A Jet-Setting Expert Shares His Tips on How to Get Through Customs Fast

Updated 05/06/19

My parents taught my siblings and me how to travel like jet-setters long before we had our driver's licenses. They met in the travel industry, and my dad is still in it, which means that he follows strict rules when it comes to airports. Basically, there's no such thing as checking bags and security lines should always be a cinch. That's the case even for flights overseas—although lightly packing for two weeks and getting through customs quickly requires a little more creativity.

Since most people don't have this type of insight, customs can be a highly stressful way to get where you're going. The patience required to stand in long lines is hard enough, but there's also pesky paperwork to complete too. So instead of reaching out to my father for some tips, since he would probably tell you to stop holding up the line, I reached out to someone who knows the game too. Scott Keyes, the founder and CEO of the popular site Scott's Cheap Flights, spoke with me about how to get through customs like it's no sweat.

And thanks to his advice, it really can be.

The best thing about Keyes's answers is that they're not hard to incorporate into your routine. With a little planning, you can travel like a jet-setter too.

how to get through customs fast
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What are some tricks for getting through customs fast?

Get Global Entry. "There's no quicker or better way to breeze through immigration and customs than Global Entry," Keyes says. "It takes about 30 seconds to get through compared to the hours-long lines I've seen at times in customs."

Don't bring home anything that you'd need to declare. "This includes food items like fruits and meats," he notes. Keyes says that the "nothing to declare" line moves much faster than its counterpart.

Walk fast after deplaning. "This may sound trite, but there's usually at least a half-mile of walking from the plane to the immigration checkpoint. That's a lot of time for fast walkers to pass up their slower brethren and prevent longer waits," he says.

Use the stairs. "In some airports, there are really long escalators, and every time, the amassed group just stands in place on it," Keyes says. "Hustling up the stairs lets you lap at least 20 to 30 people while they're waiting for the escalator's gears to turn."

Wait to use the bathroom until after immigration. "Unless it's an emergency, using the bathroom before going through the immigration checkpoint means you'll be one of the last people in line and potentially waiting a long time."

How can travelers prepare to go through customs ahead of time?

Seriously, get Global Entry. "The application costs $100, but many credit cards will reimburse you for the cost of applying," he says. "Be sure to do so well in advance of your next international trip, as the wait time for the Global Entry interview can be months long. But when you come home from that trip and you spend 30 seconds in customs rather than two hours, you'll be so glad you got it."

Download the Mobile Passport app. "If you're not interested in Global Entry, download the free Mobile Passport app. In two dozen or so airports around the United States, you can use the app to breeze through customs rather than standing in line to answer questions with a border agent like usual," Keyes says. "The app simply lets you fill out your answer to those questions beforehand and spits out a scannable QR code image to use at one of the immigration kiosks when you arrive."

Sit at the front of the plane. "Again, it's seemingly obvious, but the person in row eight has far fewer people to wait behind at immigration than the person in row 48," he says. "So all things being equal, get a seat as close to the front of the plane as possible."

What have you seen some travelers do that holds them up?

Bringing back too much alcohol. "Customs and Border Protection has a list of how much you're allowed to bring of various drinks," Keyes says. "Don't exceed it!"

Packing forbidden items like fruits and meats. "Even cured meats are a no-go."

Taking their time. This includes, "Sitting in the back of the plane, slowly deplaning and walking to immigration, and using the restroom before the checkpoint," he says.

Can you remember a particularly bad thing you saw a traveler do in customs?

"Nothing terrible that I can recall, but on a recent trip home, I saw someone who didn't know they couldn't bring an apple from the plane with them through customs," he says. "The agent was forgiving and let them just toss it rather than accusing them of trying to smuggle in contraband, but the person seemed both embarrassed and enlightened from the ordeal."

Up next: The 10 best airports in the world make everyone feel like first class.

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