This app might be the best-kept secret among travelers who fly internationally.
The ability to speed through immigration and customs after landing from an international flight, without wasting time waiting in line, is perhaps one of the greatest modern improvements to travel.
The Global Entry program has long been touted as the fastest way to arrange these arrival conveniences, but it comes at a cost of $100 every five years. (And TSA PreCheck only helps when you’re departing, not arriving.)
But there is another method of getting out of the airport (or making your tight international connection) even faster. Mobile Passport, which launched in 2014, is a travel app that has proven its value. It only works for travelers landing in the United States, but the best part is that it’s free (a great alternative for those who don’t have a credit card that waives their Global Entry fee, for instance).
What is Mobile Passport?
The free Mobile Passport app is available for iOS and Android devices and can be downloaded from the app store. Unlike Global Entry, there is no lengthy application process, no interview appointment that requires a wait time of weeks or months, and no cost associated with it. U.S. and Canadian citizens with a B1 or B2 visa status are eligible to use Mobile Passport.
The app is designed to serve as a replacement for completing a traditional customs declaration paper form or using the standard Automated Passport Control kiosk when you arrive. The moment you land in the United States, you can fire up the app and answer the regular questions; you can even make necessary declarations (such as restricted food or large purchases) on the app.
Once you have indicated your arrival airport and airline and submitted the form (the process takes about a minute), the app creates a QR code that you show to an immigration officer inside the airport. The officer may ask a few questions about your trip, but the process is swift because Mobile Passport users have a dedicated lane in most participating airports that expedites you through the line (in front of most other passengers) to complete the standard immigration and customs process.
While Global Entry users are still completing their form on the kiosk, you might already be scanning your mobile device QR code with an officer. Any declarations would be discussed at that point, but if you have none, you are sent on your way.
Before using the app, you must upload a headshot and enter your passport details (it’s as simple as scanning your passport page). When you’re ready to use the app, you can enter your chosen PIN code or use touch ID if your phone has that capability.
What’s the catch?
This is not a replacement for a passport and is not a trusted traveler program. This means you have not been “vetted” in the same way that Global Entry users have been. Because not all travelers are eligible for Global Entry (due to prior customs violations, among other reasons), this app can be a great alternative.
Also, not all international arrival airports in the United States have Mobile Passport lines (they're currently at 25 airports and three cruise ports). Notable airports with many international flights that are not on the list include Detroit, Las Vegas, and Charlotte, North Carolina—although more airports will participate in the program soon, according to Mobile Passport.
For now, Mobile Passport feels like a well-kept secret among international travelers. While Global Entry users must schedule an interview appointment and pay a fee once every five years, Mobile Passport is an instant download and free.
Is it compatible for family travel?
Families living within the same household can complete their form on one device as a group submission, provided each person’s photo and passport details are added to the app.
Is the Mobile Passport secure?
The app, developed by Airside Mobile in partnership with Airports Council–North America and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, includes privacy protection barriers in place to keep your document details safe. You can choose to delete your details (instead of storing them within the app) after each trip. The QR code transmitted to U.S. Customs and Border Protection when you complete the form expires four hours after it is created, too.
If you also have Global Entry, you can still use Mobile Passport. This allows you to opt for whichever line is shorter once you reach the arrivals hall.
Note that you’ll need to be online or have a data connection for the app to work. Many international airport arrivals halls may have limited cellular coverage, in which case you’ll need to locate airport Wi-Fi. But it’s worth it to speed through immigration and customs, so you can be on your way home in a snap—or to spend more time hunting down the best airport dining options on your layover.