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How to expedite your trip to the U.S.

Updated: Aug 25, 2023  | Tags: ESTA Requirements, USA Visa Requirements

When you're landing in the U.S. after an international flight, the last thing you want to do is spend hours navigating through immigration and customs. While border security and control are essential, several programs and strategies can help you expedite your international arrival. Below is a comprehensive guide to speeding up this process, allowing you to enjoy your time in the United States as quickly as possible.

Pre-Planning: Choose the Right Port of Entry

On the day of travel, it's best to arrive at the airport early and be mindful of any announcements or alerts in case there are changes impacting your flight. Arriving two hours prior to departure is usually the recommended time frame, though you may want to give yourself extra time if arriving to the United States from anywhere other than North America. To further expedite your travel, consider checking into your flight online or request early boarding.

Major Airports

Opt for major international airports like JFK, LAX, or O'Hare as they often have more customs agents and faster processing times.

Less Busy Times

Try to schedule your arrival during non-peak hours. Early morning or late evening during weekdays, and mid-morning during weekends, are generally less busy.

Packing Your Carry On Bag

This is the bag or pack that you'll take onto the airplane. Not all items are allowed to be placed in this bag so make sure you understand the regulations for your selected airline. You should include your travel documents, identification, tickets and boarding passes, credit cards, cash, health and travel insurance cards, medications and your mobile phone with charger. You might also want to include something to read and a change of clothes depending on the climate on the plane. If you plan to carry any liquids onto the plane with you, they must follow the 3-1-1 rule. This means that each bottle must be 3.4 ounces or less, must all fit into a 1 quart zip top bag and each traveler cannot have more than one bag. However, some airports will allow travelers to take additional bags if they are for medications.

Packing Your Checked Bag

For checked baggage, you are typically restricted by the number of bags you can check-in, unless you are willing to pay additional baggage fees. Pack efficiently to reduce checked-in baggage fees and the number of bags you carry during your travels. Be aware of restrictions on hazardous goods, particularly those that are combustible or pose a hazard to the health and safety of the people on the airplane. If permitted, you should place electronics on the top layer of your luggage so they can be easily screened by airport security staff.

At the Check-in Terminal

There are some things to keep in mind when you arrive at the airport check-in terminals. Make sure you have your passport or travel document, as well as your mobile or printed boarding pass. When going through security, you will need to remove liquids and electronic devices and place them in the bin at the checkpoint. Your shoes and jewellery may need to be removed and sent through the x-ray machine. Once you've gone through the security screening machines, you can collect your belongings and move toward your terminal.

Pre-Arrival: Documentation and Authorization

ESTA or Visa

Foreign nationals visiting the United States will need either a U.S. visa or an ESTA to enter the country at least 72 hours before departure. Others will need a U.S. visa, which should be applied for well in advance of travel. If you are a traveler holding a passport from a Visa Waiver eligible country, you should consider applying for an ESTA. An ESTA is a visa waiver that allows individuals from over 41 countries to enter the United States for tourism or business purposes of up to 90 days per visit. An ESTA is digitally linked to your passport and can be obtained online. If you are ineligible or have been denied an ESTA, you will need to apply for a U.S. visa if you wish to visit the United States. A U.S. visa will require the submission of a digital form called the DS-160, as well as require applicants to attend an interview at an embassy or consulate in their country of citizenship or residence.

Complete Required Forms Beforehand

On international flights to the U.S., you will be given customs declaration forms. Complete these forms accurately before landing to save time.

Trusted Traveler Programs

Global Entry

This is the gold standard for expedited clearance. For a relatively small application fee, successful applicants can use automated kiosks to clear customs and immigration. Global Entry also comes with TSA PreCheck benefits for domestic flights.

Mobile Passport Control

The free app Mobile Passport Control App, authorized by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), allows U.S. citizens and Canadian visitors to expedite their entry by submitting their passport information and customs declaration form via their smartphone or tablet.


The NEXUS program is designed for frequent travelers between the U.S. and Canada. It provides expedited processing through customs and immigration for members at northern border ports of entry, airports with preclearance, and marine reporting locations.

Technology to the Rescue

Automated Passport Control (APC)

APC kiosks are available at many U.S. airports. These self-service kiosks expedite the entry process by automating the customs declaration process, allowing you to skip the regular line to see an immigration officer.


Some airports are experimenting with electronic gates that use biometrics to confirm your identity. If these are available, and you're eligible to use them, they can considerably speed up your entry.

Upon Arrival: Navigate Smartly

Follow Signs and Instructions

When you travel into the United States from another country, you will need to go through customs upon arrival. It's important to have your passport and completed customs form available to get you through quicker. Once you clear customs, you can then proceed to collecting your bags and heading to your destination. Pay close attention to signs directing you to various lines based on your citizenship or immigration status. Following the right queue can save you time.

Be Prepared for Interview and Inspection

Have your documents ready and remove your eyewear if you have any before reaching the CBP agent. Being prepared will speed up the process.

Additional Tips

Family and Group Travel

If you're traveling with family, make sure everyone sticks together, as families are usually processed as a unit.

Medical Needs

If you or someone you’re traveling with has medical needs that require special attention, inform the airline in advance to get the necessary assistance upon arrival. If you take any kind of medication, order enough to last through your trip. You should consider taking extra medication in the event you are delayed on your return to your home country. Most of the time, medications need to be in their original container with prescription information available, such as a doctor’s note if the medication is a controlled substance in the U.S. At the same time, it's a good idea to check that your immunizations are up to date and that you don't need any additional vaccines before you can enter the United States. The World Health Organization recommends the following vaccines: hepatitis A, hepatitis B, measles, mumps and rubella, polio, meningitis, Tdap, chickenpox, shingles, pneumonia and influenza. Not all of these immunizations are required to gain entry into the United States but may be a good idea if you're traveling to a place that might put you at risk. Talk to your doctor to determine which vaccines you should consider. If you have food restrictions or allergies, be sure to let the airline know ahead of time so they are prepared with food and drinks that are safe for you to consume.

Use the Restroom Before Leaving the Plane

Sometimes, the lines for immigration and customs can be long, and it may be a while before you can use the restroom.

Snacks and Water

Keep some small snacks and a bottle of water in your carry-on. You never know how long the process will take, and having something to nibble on can make the wait more bearable.


This article provided a summary of considerations for travelers who are planning on visiting the United States. A number of topics were discussed regarding trip itinerary planning, packing, flying and arriving at the U.S. border. Getting through U.S. customs and immigration can be a lengthy process, but planning ahead and utilizing available resources can make it more manageable and quick. Programs like Global Entry and Mobile Passport Control can drastically reduce your waiting time, while pre-planning and preparation can ensure you're not stuck in line longer than you have to be. With the right approach, you can start your U.S. adventure as soon as possible, wasting no time in long lines or at checkpoints.