When you land at home after an international flight that felt like it lasted forever, the last thing you want to see is a two-hour line to get through Customs and Border Protection (CBP).
There’s a way to avoid that often lengthy line. And it’s free.
The Mobile Passport app gives travelers the chance to opt out of the traditional customs queue and pick a shorter line after entering passport and travel information electronically.
“Mobile Passport is a free app that allows an American or Canadian citizen to enter the U.S. after a trip overseas with minimal waiting in line for customs,” Hans Miller, CEO and founder of Airside Mobile, which created Mobile Passport, told USA TODAY. Mobile Passport is a third-party app built in partnership with CBP.
All travelers still need to be processed by a CBP officer, the app just provides the option to streamline the process.
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Travelers can use Mobile Passport at 27 airports and four cruise ports in the USA, according to the CBP website. Miller said the only major hubs that don’t have it are Atlanta, Detroit and Charlotte, North Carolina.
It’s a staffing decision whether the airport wants to create and man an additional line. In some airports, Mobile Passport comes and goes. For example, Mobile Passport was accepted at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport but no longer is.
Since the app launched about five years ago, Miller said, it has acquired 8 million users. And that doesn’t account for families using one account (up to 12 family members can be included).
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How does it work?
The process to use Mobile Passport is simple:
- Download the app.
- Type in your passport number or scan your passport.
- Select airline and arrival airport.
- Input information for any family members traveling with you.
- Answer the five questions asked at customs.
- When you touch down on U.S. soil, hit send.
- Information is sent through the application to CBP, and the user receives a QR code in app to show the agent.
- A customs agent scans the QR code in the Mobile Passport app.
The questions travelers answer electronically are the same questions that would be answered on a paper declaration form, according to Mobile Passport’s FAQs.
When everything is complete, personal information is removed from the free version of the app, and users have to restart the process if they use it again.
How much time does Mobile Passport really save?
There’s no exact formula to determine how much time it cuts to use Mobile Passport for the process. It varies based on the size of the flight, season and day.
The traditional process travelers go through at customs is more involved. You wait in line, approach an officer, show your paper form and your passport. If you use Mobile Passport, most of the work was finished while you were probably still on the plane.
Travelers save time because the needed customs information has already been approved, and they get to go through a shorter line before having a QR code scanned.
Miller estimated the paper document process takes about 90 seconds per passenger. Using Mobile Passport, the interaction clocks in at 17 seconds, officially.
“You can infer we can handle five times as many people in the same amount of time,” Miller said.
Free Mobile Passport app vs. premium
The app is available for free, but there is a premium subscription option. Users are given a choice of whether to subscribe to premium when opening the app for the first time. You can also go back to subscribe later on.
“We said, ‘Hey, look, if you want to store your information for next time, we’re going to charge an annual fee,’ ” Miller said.
That fee is $14.99 per year. That’s not per person, it’s per user. So if you enter your entire family when you use the app, it’s the same cost.
If you’re willing to reenter your information each time, it’s free. Miller said it makes sense for U.S. and Canadian citizens who travel internationally on a frequent basis to pay that annual fee.
Worries about personal data
It may seem nerve-racking to upload personal information from a passport to an app, but Miller said Mobile Passport ensures personal data is protected, and it’s not stored in the app.
“Privacy is a huge deal for us,” Miller said. “Each traveler’s personal information stays on their phone until they send it to CBP.”
Mobile Passport doesn’t keep a database of traveler information. Miller said that if someone asked to be told the name of any users of the app, he wouldn’t have an answer.
Users are assigned a random number for audit purposes in case there is a reason for CBP to follow up in the system.
The unique numbers assigned to users do not relate to passport numbers, which are not saved on Mobile Passport servers.
“We put a lot of effort into encryption,” Miller said. “We take it super seriously.”
Other ways to speed up the U.S. entry process
Global Entry allows preapproved, low-risk, frequent international travelers to expedite clearance into the USA.
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There is also a service called Automated Passport Control that expedites entry for U.S., Canadian and Visa Waiver Program international travelers by allowing them to input appropriate customs information at kiosks before lining up to meet an officer.
Follow Morgan Hines on Twitter: @MorganEmHines.