What Is Immigration Preclearance, and Where Can You Use It?

U.S. immigration is done outside the U.S. at 16 places around the world. When you arrive at the airport you go through US customs and immigration before getting on your flight.

That’s great for non-US citizens because the lines are usually shorter and they can make quicker connections on arrival. That’s great for the US, which is requiring that foreign governments or airports pick up the cost of immigration processing. And it’s not so good for US citizens who may face delays they wouldn’t otherwise with standard immigration.

And they may be expanding immigration preclearance to 11 new airports.

Most Passengers Find Immigration Preclearance Convenient

Airports like preclearance because it attracts passengers. Arrive at the airport a bit early and you land in the US like you’ve gotten off of a domestic flight. When you go through preclearance in Ireland the lines are usually pretty short.

Preclearance is convenient for passengers who will be connecting — it reduces stress wondering if you’ll miss your connection, and it allows for shorter connecting time.

Net net preclearance is best for non-US citizens who tend to face the longest lines on arrival in the U.S.

Who Gets Inconvenienced by Preclearance?

Preclearance is useless, even unhelpful, if you have Global Entry.

You really don’t wait at immigration anyway. But you’re waiting for everyone else to clear immigration before your flight departs. This has been a nasty problem in Abu Dhabi where the process has been super slow and it’s led to many delayed departures (though it has gotten much better there).

In Abu Dhabi you must check in for your flight at least two hours prior to departure and present yourself at US customs at least one hour prior to departure. When immigration goes quickly, that means a lot of wasted time on the other side of immigration. Fortunately Etihad has built a lounge after preclearance but remember that when you’re in this lounge you’ve already entered the U.S. so assume that the US is watching you!

Why does the US government like preclearance?

The US likes preclearance in Abu Dhabi — and many places they’re considering expanding the practice — because they’re able to stop people from coming to the US before they board planes, rather than once they’re already on US soil at the airport.

Of course passenger manifests are checked and approved by the US government prior to takeoff, but they prefer this additional ‘layer’ as well as in-person interviews where desired, as a means of checking passengers earlier.

Several of the sillier plots like the underwear bomber involved foreigners boarding planes abroad with a plot to execute prior to landing. Of course, it’s not clear that the US would have stopped those plots with preclearance.

Where are Current Preclearance Locations?

There are currently 16 places with U.S. immigration preclearance:

  • Canada: Calgary, Edmonton, Halifax, Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto (Pearson), Vancouver, Victoria, Winnipeg
  • Caribbean: Bahamas – Freeport, Bahamas – Nassau, Bermuda, Aruba
  • Ireland: Shannon, Dublin
  • Other: Abu Dhabi

How and where will immigration preclearance expand?

The US is looking to expand preclearance. They’ve set up a process two years ago for foreign airports to request it. The criteria was:

  • Must be serviced by at least one US carrier (there was a lot of complaining by US airlines about advantaging a foreign carrier when they opened Abu Dhabi)
  • Must be willing to provide a preclearance facility that meets US requirements
  • Must be willing to reimburse US costs to the maximum extent permitted by US law .. in other words, they have to be the ones paying for it more or less.
  • Must be willing to grant US immigration personnel diplomatic privileges and law enforcement authority within the facility.

Currently 18% of US arriving passengers go through a preclearance facility. The government’s goal is to increase that to one-third by 2024.

18 months ago several airports were identified for preclearance expansion:

  • North America: Punta Cana, Dominican Republic
  • Asia:Europe: Stockholm, London Heathrow, Manchester, Istanbul, Oslo, Madrid, Amsterdam, Brussels

Now additional airports have been announced.

  • South America: Bogota, Buenos Aires (EZE), Sao Paulo-Guarulhos, Rio de Janeiro
  • North America: Mexico City, St. Maarten
  • Europe: Edinburgh, Reykjavik, Milan-Malpensa, Rome-Fiumicino
  • Asia: Osaka-Kansai

Agreements need to be signed, facilities built, so it’s a long process. I genuinely don’t know how they’ll manage to build this out at London Heathrow, with the volume of flights to the US and under the roofs of multiple terminals. It seems nearly impossible that they would be able to move US flight operations to a single terminal regardless of airline, in order to have one US preclearance facility, and if they did so that would make Heathrow connections a nightmare.

But we should expect at least most of these airports to eventually implement preclearance for US-bound departures.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I would say for most Canadians pre-clearance works well. Many of the airports flown by Air Canada from Toronto, for example, do not have Global Entry. And there are lounges for everyone except Delta in Toronto….

  2. CBP Preclearance at major hub airports tends to make for worse check-in cut-off times and worse minimum connection times for passengers. That’s no good even for passengers without Global Entry.

    The cost for CBP staffing abroad costs more in aggregate per staff hour than it costs for CBP staffing hours within the US. Increased costs for CBP processing is not a good thing for passengers in the main, even if the foreign government and/or airline companies are paying the US for this.

  3. 1. Preclearance also means you can through-check bags to your final destination; you don’t have to pick them up when you land, take them through customs and recheck them.

    2. Check your map – Bermuda isn’t in the Caribbean.

  4. Never ever use any of the preclearance service. I was wondering about the CBP officers whom work at oversea preclearance airport. Are they all from US CBP headquarter or just local offerices with whon have done with CBP trainning? Anyone have any idea about that?

  5. I don’t understand why a foreign airport would request this if they have to pay for everything. How does it benefit the foreign airport?

    I certainly wouldn’t support using U.S. taxpayer money to pay for a preclearance facility in the USA for some foreign country. I would tell the foreign country to pay for it themselves if they want to do their immigration checks in America for people flying to their country.

  6. I used this at Dublin years ago, pre-GE days. I had a connection in ATL that day and that worked quite well. One knock is there was nothing to do in DUB airport after preclearance. Stockholm-Arlanda was confirmed this week with a target start of 2019. US-bound flights will depart from the basement of F-pier in Terminal 5.

  7. @IVO SIO

    The CBP Officers at PreClearance are ALL US Citizens who have been in CBP at least 4-5 years. They all started in the US (with the exception of some real old timers when local hires were allowed, they are not allowed any more), and come for cities and ports all throughout the US. It is a volunteer position that they apply for (and generally must compete for). Its not easy to get a position in PreClearance, but possible. They live in the city/country they are assigned to for generally at least 2-5 years unless some are on TDY’s…

    Punta Cana is delayed until 2018, Stockholm is for sure, and Toronto (Billy Bob) is coming in 2017/2018…

    I don’t see Mexico City happening until their new airport is built.

    What happened to the Saudi Arabia announcement? Sure through me off my chair…

  8. Immigration pre-clearance is indeed a major pain at least at AUH. You must clear pre-clearance at least one hour before the scheduled departure time. On my last trip through AUH that meant leaving the new first class Ethiad lounge long before I wanted to. Yes, there is another Ethiad lounge after immigration, but it is nothing like the Ethiad first class or even business class lounges. This will be even more annoying if departures are delayed.

    Nitpick: IST is not in Asia as the list announced 18 months ago seems to imply. IST is on the Europe side of the Bosphorus.

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