Automated kiosks at the United States airports and what you need to know when traveling with the ESTA
When you travel to the USA with ESTA, many airports give you the opportunity to speed up the process thanks to Automated Passport Control. This is a quick and easy procedure that makes your journey under the Visa Waiver Programme even easier. So let’s look at how it works…
If you’ve ever travelled to the USA before, you’re probably familiar with the moment that the in-flight crew pass through the cabin handing out customs declarations form. For the unaccustomed, just before you enter the United States, your airline will give you a paper form that asks for basic information about who you are and what you are bringing in to the country.
The form asks you for your personal information, as well as where you are travelling from and what you are carrying. Specifically, the questions here relate to any fruit/vegetables, live animals, meats, disease agent or soils you may be bringing into the United States; as well as a question on whether you are carrying more than the equivalent of $10,000 with you upon entry.
Traditionally, passengers fill out this form whilst they are still in flight, and hand it in to a CBP officer upon arrival at a US airport. Whilst speaking with the CBP officer, they are asked to submit their fingerprints and a photo (which is taken there and then). The procedure itself is quick and simple, however queues of passengers waiting to be attended can often be long, particularly during peak hours.
This procedure is still the only method in many US airports, however a growing number of airports are employing the use of a new entry programme called ‘Automated Passport Control’, or ‘APC’. The programme is specifically for ESTA holders, US citizens and eligible Canadian travellers, and requires no pre-registration or membership (unlike the Global Entry programme, which is a time-saving entry method set up specifically for frequent flyers).
Automated Passport Control (APC) is an entry programme put into place by US Customs and Border Protection to speed up the process for certain travellers entering the USA, including ESTA holders. It does so through the form of ‘kiosks’. These kiosks are not the same as the ones we have in the UK, whereby passengers can scan their biometric passports in order to get through passport control, but rather a way to speed up the process of completing your customs declaration and submitting your details when you arrive in the United States.
So how does the procedure differ with these automated kiosks?
When you land in the United States with ESTA, before you pick up your luggage you need to go through customs and passport control. In airports that have this automated passport control system, there are different queues that you can join – one that leads to the kiosks, and one that leads to a border patrol agent.
So, coming back to the form that they hand out on the aeroplane, if you are an ESTA holder, you can leave the form blank and go to one of the automated kiosks instead. The kiosk will ask you the same questions that the form does, and will take your photo and fingerprints just like an agent normally would. Furthermore, if you are travelling with your family (or people living at the same address), all household members can go to the kiosk at the same time. Once you have completed the process, the kiosk will provide a printout of the CBP inspection-related information submitted.
At this point, you need to take the printout, or receipt, to a customs and border patrol officer, along with your passport. The officer will check your information and will likely ask you some questions about your trip. Remember, as an ESTA holder, you are entitled to visit the United States for tourism or business periods, for up to 90 days at a time (as well as a few other specific purposes, such as short-term study not for credit, or temporary medical treatment). So, at this point, the officer may want to confirm that the reason for your trip is in line with the conditions of the Visa Waiver Programme.
The officer might ask you where you will be travelling, if you are visiting as a tourist, and when you will be returning. They could also ask what you do for a living, to verify that you are not seeking work in the United States and that you have the funds to travel. If you are visiting on business, they might ask you what your line of business entails, who you are meeting, or whether you are bringing any products or prototypes over with you. In any case, it can be useful to have some kind of document with you that shows what you are doing, just to help speed up the process. If you are on holiday, then a hotel booking can confirm your destination. Or if you are on business, a letter of invitation for the event you are attending can help the CBP officer to understand the purpose of your visit.
Once you have been attended to by a CBP Officer, you are free to go and pick up your luggage and begin your trip! In this respect, the Automated Passport Control process can really help to speed up the process, given that the officers working do not have to spend extra time collecting your information, fingerprints and photo. Furthermore, the airports that use this system have multiple kiosks, so travellers can complete this part of the process quickly before they proceed to a CBP Officer.
With all that said, it is always a good idea to hang on to the customs declaration form you are given on your flight (although you can generally find them easily when you arrive too). If you arrive in the US and see that there is not much of a queue, or that for some reason the kiosks are not working, you can pull out the form and fill it in quickly.
In terms of the airport procedure on your way back out of the USA, the procedure is far simpler and the same as it would be on your way out of the UK. You are not required to fill out any additional forms or have your passport stamped to show you have left the USA. When you travel under the Visa Waiver Programme, your entry and exit data (i.e. when you arrive in and leave the country) is recorded automatically. Thus, if and when you visit the United States again in the future, border patrol officers will be able to see that you have been there before and adhered to the conditions of the Visa Waiver Programme. In this respect, having visited the United States multiple times and always having left within the permitted timeframe (90 days) can reassure CBP officers that you are travelling legitimately and are not breaking the terms of your ESTA.
Remember, your ESTA allows you to visit the United States for up to 90 days at a time, provided that you are travelling within the conditions of the Visa Waiver Programme. The ESTA validation itself lasts for two years, or until your passport expires, whichever comes first. This means that as soon as you have an approved ESTA, you are authorised to travel to the United States for as many trips as you like within the authorisation period (always within the conditions of the programme, of course), and each trip can last up to a maximum of 90 days.
To apply for ESTA itself, you simply need to fill out an online form and answer a few basic questions. All you need for this is your passport and a form of payment. Once the form is completed and submitted, you will receive an email within 24 hours confirming the status of your online ESTA application. As soon as you receive the email telling you your application has been approved, you are ready to travel to the United States!
The Automated Passport Control programme is another step forward in making it quicker and easier for citizens of Visa Waiver Programme member countries to travel to the United States, and that includes the UK! Apply for your ESTA online as soon as you start planning your trip, and enjoy your adventure across the pond!
For additional information about the visiting the USA learn all about the ESTA here
Travelling to the United States? Do you have your pre-planning checklist in order? Visit our ESTA Guide for more information about obtaining your travel permit. We'd love to hear from you. Send us your comments or questions for travel assistance.