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Best and Worst US aiports for immigration

Are there certain airports in the US that you choose (or don't!) for return just because of immigration?
This was my experience last fall doing carry-on only. Both outbound and returning connections were in ATL.
Outbound was uneventful as the only check was just before boarding in JAX to make sure our passports were in order.
Return was an 8:00 am flight from Paris landing at 1:00 pm in ATL where we had a 2:15 layover. We were fortunate to have been able to purchase business class tickets and once off the plane we found ourselves 4th in line for three booths. But wait - what is this? Nobody is working! The Immigration officers are standing around talking or sitting in the booth looking at their phones. Why isn't anyone being called up? And we stood. And we waited. And waited. And the line behind us grew and grew while up front no one was being processed. There must have been close to 200 people behind me. No signage or verbal explanation was given for why we were all just standing there while they talked and joked around. Another employee paced back and forth in front of the three lanes to make sure no one stepped over the line. Appearing to be quite harried (whatever for?) she snapped at everyone within voice range and almost dared one to ask a question or step a toe over the line. Finally after standing there for 25-30 minutes they started calling people up and 4-5 minutes later we were through. It seems if we had been even halfway back in the line we would have missed our connection. We went straight through security, plane-train to our concourse and then found a bar where I could attempt to alter my mood. We had time for a beer before boarding our last flight. I was really miffed about the experience at immigration but maybe my experience was par for the course, or maybe my experience was a good one and I didn't even know it? You tell me. Where have you had your best and worst experiences with immigration? Is there an airport that you absolutely refuse to fly through on international or domestic flights?

Posted by
2591 posts

I avoid Chicago and Atlanta. Never had good experiences at either even with domestic flights.

Newark has been OK for me. I prefer Denver or Houston.

Last couple European trips I flew back through Canada or Ireland. You go through US immigration and customs in the airport in those countries so when you step off the plane at your US destination it is just like a domestic flight and no lines to wait in or checks to go through. Ireland was the best option for me with a very short wait. Toronto was about like the Atlanta experience you describe the last time I went through there. Montreal was excellent.

Posted by
19612 posts

There is really no way to answer your question especially since your question is more of a rant than a question. Most of us have used a couple of airports so it is hard to judge all of them. We generally enter via NY, Chicago, and if lucky our home airport Denver. Denver is by far the best experience since we will only have one flight in at a time. New York (JFK) has probably been consistently the slowest simply because of numbers - lots of international flights arriving all the time. Chicago generally is good with the new international terminal but our worse experience was Chicago a couple of years ago when the "computers were down." Your situation sounded a lot like ours except that it was closer to an hour before anything happened. Our absolutely worse experience was Philly. We will never, ever book another flight through Philly.

Posted by
625 posts

I usually fly into and out of Philly because it is my local. Arrival is dire - long lines, inept and surly workers, insufficient staffing despite them knowing arrival schedules, conflicting instructions, or should I say shouted "orders" to folks standing in line. Generally, a miserable experience. Avoid Philly if you can.

Posted by
730 posts

ATL is our "home" airport. Our return there from CDG in 2013 was absolutely a breeze. We were in the first row of what was then called Economy Comfort, so close to the door. We were first to the counter and with hardly a bat of an eye, we were on our way. I was amazed, to say the least.

Unfortunately, this summer we are coming back through JFK from Nice before heading to ATL. I am already dreading it. It was a few hundred cheaper (and less miles) than making the connection in Europe to ATL. I suspect it would have been money well spent. I am planning to carry on only, just to be safe.

Posted by
40 posts

I try to avoid ATL and I fly Delta most of the time. If I can get a direct flight to Europe, I book it because I hate stopping there. The few times I have had to go through there has been so inconvenient. Also, returning to the US and going through their immigration is a nightmare. The agents scream at people in lines and are so rude.

Posted by
19612 posts

JFK is ok. If you have global entry it is fairly easy. Last summer we cleared immigration and custom is about 20 mins with global entry but it has taken longer, sometimes much longer, in the past. Just a lot of folks going through JFK.

Posted by
730 posts

I have global entry because I travel for work but, unfortunately, my husband does not. I was trying to figure out if there was an advantage to me going through GE with bags and doing any declarations or whathaveyou and him going through the normal line unimpeded. I'm thinking it won't matter if his line is miles long. Is that right?

Posted by
4744 posts

With Global Entry my dreaded return flights to LAX are now but distant memories.

Breeze right on through unlike a few years ago when I was returning from an RS Tour of Istanbul.

Looking back it's funny but at the moment it wasn't and I was incredulous. Of 8 desks to check people through only 2 were manned and 5 overseas flights had landed within minutes of one another. Even crews had to wait as there wasn't a special gate for them. It was UGLY! I finally approached a desk and handed over my passport and the card you fill out on the plane. Here's what ensued.

" You bringing in turkey?!"

"What??!"
"You bringing in turkey?!"
" Are you serious???!!"
" Turkey, you bring back turkey?"
" NO I WENT TO TURKEY, THE COUNTRY!!!"
"Where? What?"
" I've been on a tour of Istanbul which is in Turkey!"

At this point he calls over to another agent who has just been standing around twiddling his thumbs.

A whispered conversation ensues, my passport passed back and forth and without an apology or acknowledgement of their complete incompetence, my passport is handed back and via a wave of a hand I'm told pass.

So in answer to your question, LAX. And a suggestion you apply for a Global Entry pass.

Posted by
1068 posts

So far my 2 least favorite N. American Airports are JFK and Toronto. Otherwise I have mostly fair to good, with a few bad, experiences at others.

Posted by
5403 posts

I was really miffed about the experience at immigration

Then why relive it all over again? You got through within 35 min, flew business class (so I assume you were more or less comfortable throughout the flight), didn't miss your connection, and had extra time and an outlet to release your stress...as far as problems go, this one seems like a non-issue (plus no one can guess whether what happened to you was an isolated incident or not; one experience doesn't automatically mean "everything"). Sometimes being in the front of the line doesn't mean you won't have to wait (that happens all the time at the airport, whether you board the plane early or get on the transit bus between gates and have to wait until it's full, etc) - it's out of your control and poses a minor inconvenience. Most people plan for contingencies like this one by allotting a longer connection time at airports known to be the largest transit airports in the US. That seems like a decent alternative in lieu of outright avoiding certain airports (not everyone can afford to avoid certain connections due to price-sensitivity and other factors).

Posted by
2153 posts

The airport I'm most familiar with, but we've also gone through immigration at 3-4 Canadian and east coast US airports, is Los Angeles. It's usually very busy. I always brace myself when approaching "the hall" to see if it's packed to the gills or nearly empty. It seems to be one or the other of these scenieros often. I find the agents to be plentyful and offer a quick passport look so that part I don't dread, the snaky lines move. I find that it's better to arrive on a foreign carrier because so many other passengers siphon off into the nonUS passport lines.

Claudia, your experience was a good for a laugh this AM!

One of my most memorable customs experiences was returning to LA in December of 2001 with my first (and only so far) item to declare, expecting to pay a tax. I went to the red line instead of walking through the green door. I got out my paperwork. The agent looked at my passport and paperwork. He asked if I had been traveling continuously since August 2001 and I said yes. He handed back the paperwork, said "welcome home and merry Christmas". That was the first of many changes we saw as got back on American soil after 4 months of travel during the fall of 2001. His comment was so humbling I almost cried.

Posted by
8089 posts

Even crossing the border by Amtrak from Montreal to New York can be an irritating experience. I wasn't the irritated one but a passenger sitting behind us was given a very hard time. She was travelling on a Candian passport to NYC and then on to Istanbul. This alarmed the Border guy very much indeed. "Now why would you put yourself in harm's way by going to such a place?" he asked ever so gently. Her explanation was that she was a travel agent and had the opportunity to see Turkey so why not? The border agent was not having any of it ...... she may as well have said she was going to Afghanistan. Anyway, after about 10 minutes of the "putting yourself in harm's way" nonsense, he made her accompany him to the dining car so they could "chat" further. It was half an hour before she returned to her seat. It really would be nice if all immigration employees were to have at the very least a high school education.

Posted by
6618 posts

Oh Claudia, that is a hilarious story, altho I know at the time it must have been an other-world experience.

FWIW, and this helps you not at all Nance, in the last 3 years I've come thru Immigration via SLC, MSP and SEA. All were fine with MSP probably edging out SLC and SEA a close 3rd. SEA did seem to have a better process in place but they undoubtedly have more people coming thru.

I also just applied for GOES because there is now an interview site in Idaho. Well, I could not believe the dates available when I got approval yesterday to book the interview. None in Boise except the 6 weeks I am going to be traveling this Fall, None at all in SLC, Seattle this fall, Portland none. The earliest was Sweetgrass Montana the end of July. I messed around with the website enough I finally lucked out that an opening popped up in SLC for June. Just one, so someone must have just cancelled. Now I'm wondering if it is worth flying down to SLC for the day or if I should just cancel the application and lose the $100.

Posted by
1638 posts

@Pam - We just applied for Global Entry last week (ten days ago). We were approved 5 days later (last Friday). And so I logged in to set up the interview and the interviews for SEATAC were in September. Portland was October. Boeing Field was November!!
Blaine had dates in late May, if you want to go there.

The best tip, though, is one I saw on that flyertalk.com website. It told me to log in continuously over the course of the day - I mean like every ten or fifteen minutes, and that eventually some random cancellation would pop up. And so I tried it all day on Friday and, sure enough, I got an appointment for Monday (two days ago!) at SEATAC. And I did it for my travel partner too and got a second appointment at Boeing Field for yesterday!!:)

And so now we're all approved and ready to go, which is great because I'm flying out of LAX next week!

Posted by
17251 posts

There is a reason it is called "Thousand Standing Around".

My worst experience was Philadelphia. It seemed like half of the TSA workers only assignment was to harass the passengers. I've avoided PHL ever since. It wasn't actually immigration; it was going through security to get back into the concourses.

I don't think I've ever arrived back in the US without a loooong line at immigration, and then, at every airport I've come into, after immigration./customs, you have to go back through security to get a connecting flight. I mean, why? You just went through security in the European airport, and probably American TSA at the gate, too, and you flew across the ocean and didn't flow the plane up, but suddenly you're suspect again. The only people you've been in contact with have been the immigration/customs people. If they can't be trusted ... Why don't they just make immigration a secure area and let us go back into the airport without doing the whole security thing all over.

In Chicago, after going through immigration/customs, you have to take that train around to your domestic terminal and go through security again. It should be a major hassle, but somehow, my experiences with Chicago have seemed pretty good, maybe because security lines haven't been that long.

And in Denver, you have that long walk through the bridge from the A concourse to immigration in the main terminal. And I've always experienced long lines in Denver. But it hasn't seemed so bad. Maybe it's just because I'm happy to be home. I'm just glad I don't have to go back through security to get a connecting flight.

Posted by
2091 posts

If I had to guess I'd say there was a computer glitch that they were waiting for, and they didn't tell anybody because they didn't feel like enduring more h*** from the crowd. 35 minutes of your life, gone.

We've collectively decided that TSA, Immigration, etc. jobs are low level service jobs, marginally effective, and that they only serve to slow us down from getting on with important things, like our lives.

Posted by
6618 posts

Valerie, thanks so very much for that tip! I think that is what happened when the SLC interview time came up. I was fumbling around and accidentally clicked on SLC again and there it was. I saw the ones at Blaine but really it would almost be easier for me to drive further with less traffic to Sweetgrass over Blaine. I will monitor the calendars for a week or so before I make my plane res for SLC.

editing to add: Oh my word, Valerie. Just checked again for Boise and got one for the first part of August which did not show yesterday. I will keep looking to see if I can move it forward. Thanks so much!

Nance....sorry to drag your thread OT.

Posted by
2428 posts

We usually fly in and out of Boston (we can get to the airport by bus), and it is generally OK, except when several large planes arrive at once, and Immigration/Customs staff has always been pleasant. We just flew back from Europe to Boston a couple of weeks ago, and they had plenty of staff at Immigration and they were well-organized and moved things along. On the other hand, my one experience with flying back through Philadelphia was disastrous; I'd never go through that airport again.

Posted by
69 posts

Customs and border patrol has a website that might help you estimate how long you might be in line: http://awt.cbp.gov/
Average wait time, by day of the week, by time.

Posted by
2153 posts

AB thanks for the link. I looked at several 24h periods on various dates for LAX and confirmed what i usually see. There are many times of the day that the average wait time is about 20 minutes or less but at several consistent times of the day the wait time has been > 90 min. Gives me something to consider when choosing my return flight to the international terminal...

Posted by
777 posts

Every time I've gone thru immigration and customs in the U.S. I've wondered what percent of those working as officials have ever traveled overseas--I have a hunch it's a very small percentage. That thought aside, over the past 10 years it's been Montreal, Philly, mostly Dulles, and the least crowded--CVG (yes, you can fly to France from Ky!). All have been okay, but like others, I had a sour experience in PHL one time.

And the turkey story--hilarious. You should've said, "Yes, that's why my bag was 20 lbs. over the limit."

Posted by
12635 posts

And this is why I always use European airlines so I don't have to connect through a U.S. airport. Any European connection is better than most U.S. ones, even Heathrow which is the worst for me.

Posted by
4212 posts

My longest wait for USA immigration was 3 hours in Los Angeles. My last (and shortest) was 2 minutes in Shannon. I've experienced everything in between but on the whole it has become better in the last 15 years, even with the fingerprinting nonsense. Much fewer silly questions to delay you; unfortunately this message hasn't got through to Canadian immigration who persist with this.

Posted by
730 posts

Ms EB
Yes, Global Entry does include TSA pre-check. That's worth the hundred bucks to me!

Posted by
868 posts

Claudia - that story has to be up top with the best of the funniest travel encounters!

AB - thank you for the link.

Having only flown a few times internationally I was unable to really know if our experience was average, worse, or better than usual. Many of you are seasoned travelers so I find value in your opinions and experiences. According to the link posted by AB it looks like our transition might have been one of the better ones. My post was not meant to be a "rant", but simply an account of my experience and an attempt to not only learn if there were other airports where immigration runs more smoothly (and nicely), but also which ones it might be better to avoid when able.

Thanks for sharing.

Posted by
2115 posts

I think I approach travel slightly differently than many of you. I'm on vacation the minute I lock the door. I consider waiting as part of the travel experience so I don't stress about it. I plan enough transfer time to have few worries. Whether I'm standing in a line at immigration or sitting at the gate, I'm still waiting. It is a great time to people watch, listen to an audio book, read, etc. Does every minute of the day have to be moving? Considering steamships used to take 5 days to cross the pond, a little time in line doesn't bother me. I feel sorry for Immigration personnel or TSA agents who have to put up with people looking down on them. I imagine there are reasons for most delays even if we never see what the reason is.

Posted by
5403 posts

Wray - I love the way you think. I wish there was a "like" button I could press for your comment.

Posted by
4169 posts

I am surprised nobody has suggested tipping these low-level service people.

Posted by
15 posts

Wow. I thought i'm in this boat alone having immigration delays all the time. Looks like many you have experienced similar issues. especially, Claudia's "Turkey" incident. Did you laugh at the agent for such a silly question or did you keep a straight face? Sometimes, i play dumb when the agents ask some question like this, just to let them feel superior. Who cares. Just get my passport back.
Also, good to know that you can clear US Immigration in Ireland & canada. Also, in that list is Abu Dhabi Airport. Heard many people praise that airport for US Immigration. My sister even said the US Agents in Abu Dhabi were friendly and were super efficient. Any other countries to add this list where you can clear US immigration outside US?

Posted by
868 posts

Having extra time to go through immigration is not a certainty. Our original schedule gave us plenty of time but with each successive change (there were five in all!) we always ended up with 1.5 hours to go through immigration at St. Paul, JFK, Detroit, ATL. I had to express my extreme displeasure with Delta just to get what I got in the end. I will say that Delta was good at contacting me each time a change occurred and they were great at rescheduling me for what I wanted, but finally there were no flights left to choose from per Air France's rules about Business class Z. Whatever the heck those are...

Posted by
2591 posts

"after immigration./customs, you have to go back through security to get a connecting flight. I mean, why?"

Because you have to collect your checked bags while going through the process for customs when entering the US and checked bags can contain things you are not supposed to have in a secure area. I never check bags so it would be nice if they had a separate secure path for those with only carry on luggage so we could skip the security line.

The security check is what caused me to almost miss my flight coming back through IAD last summer. Global Entry had us nearly sprinting through that part of the process and it took all of 5 minutes to clear both immigration and customs with nothing to declare. But then -- TSA. Only one lane open for international connections in an area that has 6 lanes and dozens of TSA employees standing around joking and drinking coffee. Every United flight for the day seemed to have arrived the same time and no TSA Pre or other expedited security check was available in the connections area. So me and the hundreds of other flyers got to be really great friends crowded together like sheep in a trailer during the 90 minutes it took to get through the security check. I had 15 minutes to then run to the gate for my connection which of course was the furthest gate from the international connections area. I did make it.

Posted by
1340 posts

"If I had to guess I'd say there was a computer glitch that they were waiting for, and they didn't tell anybody because they didn't feel like enduring more h*** from the crowd. 35 minutes of your life, gone."

Or...

They were mad that some of their budget/hours got cut and were doing a work slowdown to prove how important they are. This was actually happening about this time in Atlanta. They were slowing down to create longer lines to "prove" they needed more hours/people.

Posted by
528 posts

The process at Miami is one of the most disorganized I've seen. Even though we don't usually check bags, our family does. They have you pick your bags up off a belt to do the customs thing and then just after customs there is big empty floot space that you are just supposed to leave your bag at to be rechecked. Everyone leaves their bag at the same place and there are very few workers in the area, and I just wonder what happened to "do not leave your baggage unattended." And what is the likelihood of all those bags getting checked to the right place? It has been a few years since I've been there, so maybe they have fixed this, but I thought it was nuts.

Posted by
2091 posts

"They were mad that some of their budget/hours got cut and were doing a work slowdown to prove how important they are. This was actually happening about this time in Atlanta. They were slowing down to create longer lines to "prove" they needed more hours/people."

Or...

We've collectively decided that TSA, Immigration, etc. jobs are low level service jobs, marginally effective, and that they only serve to slow us down from getting on with important things, like our lives.

Posted by
2323 posts

TSA is reflective of the metropolitan area where you are. If it's a poor city or a city with a lot of poor and uneducated people TSA staff reflects that and will present a challenge to you, otherwise it goes pretty well. I only fly 5-7 times per year in the US but I rarely see TSA people "standing around" except maybe at DCA and LGA.

Posted by
2153 posts

Ha I've seen plenty of TSA people standing around at our local airport. About a year ago we were taking a morning flight. We walked into a line/room of 4 passengers and at least 10 TSA agents. I remarked to my husband that maybe they like to come train new agents in Santa Barbara during the nice winter months. Why 10+ agents in security, many standing around, at such a small airport? We both commented that it might be more benificial to send some to LAX. I must admit that our agents are very through. They've confiscated my husband's wine opener or Swiss Army knife on more than one occasion...

Posted by
2091 posts

In the thread linked by Carol above, I'm with Bets:

Very funny. We reduce budgets with the sequestre but expect the same service as before. We can pay our way out of the line with Global Entry or by restoring the budget. I don't think the empolyees are having a good time, either.

You want services? It costs money. You want better and faster services? It costs more money. Please raise my taxes.

Posted by
8791 posts

Oy Vey...what a bunch of first world problems. I consider it a privilege to be able to have the money and time to travel. For me "hassles" regarding TSA/Immigration/Customs are minor inconveniences in the grand scheme of things and the price of doing "business".
Louis CK sums it up very well:
https://youtu.be/b3dYS7PcAG4

Posted by
2428 posts

The security check is what caused me to almost miss my flight coming back through IAD last summer. Global Entry had us nearly sprinting through that part of the process and it took all of 5 minutes to clear both immigration and customs with nothing to declare. But then -- TSA. Only one lane open for international connections in an area that has 6 lanes and dozens of TSA employees standing around joking and drinking coffee. Every United flight for the day seemed to have arrived the same time and no TSA Pre or other expedited security check was available in the connections area.

Mark, are you sure that wasn't Philadelphia? It sounds like my experience there. On second thought, Philadelphia was worse, because Immigration/Customs was also slow.

Posted by
11613 posts

I will pay extra not to connect at JFK. It's not the lines, it's the delayed flights and gate changes.

Posted by
1068 posts

At least at JFK, they'll tell you.

Very different experience here. I found JFK the hardest airport I have ever been in to get accurate information in a timely fashion.

Posted by
9174 posts

Norma, I agree. If you are on a legal trip with a clean back ground they had better have a dang good reason to be "interviewing" you. I was put on some sort of list after my trip to Istanbul 2 years ago. This is new. I spent a lot of time in the middle east some years ago and had no such problems. I will be back that way next year and I am afraid I will end up back on the list again.

And my having Global Entry didn't help 100%.

Posted by
1068 posts

Well you certainly could be right about JFK. I gave my second least favorite airport (Toronto) 3 chances. I've only used JFK once and swore I would do everything I could to never go there again. In addition to many problems getting information and moving between terminals, it was the only airport where I saw live rodents. Good to know that it may have been a bad day and things will go better if I have to use it again.