Immigration and border control waiting times at Chicago Airport

Q&A: Travel unravelled

Q. We are flying to San Diego via Chicago O'Hare with American Airlines, with a two-and-quarter-hour window between flights. Have you any idea about the current waiting time for immigration control at O'Hare airport? Marion Blanchard

A. No. US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) issues monthly statistics that show the average maximum waiting time for immigration at the 25 leading American airports. Actually, make that 24 airports. When we researched our recent story on waiting times for immigration at US airports (see bit.ly/USQ2013), Chicago O'Hare – the second-busiest airport in the world – was missing from the raw data. We took up the issue with CBP, which said that the times for O'Hare were unavailable because of an IT glitch. However, circumstantial evidence suggests that it is probably not as bad as Miami (at the top of the Immigration Hall of Shame) and possibly on a par with New York JFK and Dallas-Fort Worth – second and third on the list. That indicates an average maximum queuing time of around two hours 30 minutes. On top of this, you need to clear customs and go through a security search before you are allowed aboard your connecting flight.

But before you write off your connection, be clear what this figure represents. It is the typical wait, at peak arrival time, that the last unfortunate passenger on the plane will endure before seeing the officer who will check their passport, take fingerprints and photograph them. Almost everyone on your plane will wait less than that.

You can increase your odds by asking for a seat as far forward on the plane as possible, so you are not at the back of the queue. If you arrive away from the peak hour (and due to CBP losing its data, we can't tell you when that is) you could well be through in an hour. That should be more than enough for you to make a connection for the 5.10pm American Airlines non-stop flight to San Diego, which will get you to the Pacific coast in time for a sundowner. However, if your transatlantic flight is delayed, then you will probably be re-booked on the last flight of the night, at 8.35pm – arriving in San Diego at an inconvenient 10.40pm.

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