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How to avoid long lines at US immigration

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There was an interesting piece in The Independent recently (see here) in which Simon Calder analysed the average waiting times at US immigration by time of day and by airport.

US immigration is a painful fact of life for most UK travellers to the USA.  I was not amused – to put it mildly – when I was met by a Lufthansa ‘special services’ agent after my First Class flight to Newark in February.  The rep spent five minutes telling me and the other First Class passenger that he couldn’t help us get through immigration any faster – by which point the rest of our 747 had run past us and was ahead of us in the queue!

Immigration queue

Annoyingly, the article does not list all of the source material they use.  However, some of the numbers quoted are frankly scary, especially if travelling with young children:

Miami, average wait for landings between 8pm and 9pm, 3 hours 6 minutes

New York JFK Terminal 4 (the Virgin one), average wait for landings between 4pm and 5pm, 2 hours 31 minutes

Dallas-Fort Worth, average wait at peak times, 2 hours 22 minutes

Luckily Calder makes some good suggestions to beat the wait, including using Newark instead of JFK in New York (the average wait is halved) or arriving on BA115 which arrives at the quietest time of day at JFK Terminal 7 (36 minutes average wait).

If flying to the US, of course, one option is to fly via Ireland.  This means taking a direct flight from Dublin or Shannon or using BA1 from London City Airport (the ‘100% business class’ service, often available on Avios points) which stops to refuel in Shannon.  These allow you to clear US immigration in Ireland.  You land in the US as a domestic passenger, and if you have no checked luggage you can immediately walk out of the airport.

Do not take BA3 from London City, though, as that arrives in Shannon too late for US pre-clearance.

Comments (23)

  • James67 says:

    I had my own solution to the whole USA travel experience – I just stopped going there unless it was essential. I have made only 1 trip in the past 7 years compared to abput 8 per year before that. It wasn’t just immigration that frustrated me but also slow security clearance, slow checkin, eticket procedures that make a mockery of the whole idea, poor standards of customer service by USA airlines both on the ground and in the air, ESTA, visa application procedures and premium rate calls for consular services, poor level of services and lounges at US airports. Being a premium pax made marginal difference. I just got fed up and stopped going there. Miss the cpuntry and the people but getting in and out is an ordeal.

    • John says:

      Unfortunately you and I are a minority, the average UK traveller is still in love with the Yanks, and the Chinese traveller needs to get a visa regardless of destination so none of this will be going away despite our “boycott”.

      • Mr Bridge says:

        ME TOO!,
        I have ditched USA from nearly every year to once every 3 or 4.
        I get annoyed with in efficient things, and US immigration is one of them, what makes me really angry is that many countries are happy to take departure fees / landing taxes, but dont want to spend any money on staff to get you in or out of their country.

        Maybe someone should start lobbying the US embassy!!

  • phreegreens says:

    I used to be a regular on the BA117 which is the first of the day to JFK, currently timed at 08:30 ex-LHR. I had a following drive up into Connecticut so EWR wasn’t an option. Immigration times for that service were routinely pretty good, I generally reckoned on about an hour aircraft door to leaving the rental centre. I did two MIAs last year, one was an hour in immigration the other half an hour more, judging by some of the horror stories I have heard I did really well!

  • Ninmurai says:

    If you are lucky enough to be Dutch you are eligible for Global Entry!

  • Andrew (@andrewseftel) says:

    What happens if you’re flying via Ireland and US CBP decide to do extra checks or whatever? How are possible second-leg misconnects handled?

  • Ben E says:

    I’m looking at flying to Florida in August – the US airlines are quoting flights £200 cheaper (in economy, so big difference) than the direct flights (BA, Virgin) but have turnarounds of approx 2hrs from international to domestic. I’m guessing, from this, that this time isn’t enough then? Or do the US airlines have some other way to get around the internaional to domestic immigration linkup?

    • Rob says:

      If they are happy to sell you that ticket, then you should be OK – the airlines know the average wait time. You also need to clear customs at your first arrival point into the US.

      • AndyGWP says:

        Historically, we have had great connections when using AA to transit via. ORD & JFK (where a short connection time can actually be a really convenient way to avoid long lines).

        For example, we had a 75 minute connection time with AA @ JFK (MAN -> JFK -> MIA) the Friday before Xmas… made it easily (though if MAN was delayed it probably would’ve been a different story), as AA will give you bright orange ‘express connection’ tags that pretty much get you front of line for immigration etc.

        It can be a relief beating all the queues (even though you’re clutching to it whilst dashing for your next plane!)

        You seem to have to ask for them to tag your bags up as such though – there’s no point beating the queues if you’re then having to hang around to wait to move your bags on!!

  • Jlev says:

    Hold on, people actually stop going to a country they like and ‘miss’ because of a few hours wait? Blimey….

    • James67 says:

      Yes, it is true I did. However, about 80% my flights were business or business exploited for leisure. My work changed to take me eastwards so virtually abandoned USA. It may hsve been different if I hadn’t already deen most of what I wanted to in States. But it was such a revelation to change to far esst with improved flightd and facilities on SQ and TG compared to what I was accustomed to on UA.

      • Sir Stamford says:

        My most memorable flight experience was flying with SQ with only 10 passengers in their upper deck J A380. I just didn’t want the 14 hour flight to end. And, of course, the Silverkris lounge in Changi is superb.

        Never flown TG, so can’t comment but CX is very good but no where as pleasant as SQ.

        Sir Stamford

  • whitenoise says:

    I’m off to the US in little over a month to work in the casino aboard a cruise ship. I have a US C1/D Visa. I’ve seen air hostesses and the like use an express lane, any ideas if I can take advantage of this since I’m effectively ‘staff’ or ‘crew’, albeit not for the airlines?

  • woggly says:

    The west coast tends to have much better wait times than the east.

    Virgin and BA flights into SFO tend to be short (if you are close to first off the bus) at 10-15 mins

    Similar experience with VS at LAX

    Avoid Miami, JFK at all costs. Spiteful places

    • Adey says:

      I’ve never had more than an hour waiting for immigration at LAX.

      In fact last arrival at LAX, I was 60 minutes from departing he plane (the afternoon VS flight) to checking in at the LAX Hilton! Certainly an outlier that one (and it does help to be off the plane before economy and PE) but no horrow stories either West Coast,


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