Summer is here, which means vacation time, along with long lines at customs for visitors arriving in the US or for US citizens returning home. US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has streamlined much of the arrivals process with such enhancements as Automated Passport Control and known traveler programs.

With those improvements and some planning on your part, you can be out of the airport and off exploring—or back home after a fabulous international visit—much quicker.

Tips to help you navigate US Customs during the busy Summer vacation season.Click to Tweet
Security by Quinn Dombrowski

Security by Quinn Dombrowski

Know Before You Go

Man using a new Global Entry kiosk at Newark Liberty International Airport.

Man using a new Global Entry kiosk at Newark Liberty International Airport. Photo courtesy US Customs and Border Protection

If you are a US citizen, you can enroll in Global Entry, NEXUS or SENTRI to help shorten your entry time. You can find out more about those programs here. If you are not already in one of the programs, you're likely too late for this summer season, but the tips below can still help speed up your return home. If you haven't applied for the programs and are a US citizen who frequently travels, I recommend applying for Global Entry.

After paying a $100 fee, going through a background check and completing a short interview, I received my Global Entry that is valid for five years. The Global Entry cut my time clearing customs in places such as LAX and JFK by two to three hours during high travel times. In addition, it included my enrollment in the TSA Pre-Check program, which means I can usually go through TSA checkpoints without removing my shoes, jacket, liquids, or computer.

All US citizens must have a passport for international air travel. If you are a visitor to the US and are a citizen of a Visa Waiver Program (VWP) country, you must have an approved Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) and a valid passport before you can get on a plane bound for the US. You can check out all the requirements online at

Checklist for Travel

CBP Partners with Chicago Department of Aviation to Launch Self-Service Kiosks at O’Hare. Photo by U.S. Customs and Border Protection

CBP Partners with Chicago Department of Aviation to Launch Self-Service Kiosks at O’Hare. Photo by U.S. Customs and Border Protection

There are some basic steps you can take before you leave home to help you create a summer vacation filled with amazing memories rather than customs nightmares.

  • If you are a US citizen, have all your travel documents ready for the countries you're visiting. In addition to your passport, some countries you visit may require visas or immunizations. You can check for specific countries and the requirements for each here.
  • If you are a citizen of a Visa Waiver Program country, be sure you have an Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) before you board your flight for the US. For a complete list of Visa Waiver Program countries, click here. If you have previously traveled to the US, you might remember filling out a Form I-94 to enter the US. That form is now automated for air passengers. The Customs and Border Protection gathers the information from your electronic travel records. You can read more about the new I-94 process here.
  • If you arrive at an airport with Automated Passport Control kiosks, you will use those kiosks to declare everything you are bringing from abroad, including duty free items. Arrival at one of the airports now using the automated kiosks (Vancouver International Airport, Atlanta, Chicago O'Hare, Chicago Midway, Miami, JFK, Dallas Fort Worth, Montreal, Toronto, Fort Lauderdale, Charlotte, Houston, Seattle and Orlando) is much more streamlined. You will no longer need to complete the Customs Declaration form that is usually handed out while you are on board the aircraft. If you arrive at one of those airports, you will go straight to a kiosk in Passport Control, scan your passport, use the camera at the kiosk to take your photo, answer a few simple questions, enter your flight information and declare any items you are bringing into the US. When you've completed all the information using the touch screen, the kiosk prints a receipt that you take to the officer on your way out of Passport Control.
  • Don't attempt to bring prohibited or restricted items into the US. For example, there are limits on the amount of alcohol you can bring into the country and you are prohibited from bringing Cuban cigars, dog/cat fur, drug paraphernalia, elephant/whale/seal ivory, meats, fruits, dairy items, cheese or poultry. There is an extensive list of restricted and forbidden items online. Be sure to click here to check the list before you leave.

Important Airline Information

American Airlines

American Airlines is one of the airlines that flies international routes into the US. Photo courtesy American Airlines

Air travel is stressful for some people. I love getting on an airplane and if I don't travel for a while, I miss it. There's something exciting for me about walking into an airport, listening to the call for flights over the speakers, watching people as they rush from gate to gate and stepping onto a plane, anticipating winging through the air. I don't even mind a little turbulence and I have to admit I sort of enjoy the smell of jet fuel. But I realize my love of airports and flying isn't something everyone shares. If you prepare yourself before you head to the airport, you can minimize your stress and maximize your great vacation experience.

  • Remember your liquids and gels that go with you through security must be in a 1-quart bag. You are allowed a single bag and liquids must be in bottles less than 3.4 ounces. No water bottles with water in them. No snow globes. No soda bottles, even if they're not open. You have to include shampoos, liquid deodorant, perfume, mouthwash, hair gel, liquid makeup, toothpaste, shaving cream. Anything liquid or gel. You do not have to put things like face powder or tubes of lipsticks in the bag. For more information on the 3-1-1 rule of liquids, check out the TSA website here. If you want to take full size bottles of liquids, including wine or alcohol, you can pack them in your checked bag.
  • Get to the airport early enough to clear security and/or customs. For an international flight, you should be at the airport two to three hours before your flight. Most airlines offer suggested times for your airport. There are some places where you will go through US Customs and Border Protection before you get on the plane. Currently, those cities are Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, Calgary, Vancouver and Dublin. If you are clearing customs before your flight at one of these locations, I suggest you arrive at the airport at least three hours before your scheduled departure time.
  • Plan connections that give you plenty of time to clear customs when you arrive in the US. When you arrive at your first stop in the US (whether you are coming in for a visit or returning home after your international vacation) you will deplane, go through Passport Control, pick up your luggage, go through customs, then recheck your luggage and go back through security. Understanding this process is important for a couple of reasons.
    • Never book your connection (for example, if you arrive in the US at JFK and have a connecting flight to Phoenix), sooner than two or three hours after your scheduled arrival. In peak times, I have had instances where I waited in customs for more than two hours, so I normally give myself at least three hours.
    • Remember you will need to go back through security after you clear customs if you have a connecting flight. All of your liquids must again be in 3.4 ounce or smaller containers and fit into that 1-quart bag. This becomes especially important if you purchase bottles of liquor or large bottles of perfume in the duty free shop before you leave for the US. I can't tell you how many times I've returned from trips abroad where people buy large bottles of liquor (for example, tequila in Mexico). People purchase these items after clearing security at the international airport, so they're able to carry those bottles on the plane in duty free bags. However, when you arrive at the first stop in the US, you will be required to pack those big bottles in your checked bags. Even though you purchased it in a duty free shop, you will not be allowed to take those bottles through security when you get home. I always cringe watching people giving up those $75 bottles of tequila because their checked bags are too full.  Change effective early 2014: You are now allowed to take liquid items such as liquor or wine back through domestic security in the US if you purchased them in an international duty free shop and KEEP THEM SEALED IN THE DUTY FREE BAGS IN WHICH YOU RECEIVED THEM. As long as you do not tamper with the packaging, you can take those bottles of tequila, large bottle of perfume and the like through security to your connecting flight without needing to put them in your checked baggage. If, however, you opened the bag while on your flight, they will need to be packed in your checked baggage. UPDATE: IN MAY 2016, I WITNESSED A PASSENGER AT JFK WITH A SEALED PACKAGE TRYING TO GET BACK THROUGH SECURITY WITH THE ITEM AND TSA WOULD NOT LET THEM THROUGH EVEN WITH THE SUPPOSEDLY APPROVED SEALED DUTY FREE BAG. MY RECOMMENDATION: DON'T BUY LIQUOR OR PERFUME IN DUTY FREE SHOPS UNLESS YOU PLAN TO PUT IT IN YOUR CHECKED BAGS WHEN YOU FIRST LAND IN THE US.
  • Book your tickets through a single airline and their partners to help make your trip easier. For example, if you're flying from Dallas to London, you can fly American Airlines from Dallas to Tampa, Florida and then British Airways to London. Because American and British Airways are partners, you can check your luggage at Dallas and pick it up when you arrive in London. Note, however, that on your return flight, you will have to collect your bags in Tampa, clear customs, then recheck your bag for the last leg home to Dallas. That is the case even if you fly the same airline both on the domestic portion and international portion of your flight.
  • Be flexible. Keep in mind that when you travel internationally, things can go wrong with the schedule. Allow plenty of time between flights and try to be patient. It's a complex process to keep all those flights in perfect sync. Most of all, keep in mind that the airline wants you on that flight and wants that flight to get off the ground on time. It always amazes me when people complain that some airline chose to cancel a flight because it wasn't full or there was some plot to make people late. Trust me; the airline wants that plane in the air more than you do. It costs the airline a lot of money for every flight that cancels because of maintenance issues or bad weather. Do keep in mind that sometimes you will be delayed for weather, even if it's clear and sunny where you are. The airline wants the plane in the air, but if there's heavy fog in San Francisco and your plane in Cincinnati is delayed, it's possible that your pilot is stuck in San Francisco or your entire plane is still out west. It's also possible that the sun is shining in San Francisco and Cincinnati, but there are severe storms on the route that prevent safe travel. Remember it is a complicated and interconnected system. When one piece becomes skewed, the entire system gets wonky. Be patient. Do you really want to be on that plane in the middle of a massive snow storm or lightning strike?
  • Check baggage weight limits, especially if you will be connecting to a local flight overseas. I've frequently traveled on planes in other countries that will simply not let you carry on a bag that weighs more than about 15 pounds. For example, if you are flying Air New Zealand, you are limited to one piece of cabin baggage weighing no more than 15 pounds (7 kg), which is strictly enforced. You may also have one small personal item, such as a handbag, a bag of duty free items you picked up, or a slimline laptop bag. If you have a large laptop bag or duffel bag, that is not considered a personal item.
Flying over London on US Airways

Flying over London on US Airways. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham

Traveling is an amazing experience. The world is filled with unique sights and sounds and once you've experienced the world beyond your own borders, you realize how small our world is and how rewarding it is to open your mind and your heart to others.

Enjoy your vacation, relax and embrace the miracle of international travel. After all, you're flying through the air at 35,000 feet in a huge machine. Imagine explaining to one of your ancestors how you were able to hop on a plane, go flying through the air to end up in London in just a few hours. To those ancestors who spent weeks on a boat traveling between the US and the rest of the world, they would never understand why you are unhappy about an extra hour to wait for the weather to clear. Embrace the miracle of travel in our world today and happy trails.

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