Late-night line-up at US immigration

Heading for Florida this summer? Prepare for long queues even before you hit the theme parks. Simon Calder advises on how to cut the wait

Since 9/11, visitors to the US have got accustomed to the idea that getting through the immigration check is hard work: you will have your mugshot and fingerprints taken, and may face tough questions about your travel plans. But this summer, just reaching the head of the queue could be an ordeal in itself. The Independent Traveller has crunched the latest data from Customs and Border Protection and discovered that new arrivals in Florida could stand in line for three hours for US Immigration.

The potential waits in other popular states are equally daunting, and could threaten onward connections: if you are still waiting for US Immigration at the final call for your onward flight, you will be left behind. But with a shrewd change of planes en route, you could save an hour of standing in line – and some cash.

Who's worst – and best?

Top of the "immigration hall of shame" is Miami. Last month, the average longest wait time for passport processing for arrivals between 8 and 9pm was 3 hours, 6 minutes. Flights from the UK are scheduled to arrive earlier in the day, when queues are shorter, though beware if your plane is delayed.

In second place, New York JFK – the leading point of arrival from the UK. Between 4 and 5pm, the official "average wait time" for JFK Terminal 4 hits 2 hours, 31 minutes. If you are booked on the 2pm Virgin Atlantic flight from Heathrow, which gets there at 4.40pm, make sure your Kindle is charged.

Many British travellers transfer at the third-tardiest airport, Dallas-Fort Worth. American Airlines sells international-to-domestic onward connections via its hub at "DFW" of less than 90 minutes, which is ambitious given that the highest average wait time is 142 minutes. Lines are also worse than average at Chicago O'Hare – though because the CBP cannot access its own data, the highest wait time is unknown and so the airport is omitted from our chart (right).

If you're going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some comfortable shoes: the worst wait is 110 minutes. And the thrill rides of Orlando could prove tantalisingly slow to reach if British Airways flight 2037 leaves Gatwick a little late, as it did last Sunday. On most days, the jet is scheduled to arrive at McCoy international airport serving the world's theme-park capital at 3.35pm. Waits reach an uncomfortable 104 minutes between 4 and 5pm, when the biggest bulge of fun-seekers arrives, including those on Virgin from Glasgow.

At the other end of the table, Honolulu picks up a garland for the shortest queues. But Hawaii's main airport has no flights from Britain. And even its performance, at 47 minutes, is worse than the UK Border Agency standard of 45 minutes. Last year, Heathrow was in the spotlight with pre-Olympic waits of three hours or more; this year, the queues at British airports have subsided, while those in America are set to get worse as budget cuts bite.

But my electronic papers are in order

Just as well, because otherwise you won't be allowed on a plane to the US. For a straightforward holiday or business trip, you need an Esta – the "Electronic System for Travel Authorization". Apply online at esta.cbp.dhs.gov. (Use no other site, because they may charge a big fee for no benefit.) You pay the equivalent of $14 (£9) for an electronic permit, normally granted within minutes, for as many American trips as you care to make within two years.

An Esta merely allows you to board a flight to the US. On arrival, you must line up to be questioned, photographed and fingerprinted.

How can I bust the queues?

On a route with a spread of flights across the day, choose carefully. Between Heathrow and New York JFK, BA has the most flights, with eight departures spread across the day to its own terminal at JFK. The longest wait is 98 minutes, between 1 and 2pm. Yet there is a distinct dip in waiting times between 5 and 6pm, when it temporarily slips to 36 minutes. Choose BA115, arriving at 5.10pm, rather than BA173 (shortly before 2pm) to save an hour's wait.

Next, consider a different airport. Midtown Manhattan is equally accessible from Newark Liberty as from JFK, yet the worst wait at Newark is barely half that at JFK. Similarly, Florida-bound tourists who fly by charter to Orlando's Sanford airport can save 40 minutes in waiting compared with the city's main McCoy airport.

Or save both time and money by building in a connecting flight at a less-congested US gateway. You clear immigration and customs before boarding the onward flight, which means you arrive at the final destination as a domestic passenger. For destinations in the west and south, consider the only two mainland airports with a wait under an hour: Detroit (52 minutes) and Minneapolis-St Paul (58). Both are Delta hubs.

Also bear in mind US Airways via Charlotte (62 minutes) or Philadelphia (74). As an example of the possible savings: on the first Saturday in August, the cheapest non-stop flight from London to Orlando for a week is about £1,300 return, but US Airways will sell you a ticket via Philadelphia for just over £900 – with a comfortable 2 hours 45 minutes to change planes in the City of Brotherly Love.

Delta's home, Atlanta, and Los Angeles (LAX) are the fastest "mega-hubs", each with an average maximum wait of 71 minutes.

Perhaps more radically: fly via Ireland. The Republic is one of the few countries that has US border staff stationed to allow travellers to "pre-clear". If you book a through ticket on Aer Lingus from your local airport via Dublin to Boston, Chicago, New York JFK or Orlando, you will clear all US formalities at the Irish capital before the transatlantic flight. On arrival, you are a domestic passenger, with no wait for anything except baggage. This courtesy also applies on flights via Canada, and on British Airways' flagship all-business-class service from London City to JFK. Passengers on the morning flight are processed during a refuelling stop in Shannon.

I travel to the US frequently – is there a "biometric" option?

In the 1990s, the US was ahead of the rest of the world with its successful INSpass system. You could enter the country literally by showing your hand: like fingerprints and iris, hand geometry is a unique identifier. INSpass did not survive under the post-9/11 regime. But at last a 21st-century enhancement is on the way in the shape of the Global Entry scheme. You fill in an online form (bit.ly/GlobalE) and, on your next visit to the US, go for an interview with Customs and Border Protection.

Once enrolled, you use a special channel to clear immigration in an estimated 40 seconds. There are some wrinkles: the application bafflingly demands "Information Requested by the Government of UK". But once it is working it could prove valuable to the frequent visitor – and also slim the queues for other new arrivals.

Queue and A: why are we waiting?

Each month, US Customs and Border Protection publishes "average wait times" for the busiest international airports across America at apps.cbp.gov/awt. The figures are published for each hour across the day. We trawled through the most recent figures, for April 2013, at the 20 main airports for UK travellers, and looked for the hour in the day that delivered the longest wait time.

The good news: most people will wait less than these maxima. The bad news: because these are averages, some unfortunate travellers will have waited longer than the figures shown.

Furthermore, the initial passport check – with associated fingerprinting and mug-shot – is merely the first hurdle in getting into the US.

Assuming that, like most travellers, you are cleared at the primary inspection, retrieving baggage and clearing customs will add time. If you are on a connecting flight, you will also need to clear security before being allowed on board. And if your documents or plans raise any suspicion, as mine usually do, you may be hauled off to "secondary" – a processing area where you could spend several more hours.

News
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
people70-year-old was most famous for 'You are So Beautiful'
News
people
Sport
Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho
footballLatest score and Twitter updates
Arts and Entertainment
David Hasselhof in Peter Pan
The US stars who've taken to UK panto, from Hasselhoff to Hall
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Life and Style
Approaching sale shopping in a smart way means that you’ll get the most out of your money
life + styleSales shopping tips and tricks from the experts
News
newsIt was due to be auctioned off for charity
Life and Style
A still from a scene cut from The Interview showing North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's death.
tech
Environment
Sir David Attenborough
environment... as well as a plant and a spider
Voices
'That's the legal bit done. Now on to the ceremony!'
voicesThe fight for marriage equality isn't over yet, says Siobhan Fenton
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Investigo: Finance Analyst

    £240 - £275 per day: Investigo: Support the global business through in-depth a...

    Ashdown Group: Data Manager - £Market Rate

    Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Data Manager - MySQL, Shell Scripts, Java, VB Scrip...

    Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - Bedfordshire/Cambs border - £32k

    £27000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - near S...

    Recruitment Genius: Class 1 HGV Driver

    £23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This successful group of compan...

    Day In a Page

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'