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This super-simple (and free) airport hack lets you skip the line at US Customs


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Photo: Getty Images/David Prado

I love a good healthy travel hack as much as the next person—whether it’s ways to stay hydrated on an airplane, catch some zzz’s (even in coach), or curb that inevitable case of jet lag that sets in after a long-haul flight. So, when a neighbor told me recently about how he and his family of four managed to make it through US Customs in under five minutes—over Thanksgiving…in New York City—I was, understandably, intrigued.

How, I asked, assuming he’d shelled out hundreds of dollars to sign his brood up for the expedited security perks of either TSA Pre-Check (which costs $85 for a five-year membership) or Global Entry ($100 for the same timeframe). Instead, he told me he’d downloaded a free (!) app called Mobile Passport. It’s the official one of US Customs and Border Protection and allows anyone with a US or Canadian passport to skip the stress-inducing re-entry lines after international flights at 24 domestic airports (plus the Everglades Cruise Port in Florida). It sounded too good to be true, so I decided to try it out for myself, which I did on a recent trip back from Dubai.

I walked right up to a waiting agent who scanned my QR code, took a look at my passport, stamped it, and sent me on my way. I was gone in 60 seconds.

When I touched down at JFK after a 14-hour flight, which included a two-hour delay due to an ill passenger, to say that I would have tried *anything* to get myself out of the airport a little faster would be an understatement. While on the Tarmac waiting to de-plane, instead of filling out the paper Customs re-entry form, I downloaded Mobile Passport. Once I’d opened it on my phone, it asked to scan the info page of my passport and directed me to take a photo of myself in order to create a permanent profile that now lives in my app. Then, I filled out a handful of standard, yes or no inspection questions: Was I carrying any commercial merchandise? Transporting more the $10K USD? Did I have any articles to declare? Was I packing foreign fruits, vegetables, etc.? Had I encountered any livestock on my trip? Five taps later (and about five minutes in total), I had a QR code that I was told would let me bypass the typical Customs line when I got off the gangway.

As I wheeled my carry-on toward immigration and baggage claim, I braced myself for that soul-crushing moment when a security guard would tell me it was all a dream (cue Biggie) and that I had to queue up with the huddled masses yearning to break free from the excessively long line that snaked almost all the way back to the gate I’d just exited. But instead, I was directed to enter where diplomats, members of the military, and Olympic Committee officials are inspected. There, I walked right up to a waiting agent who scanned my QR code, took a look at my passport, stamped it, and sent me on my way. I was gone in 60 seconds.

Despite launching in 2014, the app’s still relatively under the radar (hence the lack of line), which I’m chalking up to the fact that it’s only started adding more major international airport hubs, such as LAX (which started accepting Mobile Passport last June), to its roster in the past year or so. But you can now use it up and down the East and West coasts, as well as in Atlanta, Denver, Chicago, and Dallas. With new cities scheduled to be added in 2018. So, if you don’t travel internationally regularly enough to warrant investing in a fast-tracking program—but still want to skip the lines and hassle after a flight—it’s worth the 32.1 MB of storage it takes to stash the app on your smartphone.

Two more travel hacks worth trying out in 2018: Gigi Hadid’s genius de-stressing trick—plus, the one Kayla Itsines uses to protect her skin on the road

This story was originally published on January 2, 2018; it was updated on June 19, 2018. 

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