Customs are getting faster: Goodbye passport stamps, hello biometrics

Customs are getting faster: Goodbye passport stamps, hello biometrics

At Mexico's Cancun International Airport, clearing passport control can take less time than ordering a frozen drink at the Margaritaville Bar in Terminal 3.

Riviera Maya Airport, which handled 30 million passengers last year, introduced electronic gates the previous fall as part of a pilot program to speed up the international arrivals process. The trial was deemed a success, and eligible travelers can now skip customs lines and interview face-to-face with officers for the fastest option.

"E-gates are a great thing, but we'd like to see this go a lot further and start with contactless travel," said Perry Flint, a spokesperson for the International Air Transport Association.

Automated passport control machines are one of many innovations and programs introduced by governments and airports to simplify and speed up the entry and exit process. Other developments under this umbrella include e-Visas, FastTrack clearances in the UK, and CBP pre-clearance locations worldwide.

The equipment uses biometrics such as facial recognition or fingerprints in many cases, such as electronic gates. The booming technology signaled an end to cumbersome customs forms, filtering border control queues, and time-consuming interviews with government officials.

The downside: no more passport stamps. (If you're concerned about biometrics invading your privacy, you can always go the old-fashioned route, though remember that your passport and boarding pass contain a wealth of personal information.)

"Your digital ID can become a means of getting you through the airport," Flint said.

What you need to use electronic portals

To use the automated passport control gate, passengers must meet the criteria. Fortunately, it's a short checklist.

First, you must carry an electronic passport or a book with an embedded chip that stores the information on the photo page and a digital photo of the passport photo. The Department of State has been issuing electronic passports since 2007. To determine if your passport qualifies, look for the chip code stamped in gold foil under the "USA" letters on the front cover.

Passengers must also meet minimum age requirements, generally in pre-teens to late teens. In Australia, travelers who are at least 16 years old can use SmartGates at eight international airports, including Sydney, Brisbane, and Gold Coast. Passengers leaving the country can scan their passports at self-service kiosks at ten airports. There are no age restrictions for departing passengers, but young aircraft passengers must be able to "follow instructions without assistance," according to the Australian Border Force.

The portals are easy to use. On my recent trip to Cancun, I followed the signs placed from my arrival gate to passport control. The labels listed the requirements, all of which I fulfilled. I hold a US e-Passport that is valid for more than 180 days. You are over 18 years old. I was traveling for tourism purposes. And I didn't have any children in my entourage.

I walked straight to a machine and placed my passport photo page on the glass screen. An employee approached to help; I waved to her. The gate opened, and I entered a transparent booth. I stood on a pair of footprints, and my face flashed across the screen, followed by the word "Process." The machine spits out a print welcoming me to Mexico.

Airports that have electronic gates

According to Flint, automated border controls have become so widespread that IATA stopped monitoring their implementation worldwide in 2019.

Canada has kiosks at ten airports, from Nova Scotia to British Columbia. Last summer, Toronto Pearson Airport unveiled a dozen e-gates in Terminal 1, and the airport plans to install the machines in Terminal 3. Passengers under 16 cannot use the e-gates, but they can access those e-gates—service booths that accommodate up to five passengers.

Nationality can also be a determining factor. Several countries have recently expanded the pool of nationalities allowed to use the machines. In June, Portugal began allowing US passport holders to participate in its Rapid4All system. "This program is expected to reduce the time it takes citizens to reach immigration significantly," the US Embassy and Consulate in Lisbon announced last summer.

In 2019, the UK invited seven new countries, including the US, to apply to its online gates at 15 airports and railway stations. American travelers can now use Parade or the automated express installer in France.

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