Since 2010, in addition to many fine programs, the fledgling Brand USA (aka the Travel Promotion Act), “dedicated to increasing inbound international travel to the United States,” has spent untold millions of dollars making their immigration procedures quicker and simpler. While this effort should also ease things for US citizens returning from abroad, it’s primarily aimed at international visitors who have long suffered through glacial, draconian arrival formalities, hair-trigger deportation-happy agents and general despondency while trying to simply get into our fine country to spend vast sums of money. Unsurprisingly, years of this pointless obstructionism and discouragement was resulting in billions in lost revenue for the US tourism industry as international travelers headed to more inviting locales. Clearly, profound change was needed – and it has finally arrived.
The following is a breakdown of the new, departure-side, US passport control procedures, honed down to a mere 12 not at all confounding parts, as I recently experienced while departing Toronto airport, heading for Minneapolis.
1. At your point of origin (in my case, Quebec City), you will be given a blue and white US customs form. It is the same blue and white US customs form you have filled out when entering the US for the past 156 years. No changes there. If you’re like me, you’ll dutifully fill this out while your first flight is boarding and pat yourself on the back for getting that tedium out of the way. You are indeed a savvy traveler and you should probably be rewarded somehow, say, a badge or a neon vest or something that signals other travelers and airline employees that you are a (wo)man among insects.
2. After landing in Toronto, you will expertly follow signs to Terminal F, where international connections to the US depart. One of only three or so people available to help several hundred jetlagged and sensory-overloaded travelers navigate the new immigration procedures will make a quick check of your boarding pass, then direct you to the US immigration line.
3. This first line leads to a massive room with areas prominently labeled “Step 1,” “Step 2,” and “Step 3.” Only three steps? This sounds straightforward and encouraging! At the Step 1 area, you will approach a kiosk which directs you to scan your boarding pass. The kiosk tells you to proceed to Step 2 and wait for your name to appear on a giant digital display, then proceed to Step 3.
4. After a few minutes of waiting to see your name appear on the display, then proceeding to and waiting in line at Step 3, you will learn that the kiosk lied to you. Or at least perpetuated intentional misdirection. Why has this happened? The prevailing theory: they thought making travelers solve riddles would make the time stewing at immigration pass a little more pleasantly. Thoughtful!
5. What you actually needed to do, stupid, is proceed to the secret Step 2, Part 2, where you stand in another line to scan your passport at yet another kiosk. As the kiosk prompts, you will promise the kiosk that you are not carrying various substances, dangerous items or large sums of money. Then, after two hilarious fake-outs, the kiosk takes the most unflattering photo of your entire life, prints it out on what appears to be receipt paper, and NOW you may proceed to Step 3. Take care to not crash into the steady crowds of dazed people that have been sent back from Step 3 to complete the secret Step 2, Part 2. Also, notice how time is flying? Come to think of it, how long have you been here and how long before your flight departs? Who knows? There isn’t a clock in sight! YOLO!
6. You’ve finally arrived at Step 3, ostensibly the final step! After the riddle-solving fun, the feeling you get here that you are nearly finished is perhaps the most pleasant, though brief, endorphin release in the entire process. A no doubt highly trained security agent compares your passport with the unflattering photo, which look nothing at all alike, but gives you the thumbs up anyway and sends you through either Door 1 or Door 2. Door 1 leads to a short, quick line to see an immigration agent. Door 2 leads to the same place, but the line is about five times longer and slower. There is no criteria for which door you’re sent to. This is where friends and loved ones are abruptly and indiscriminately separated for up to 30 minutes, while one person sails through the line behind Door 1, then gets to wait on the other side of immigration for their friend/loved one who was banished to the slow line behind Door 2.
7. An immigration agent briefly glances at you passport and unflattering photo then stamps them both, which, frankly, is a task that could’ve probably been accomplished by one of those kiosks from a while back. You are then directed around the corner to a customs agent.
8. You approach the customs agent and proudly present your blue and white customs form among the growing pile of documents you’re now carrying, as you have every time you’ve returned to the US for 156 years. He will sigh and send you back to the immigration agent to get it stamped. (Fun fact: it was right about here that I hit 2,000 steps on my pedometer since disembarking the plane from Quebec City. Exercise bonus!)
9. The immigration agent will become disproportionately upset that you have returned. Indeed, his entire week has just been ruined. With the undisguised beleaguered tone of someone who has been dealing with morons like you for nearly 90 minutes, he informs you that you must present the customs agent with this paper (the unflattering photo), not this form (the blue and white customs form that you have been presenting to customs agents for 156 years), idiot. He will then take the time to explain at length and loud enough for everyone standing in the immigration area to hear, how, after only two hours of sleep and counter to 156 years of experience, oh and two flustering go-arounds back in the quick and easy Three Steps area, that this should have all been obvious. Then, to be certain that you’re now in full understanding about how completely useless that blue and white customs form is, formally presented to you not two hours earlier by one of his colleagues in Quebec City, he snatches it from your hand and tosses it in the garbage.
10. You return to the customs agent who, despite ignoring it moments earlier when you tried to hand all the papers to him, confirms that yes, OF COURSE the unflattering photo on receipt paper was what he really wanted, you asshole.
11. You turn a corner and are suddenly at the point of no return at a security checkpoint, despite never having left the airport’s secured area. Any liquids you might still have from earlier or acquired just before starting this farce must now be speed-dranked, like Mean Joe Greene with a bottle of Coke. (Everyone under the age of 40 will have to Google this reference or just trust me that this is a bull’s-eye analogy.) This security line is breathtakingly fast, so you must speed-drank your beverage while emptying your pockets of crap, unlacing your shoes and locating your safely packed away liquids and gels again, all while moving at a quick pace. You learn that the line is moving so fast, because they are only using a metal detector and not the poky backscatter, gamma radiation, brain/lung/rectum cancer impregnator closet. Relish this moment. This perk will be the best part of your passport control experience.
12. Enter the God-blessed USA side of Toronto airport! It’s only been one hour since you first approached US immigration, which some might point out is indeed a time improvement over the old system, though keep in mind in this case your adventure started in the happy-go-lucky, pre-7a.m. part of the day, with only one or two planes arriving. At peak passenger processing times, you should probably budget well over two hours for a US-bound layover in Toronto airport. Three if you’d like to finally drop that deuce that’s been on deck since somewhere over Ottawa.
Oh yeah! Welcome to ‘Merica!