at the swiftness and friendly efficiency with which I was swept through immigration and customs at Frankfurt and Shanghai airports.

I’m signed on the US DHS’ Global Entry/Trusted Traveler program, which is good…but I swear I still went through Frankfurt immigration quicker than I would have a hope of getting through Dulles, JFK and certainly LAX.

More surprising – the process was just as efficient at Shanghai, where a nice female immigration officer smiled, greeted me in English, scanned my passport, checked my visa and voila! After a barely-three minute queue, hello China.

The US, meanwhile, greets its arriving passengers with waits that can easily be an hour or more, even though most documentation and information must be supplied in advance.

Worse, it has now permitted immigration and customs pre-clearance for travelers from Abu Dhabi to Washington Dulles to take place at Abu Dhabi airport (the way you are pre-cleared by US officers at Canada’s airports). So those passengers arriving in the US can continue their journey straight from the plane as if it were a domestic flight, with no more inspections, while everyone else faces the tedious queues. The only carrier providing nonstop flights between those two points is Abu Dhabi’s Etihad.

Either the US should take a note from other busy international airports such as Frankfurt and Shanghai (there are others that are highly efficient, including Hong Kong), and invest in more border control resources and better processing services, or it should extend pre-clearance to far more countries so they can enjoy equal status with Abu Dhabi.

Note to DHS – China is outsmarting you.And airports fuel economies.

Discuss this Blog Entry 5

on May 6, 2014

Very true: getting into the USA is very difficult. In March I travelled to Seattle for a Boeing Fleet Team meeting. Immigration took two hours with US passport holders who did not have electronic passports, and Canadians, being fast tracked past the "Alien" queue. Contrast that with the efficiency of the Peoples Republic of China at Shanghai's Pudong International where polite, smiling immigration officers greet arriving passengers in their native tongue and speed everyone through to baggage reclaim in minutes - where your bags arrive in the hall at the same time you do! If the communists can do it, why not the leaders of the Free World?

on May 6, 2014

Just a week ago it only took me just over 2 hours to clear imigration and customs inspection in DFW for a connecting flight from Bogotá to Heathrow, and that despite flying on a European passport! Maybe worthwile to reintroduce a transit procedure where international to international traffic can be kept seperate, i.e. taken out of the queues and stay locked up in a quarentine area? Saves tie for the arriving people, and I may be able to have a coffee rather than stand in a queue.

on May 11, 2014

Your are Global Entry member and had a longer wait than regular queues in other countries ? The only U.S. airport where I have ever had to wait more than a minute or two for a Global Entry kiosk was Miami.
I have flown into Beijing quite a few times during the last few months. Terminal 2 every time. Only if there are no recently arrived passengers from other flights are there no long lines for foreign citizens. Maybe Shanghai is better that way, but that does not represent all of China.
As far as Frankfurt is concerned, it all depends how many passengers are passing through ahead of you. It can be quick, or there may be some wait.

on May 12, 2014

Hi Markus
I agree that wait times can vary at different airports at different times; I am just saying that in my case on this particular trip, I went straight through Frankfurt immigration quicker than entering the US, even with a US passport and Global Entry. And the Shanghai immigration process was also remarkably quick and pleasant. On arrival home at IAD Saturday, there is no question that Global Entry makes a huge difference and it was very speedy. But if other countries can process foreign visitors almost as fast, we are missing something in the US border control and customs system. Many of our international gateway airports provide a very poor first impression of America. We are being over taken by others whose governments really understand the economic importance of their airports.

on May 17, 2014

Hi Karen,
In my experience the biggest problem at IAD is the infrastructure before the passengers get to immigration & customs. The last time I arrived there from overseas, we had to wait quite a while for one of those people movers. Once arrived, our group of passengers had to open a space in the middle so that the exiting passengers could get off the bus. The process was quite primitive, and I saw some of the foreign passengers snickering. I agree, very embarrassing!
Another fundamental problem at all U.S. Airports is that there's no possibility for transit passengers to stay airside. Even those who transit to another int'l flight have to go through U.S. immigration & customs and enter the United States the same way as they would if they were planning on staying in the country. The major airports overseas don't have that requirement. There's definitely room for improvement, and it could very well result in more transit passengers at airports such MIA and ORD.

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