The US Government Will Expand Immigration Preclearance to 10 New Airports. And That’s Bad for Frequent Travelers.

Yesterday the Department of Homeland Security announced plans to expand immigration pre-clearance to 10 new airports around the world.

  • Brussels
  • Punta Cana
  • Tokyo Narita
  • Amsterdam
  • Oslo
  • Madrid
  • Stockholm
  • Istanbul
  • London Heathrow
  • Manchester

These should eventually join existing preclearance facilities, which are mostly in Canada:

  • Dublin
  • Shannon
  • Aruba
  • Freeport
  • Nassau
  • Bermuda
  • Calgary
  • Toronto
  • Edmonton
  • Halifax
  • Montreal
  • Ottawa
  • Vancouver
  • Winnipeg
  • Abu Dhabi

Immigration preclearance is where you go through US immigration and customs before getting on your flight to the US. You land at your arrival city, then, as though you had gotten off of a domestic flight.

Here’s how the US government picks preclearance locations:

  • 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.

US Airlines Are In Favor of This Expansion

Airlines think that preclearance facilities benefit them. There was a tremendous outcry from US carriers when a preclearance facility opened in Abu Dhabi, since the only Abu Dhabi-US flights are operated by Etihad. This was supposed to give Abu Dhabi connections an advantage, though the implementation of preclearance there has largely been a negative for US-bound connections.

With the announcement that the US had plans to expand to 10 new cities, the lobbying group for US airlines immediately applauded. American Airlines sent out a press release applauding the news and noting that they serve 7 of the 10 proposed cities. (Two of the 10 – London Heathrow and Madrid – are hubs of their joint venture partners British Airways and Iberia.)

Here’s Why the US Government Likes Preclearance

Bundling airports that US airlines serve broadly alongside ones that get limited service from US carriers was sufficient to garner their support for the move. But the establishment of preclearance facilities is not for the purpose of benefiting passengers or airlines.

The reason the US government wants to expand preclearance is security, not passenger or airline benefit. The government gets to interview and stop passengers from boarding US-bound planes at their point of origin, rather than denying entry once someone is on US soil. There’s already a no fly list but that’s imperfect in the extreme. The Department of Homeland Security goal is for one-third of US-bound passengers to go through immigration preclearance by 2024.

Which Passengers Win and Which Passengers Lose

There’s little benefit to customers with Global Entry. They already clear immigration quickly on arrival. There’s little benefit to passengers compared to immigration kiosks. For these passengers it’s almost exclusively downside. There’s a potential benefit for non-U.S. travelers, though that depends on the particulars of how Global Entry is implemented.

You do get shorter minimum connection times on arrival in the U.S. You can’t book flights with tighter connections on arrival when you have Global Entry, even though you don’t need the same connection times that passengers who don’t have Global Entry do. But when arriving in the US from a country where there’s preclearance you’ll have domestic minimum connection times apply. That means you can make shorter connections than you can even as a Global Entry-qualified individual.

Everyone will have to get to the airport earlier, or make longer connections. You need more time at the airport where you’re clearing immigration — Global Entry or not. Even a passenger with Global Entry will have a longer required connection in the city where they’re making a connection, which limits the range of flights they’ll be eligible to take.

Assuming you have to clear security after going through immigration, you won’t be able to bring bottled water through. In Abu Dhabi you clear security entering the terminal and then again after immigration preclearance (you had to clear security a second time for US-bound flights even before the preclearance facility opened). That means you won’t be able to take water onto the flight, unless you buy it after going through immigration and the final security check, if there are any shops in the gate area. (Stocking those shops will be even tougher than stocking restaurants airside.)

If there’s a single preclearance facility, it’s likely that there will be either no lounges or shared lounges. Air Canada has enough flights where they’re able to offer ‘transborder lounges’ in certain facilities, and they’re up to the airline’s usual standard, but that’s the exception. Unless an airline has substantial US flights they likely won’t have a lounge at all. And limited facilities, designed largely to accommodate US government specifications, will make it difficult to build quality lounges. In most cases current lounges won’t serve these facilities well.

An Illustration of How Complicated This Will Be: Heathrow

How in the world is Heathrow going to manage US immigration preclearance? The volume of flights to the US is huge. It seems nearly impossible that they would be able to move US flight operations to a single terminal, in order to have one US preclearance facility.

Virgin Atlantic’s flights are mostly US (and Caribbean)-focused.

As it stands, there’s been shifting around of flights to move Delta and Virgin Atlantic together (Delta owns a 49% stake). British Airways operations out of Terminal 5 can’t accommodate American Airlines (terminal 3), and yet it’s unlikely that BA would be able to move all its US-bound flights to T3. If they did, of course, that would mean the end of access to BA’s better lounges (such as they are).

And that doesn’t factor United’s flights, which would lose connectivity with their Star Alliance partners if they were moved.

London Heathrow will almost have to have multiple preclearance facilities, to avoid making the airport even more of a mess for connections than it already is.

This Won’t All Happen Soon

The release was only about which airports have been selected to have preclearance facilities. Specific negotiations still have to occur in each case, and then construction of the facilities have to happen. It’s one thing to do that in Abu Dhabi, where such things can be fast tracked, but given the complexities and long processes in places like London we can expect that many of these facilities won’t open for quite some time.

As a frequent international passenger who has Global Entry, I’ll be pleased to see this put off as long as possible.

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, 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. Agreed–Heathrow international immigration and security is already a mess. This move will make it even worse.

  2. This is great! Where are you coming from.. No clearing customs in US. For vast majority of passengers, this prevents worries about custom hold ups in US when making connections. This alone makes this a winner by far.

  3. GOES clearance will remain an option whether one clears before or after the flight – right?

  4. C’mon! You’re just being bitter because the individuals native to these cities/countries benefit from this, instead of you. Honestly, were the tables turned, you would say of course citizens of the country where the airport is located should benefit.

    I think this will be a great improvement and will lead to a smoother process since a full plane of people won’t come to customs at the same time – but I guess you’ve been able to game the system enough to get through customs with your global entry from your free first class seat early enough to not have seen the lines at customs, or maybe you get some sadistic enjoyment out of being able to cruise by the two-hour line. There’s really no disadvantage to you here so stop bitching.

  5. Lack of lounges is a downside, but being able to make connections in the U.S. Without having to recheck luggage is a huge improvement. I currently go out of my way to connect in Europe if there’s a direct flight to my US destination. With preclearance, I’ll be happy to connect on whichever side makes the most sense. For me, this would be a big plus (besides, the *A lounge in BRU for non-Schengen flights is poor at best).

  6. At Heathrow would it be possible that AA / Delta / others would have preclearance while BA would not?

  7. I think your insane to think this is a downside to US passengers with Global Entry. My husband and I went through US customs in Aruba the other day. Last time we waited on a customs line for 40 minutes at least. The other day it took 5 minutes while others waited on line and we breezed through the global entry. And your no water bottle argument is just plain dumb. I’m sure the customs folks at DHS and the various airports will work something out. Who really has time to hang out at lounges at Heathrow anyway when there is so much great shopping. The BA lounges are fabulous there, but I’m all for clearing US customs at Heathrow.

  8. Just to clarify the Canadian situation for PreClearance which differs from these other country locations. All Canadian airports with flights into the US that offer PreClearance have separate piers where all these Transborder flights depart, be they AC or any other Canadian or US airlines. This has been the case for decades, even prior to PreClearance, as there are enough flights to various US cities to justify this division of our airport terminals. (BTW 1. YYZ T3 only has an Admirals Club, though T1 has both an AC lounge and a Priority Pass Plaza Premium/Amex Platinum pay-as-you-go lounge. YYC does not have an AC lounge but does have a privately operated one which is a Priority Pass lounge or can be accessed for a charge by anyone flying to the US. Nor is it a STAR, OW or SKYTEAM lounge.) As noted, this will not be the case at these non-Canadian airports and thus this area is separated from the departure gates used by flights headed elsewhere, and thus one loses lounge access for the final period of waiting. As in DUB one has no idea how long secondary security or customs/immigration screening can take.)

  9. I agree that this will be inconvenient for passengers in many cases. One will need to leave early for flights out of pre-clearance airports (or a lot of connection time), even in cases when one has global entry, as there is always the chance of secondary screening taking a long time.

    Flying into my home airport of O’Hare, options such as the free mobile passport app make it easy for even those without Global Entry to breeze through immigration quickly. If this is one’s final destination, there are many instances where using this app, going through immigration and customs adds almost no extra time at all, but having to arrive early to clear beforehand would add a significant amount of time.

    Flying into O’Hare and clearing customs and immigration upon arrival from Waterloo, which is near Toronto, or flying into Midway and clearing customs upon arrival from YTZ is generally easier and takes less time than pre-clearing customs at YYZ, even without Global Entry.

  10. The problem with Pre-Clearance is with food- you can’t take food on the plane. For those of us with food intolerance issues, this is a major issue as you can’t rely on the airline to board special meals.

    Otherwise, for those of us without Global Entry (ie most non-US citizens), it’s a major benefit.

  11. Gary, why are airlines in favor of this? How does pre-clearance help them if it makes things more difficult for their most frequent fliers?

  12. No Lounge after International pre-clearance? They must be joking. See ya at US border then.

  13. @Mike
    Forget not making the connection in the US.
    All one has to do is increase the minimum connect times for international – domestic flights in the US at a few airports, so people know ahead of time they will be a while here.
    Do no tallow airlines to sell tickets with false promise of 45 min connection at IAD or JFK; make it minimum 3-4 hrs

    Try not making the connection at Abu Dhabi.
    My last trip through Abu Dhabi I was selected for random screening despite my Global Entry
    So I waited an hour till 1045 (flight departure was 1045) when they brought my luggage out of the plane, searched it and put it back and sent me on my way.
    I was in F and was the last one on the plane before push back.

    What happens if I miss my flight due to “Pre_Clearance”?
    I stay an extra day in Abu Dhabi or some place where I have no business being.
    I would rather do this at home.

    Far better to kick people off the US back on a plane with a free trip back than waste the resources on preclearance

    Yes you avoid the “bad” experience of JFK, but you have a worse experience of every other place on top of the second security screen for US bound flights.

  14. @Dan
    Having Global Entry is not a crime. It is available for a small price to anyone willing to go and get it.
    If the US govt really wanted to speed things up for US Citizens, they will cut prices for Global Entry and encourage more to use it.

  15. Gary, what about pre-clearance for foreigners entering the U.S. Several times a year? Have u ever heard of a program for them? The conductor of our orchestra in Cleveland goes through the whole process every time with all the questions, etc and once was even detained for over an hour!

  16. “Having Global Entry is not a crime. It is available for a small price to anyone willing to go and get it.”

    Not true. I’m willing to pay the price, and even went through the effort to apply for it a few years ago. I was denied based on an *expunged* Felony conviction, because “the federal government refuses to recognize the state’s expungement as a means to clear the record”. WTF!

  17. I am a big loser here. I live in Manhattan with Global Entry flying through JFK in minutes. If they make me clear at NRT, things will be far more difficult. Do people have to take out Luggages in NRT before clearing? Anyway, I might have to avoid NRT and transfer in HND.

  18. Is this the real reason IAG wants Aer Lingus?

    It would make sense for BA and Iberia to channel all US flights via Shannon / Dublin, both of which have pre-clearance, until LHR sorts itself out.

  19. Is this the real reason IAG wants Aer Lingus?

    It would make sense for BA and Iberia to channel all US flights via Shannon / Dublin, both of which have pre-clearance, until LHR sorts itself out.

  20. So we get to go through US immigration and customs before getting on our flight to the US. Sounds great to me. Don’t see why anyone wouldn’t like this. Sure, I fully expect it will add time before the flight…but I’d trade that most times to not have to stand around waiting after a long international flight.

  21. It’s painful to read all the clueless once-a-year intl travelers ragging on Gary. Dear friends: this is an unmitigated disaster for intl travel. I ask you, have you had the (dis)pleasure of using the Abu Dhabi facility before? Do you make 10+ intl trips to the US for business annually? Have you heard of Global Entry? Oh, and you do realize you’re still not going to make your connection at JFK with 45 minutes MCT, but hey – now you’ll be stuck in Abu Adabi and Narita for a day instead of losing an hour or two at JFK. Utterly moronic. This will save American vacationmakers 30 minutes arriving at US customs (although it will waste them an extra 30 minutes at the departure port, for a net gain of zero), give them the false promise of making connecting flights (which they’ll throw a hissy fit about when they eventially miss them), help scores of passengers miss their flights 12 hours from home with far fewer lift options than if they were already at a US airport, and piss off scores of businessmen and travelers who have Global Entry and are, in essence, getting the benefit neutered. But hey, come travel to America!

    Not to mention, zero intl lounge access after this, no water, no food coming on board.

    The only guy I see with a legitimate argument above is the guy who was denied Global Entry. That blows.

    The US is trying hard to render itself a third world country while the rest of the world takes its place.

  22. A lot of comments here I don’t understand. Preclearance effectively makes international flight routing marginally more convenient for flyers who make connections at U.S. gateways, but at the expense of everyone else that doesn’t, with particular pain for elite and F/J pax (more time spent in the tiny gate area and less time in the lounge) and Global Entry members (more time spent at departing airport with no equivalent savings at arrival airport). Even those that do benefit from shorter legal connection times at the U.S. gateway pay for it in time wasted arriving at the departure airport earlier.

    This is clearly a net cost to flyers as a whole, so I’m not sure what all the “I love preclearance” comments are about.

  23. Not everyone traveling frequently to the U.S. is a U.S. Citizen. No global entry, no 100k miles bonuses for a credit card, only the joy of standing in line for hours to meet the friendly face of a immigration officer after a 14 hour flight. Okay, Gary can’t bring his water – guess what, we can’t use the bathroom for the two hour wait in line. We pay for your lousy immigration officials to work in our countries so yes, the benefit will be all ours, thank you very much.

  24. Slightly off topic, but related. I regularly fly LHR-GCM via MIA. Although I’m a UK citizen, I have Global Entry. But it still infuriates me that I must clear immigration in MIA, enter the US and then have the pleasure of transversing the TSA minefield. If the US really wants to improve the system, why on earth don’t they re-open the MIA transit lounges airside, the ones they closed after 9/11, so that we can save a massive amount of time and reduce the enormous crowds in the Immigration Hall. It makes no sense to force thousands of people to negotiate immigration procedures when they’re not staying in the US. Also, since they rarely ask for proof on onward travel, there must be some folks who tell immigration that they’re “in transit” and then disappear into the bowels of the country – a bit like the Mexican border!

  25. How clever.

    Based on your reasoning we would all be better off if ICE closed all the preclearance facilities in Canada, the Caribbean, Mexico, Ireland, and so forth.

    I’m very much looking forward to having even more places that look like Toronto or Dublin. Just not having to pick-up and recheck baggage in the typical badly run U.S. airport, as well, as a result of his, having to redo “security” will make a huge difference.

    Kudos to the U.S.A. for identifying this pain point and fixing it.

    Chas: +1. Gary is so out of touch with travelers (see his other post from today) I’m not sure this blog is worth reading anymore…maybe I should start with no longer trying to improve it with comments (which, ironically, just drive up his stats on the blog’s popularity … how absurd!)

  26. Have any of you people who are cheering for Pre Clearance actually used the AUH facility? Actually experienced the system the DOT says is a “model” for future designs? Anyone experienced any Pre Clearance outside of Toronto before? Any of you? Last time I was there my EY flight was delayed 3 hours…on account of Pre Clearance and two staff no-shows. But hey, no big deal I was told, the day before was delayed 5 hours, so it could always be worse. But no worries, at least you don’t have to stand in Immigration and Customs upon arrival at JFK!

    For those of us who have used AUH, um, no the pre clearance of the future is not going to resemble YYZ. You are smoking the USA govt ganga if you think that facility in YYZ is going to resemble AUH. The reason YYZ is an outlier is because a.) there are ungoldly amounts of USA flights ex-YYZ, and b.) Those flights can get clustered in that single location. Oh, and the little fact that it is an hour north of many major US cities and the cost of moving staff there isn’t half what it costs to post someone in….Stockholm.

    Let’s see…Istanbul??! Madrid? Manchester? Right. It’s going to be lovely, I’m sure. I have no doubt the USA will do a superb job making everyone’s travel experience very expedient at those outports….I’m sure these facilities will be about as nice as an Anchorage winter.

    And LHR? I’m not holding my breath.

  27. i considered once flying DEL YYZ SFO but a colleague who did it informed me to be safe I budget six hours at YYZ for pre clearance. Avoided that route and all routes where pre clearance is there.
    This should drive traffic by Global Entry premium pax to non pre clearance airports

  28. Gary,
    does the pre customs clearance kills the hidden city ticketing shtick?
    for those traveling from usa abroad where travelers now must pick up the luggage where the aircraft fist land in USA ..but as i understood not doing customs in USA soil it wont allow to just leave the airport with luggage at first stop and not continuing the itinerary.
    any advice?
    Sorry for my English.

  29. @Itiel – generally it means you can’t check bags, because they’ll be through-checked, so it limits hidden city ticketing on international itineraries

  30. In reality additional pre-clearance is no net change for the traveling masses and maybe a slight improvement for connecting PAX. For frequent travelers (no not all of us are in first) this is a loss. Lounges, food and having to show 3+ hours before an international flight stinks. Have you actually been to Pre-clearance facility? My experiences have shown even DUB was poorly run and made for a diminished travel experience including global entry and/or kiosk entry capability.

  31. Has anyone cheering pre-clearance actually used it? I live in the US on visa, and have entered through immigration at least 50 times. It has taken anywhere from 5 minutes to 5 hours. If I miss a connection on the US side due to immigration, there is likely another flight an hour or 2 later. If I miss my flight on the other side of the world, I am stranded, perhaps a day or 2.

    Maybe vacation travelers have hours to waste getting to the airport 3+ hours early. I personally have better things to do.

    Immigration delays can occur anywhere. Wouldn’t you rather be closer to your destination when they do? Additionally, anyone connecting through a pre-clearance airport now needs to add significant connection time.

  32. My last AUH-ORD flight was only delayed by an hour but I guess I was lucky. Didn’t Etihad open a lounge past pre-clearance because of the long delays?

  33. Here’s another lovely element, brought up above: connecting will be screwed at the Pre Clearance airport. So the connection snafu is just transferred from the USA to a remote outport. Spectacular.

    The peanut gallery of folks criticizing this post (ie, a peanut gallery of folks who clearly have zero practical experience with Pre Clearance at AUH) is stoked about MCT reductions in the US due to lack of customs. Well, let’s just say you’re flying EY from Doha, or Nairobi, or Hyderabad, or Male…..and connecting at AUH to the US. Now, your MCT is screwed there.

    The US airlines should be thrilled with Pre Clearance at the ME airlines’ hubs. It’s like a secret weapon against Etihad, and perhaps eventually Emirates and Qatar.

  34. AUH was beyond terrible as 2 GE travelers. rarely have i seen such a jacked up situation. i am curious, as well, if the folks criticizing this post have actually been in a pre-clear facility/airport.

    the lack of services on the other side coupled with the strangeness of Etihad’s boarding process made for an even worse experience after such a great vacation.

    i don’t have the article handy, but there was one written on the lateness of flights leaving from AUH since the facility was put in compared with before. i am sure any curious person could find it.

    from a gov’t perspective, i think pre-clear makes sense. from a traveler’s (so far) it is simply terrible.

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