Personal Finance

This app makes clearing US airport immigration and customs a breeze

Key Points
  • Mobile Passport lets travelers clear U.S. immigration by submitting documents via a smartphone or tablet before arrival at checkpoints.
  • The basic version is free while an enhanced "plus" version costs $14.99 per year.
  • Developer Airside Mobile hopes to attract the majority of U.S. air travelers to the app.
Upgraded Points analyzed 15 ranking factors at 50 major U.S. airports to determine how early you should arrive at each airport to catch your flight.
Andrew Bret Wallis | DigitalVision | Getty Images

You've just landed back in the U.S. after a 10-hour overseas flight. You're jet-lagged, hungry, weighed down with overstuffed carry-on and duty-free bags, and in desperate need of a shower. How could things get any worse?

Try the endless line snaking up to passport control.

You can probably forget about just hopping in a cab for that quick ride home — unless you're one of the 7.5 million or so travelers who have downloaded Mobile Passport to their smartphones and tablets. According to developer Airside Mobile, users of its app can speed through international arrivals.

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The app, launched in 2014 by Arlington, Virginia-based Airside, allows U.S. citizens and Canadian visitors to clear immigration and customs by electronically submitting passport and customs information before arrival at checkpoints.

Users are then furnished with a mobile or tablet QR code receipt, which they then present to U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers in special, dedicated lanes, bypassing those longer lines.

Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport was the first to use the app five years ago. Mobile Passport now works at 26 U.S. airports nationwide, as well as three Florida seaports (Miami, Palm Beach and Port Everglades). By contrast, the similar Global Entry program from CBP — authorization for which involves an in-person interview and background check — is available at 75 airports, including 59 in the U.S. and 16 sites abroad.

Here's how Mobile Passport works, step by step:

  1. Scan your passport or enter passport information manually. The information is encrypted, to be shared only with U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
  2. If traveling with family, scan or manually enter passport information for all parties, then select all and choose to submit a single form.
  3. Answer five short questions from CBP about the nature of your trip. Carefully review your responses.
  4. Once at your port of entry (airport or seaport), connect to wireless or Wi-Fi and submit your data to CBP.
  5. You should receive a CBP receipt with an encrypted bar code on your device that is valid for four hours.
  6. Follow signs to the designated Mobile Passport Control line. Show your passport to the CBP officer and scan the CBP receipt bar code that's displayed on your device.

The basic version of Mobile Passport costs nothing to download and use but does require travelers to enter passport information for each trip. Airside Mobile recently began offering an ad-free "Mobile Passport plus" version of the app, priced at $14.99 a year, that features automatic document scanning and passport profile storage for future journeys.

According to Hans Miller, founder and CEO of Airside Mobile, the new plus version aimed at frequent flyers has outsold his expectations by a factor of three.

"If someone is using Mobile Passport five, 10 or 20 times year — we even have customers who use it 10 times a month — $15 annually is a small price to pay to make your life a whole lot easier," he said.

Three stages of the user experience with Mobile Passport from Airside Mobile.
Airside Mobile

Frequent flyer Zach Honig, editor at large for travel website The Points Guy, said Mobile Passport's annual fee for plus service "isn't an unreasonable amount" but adds that the cost of the more widely accepted Global Entry program — $100 for five years, compared with almost $75 for Mobile Passport — is now covered by several credit cards, making it essentially free.

Global Entry, which Honig has subscribed to since 2012, "also includes access to TSA PreCheck, which makes it even easier to justify the $100 fee," he pointed out.

But Honig said he has used Mobile Passport himself several times, typically when traveling with friends or family who don't have Global Entry.

"It's been a huge time saver every time, giving us access to a dedicated, and always empty, immigration lane upon returning to the U.S.," he said.

The more people we convert over, the more lanes CPB can devote to the product — and it starts to look a lot like E-Z Pass on the highway.
Hans Miller
founder and CEO of Airside Mobile

Mobile Passport cuts the data processing time for each arriving passenger from around 1½ minutes to under 18 seconds, according to Miller.

"By having the passenger do most of that [data entry] work, we cut the officer time down," he said. "All of a sudden, we were five times faster, and that's what's allowed the product to scale."

In fact, although many travelers may not have heard of Mobile Passport, it's already being used by 20% of U.S. citizens coming back into the country by air. By the end of 2019, the app will have processed around 15 million entries since its launch, according to Miller.

According to officials at Los Angeles International Airport, Mobile Passport users wait only about one minute to see a customs officer. "This is a largely untapped opportunity for people to speed up their entry to the U.S. and spend more time on vacation, taking care of business or being with family," said Justin Erbacci, chief innovation and commercial strategy officer for Los Angeles World Airports, in a statement. Just 3.7% of U.S. and Canadian arriving passengers have availed themselves of Mobile Passport at LAX since its introduction, he added.

Nationally, the total average wait time for Mobile Passport users a CBP checkpoints is 13 minutes, compared to nearly 29 minutes for traditional processing, according to LAWA.

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Early adopters of Mobile Passport benefit from exclusive use of those dedicated CBP lanes at participating airports but Airside's ultimate goal is to have most arriving air and sea passengers employing the app. Hence no charge for infrequent use.

"If people are only going to use the app once or twice a year, we want it to be free," Miller said. "We want to engage with people because we have bigger plans."

Ubiquity, however, would not lengthen wait times for users, according to Miller.

"We're able to process people faster as a result of our product, [and] if everybody switched over to Mobile Passport, the overall line would be one-fifth as long as it would be without it," he said. "The more people we convert over, the more lanes CBP can devote to the product — and it starts to look a lot like E-Z Pass on the highway."

The idea for Mobile Passport, in fact, grew out of another travel technology — mobile boarding passes — that Miller and Airside co-founder Adam Tsao helped develop following their work on establishing the Transportation Security Administration after the Sept. 11 attacks.

"We said, hey, the process of going through passport control and customs looks a lot like checking in for a flight," he recalled. "Can we create a process where, instead of having a kiosk, everyone's phone can be a kiosk?"

The CBP has already started removing kiosks from several facilities, said Miller. "They are moving more and more toward mobile, toward biometrics, toward the next frontier," he added. "I think it's pretty exciting. It's unusual to see a government agency be that innovative."

That day can't come soon enough for frequent flyers like Honig.

"Unfortunately, the kiosks you see for regular travelers don't seem to save much time," he said. "They simply replace the paper customs declaration forms — anyone using the Automated Passport Control kiosks will still need to stop by an agent for an interview."