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.