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Speeding up customs with sensible authentication

Much like jet lag and sunburns, slow-moving customs lines just come with the territory of international travel.

As inconvenient as those long waits are, the fact that funneling millions of people in and out of the nation takes a lot of time and resources is not surprising. Between foreign nationals and American travelers returning from abroad, the United States opens its gates to nearly 1 million people every day, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Not to mention, it's important for reasons of national security that agents are thorough in their screenings and identity verification processes.

Nevertheless, customs buildups are one issue that travelers and U.S. officials would very much like to alleviate, and more sensible passport authentication measures may be the solution.

Room for improvement

Just last year, international travelers at Boston's Logan Airport were waiting up to three hours in order to get into the country, according to the Boston Globe. This is enough time to watch the first installment of The Godfather, and still have two minutes to spare. Unnerved by the unreasonable delays, state congress appealed to the feds for an increase in the number of staffers present at customs. Uncle Sam heard Boston's cry, and with the help of more customs officials, brought down the average wait to 50 minutes, just shy of an entire Game of Thrones episode.

"Notoriously long wait times might discourage international tourism."

And it's a good thing they did, too. The Globe explained that the Massachusetts Port Authority had been making great efforts to attract more international travelers to Boston for some time, and had been succeeding. In the first five months of 2015, the airport saw 200,000 more international passengers than in the same timeframe a year earlier.

It's possible that the increase in international traffic had a direct impact on longer wait times. Regardless of the reason, local businesses claimed that the notoriously long wait times might discourage international tourism in Boston, which would hurt certain markets in the historic city.

Long story short, super long waits in customs have a much farther reaching effect than meets the eye.

Could customs be automated?

For the time being, Logan Airport was able to ameliorate its ungodly wait times by increasing staff. However, simply beefing up the number of customs agents as needed isn't always the most efficient method for solving the problem. Furthermore, it's not necessarily a lasting fix. In fact, CBP was looking to bring on 2,600 more agents in August 2015, and the Globe noted that the number of international visitors flying into Logan was only expected to increase.

One possibility for a more permanent solution to expediting customs lines is through the installation of self-service kiosks. O'Hare International Airport in Chicago was the first to leverage these tools, and several other hubs, including Logan Airport, followed suit. Only U.S. and Canadian passport holders, or travelers with Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) – a prescreening requirement for travelers from certain countries – may use Automated Passport Control to pass through customs.

The self-service kiosks will ask many of the same questions that are in the Customs Declarations Form. Travelers will then scan their passport for authentication, have their fingerprints read and their picture taken. At this point, a receipt will print out which must be shown to an officer with the passport at a checkout area.

Smart authentication is the key

"ePassport technology and biometric scanners are hugely important to the system."

According to Traveler, it's too early to fully assess whether or not automatic passport kiosks will save a significant amount of time in customs. However, this much is clear: Authentication, and specifically ePassport technology and biometric scanners, are hugely important to the system.

The kiosks must make sure not only that the passport is authentic, but that the person scanning it is a match with the virtual identify of the holder. This ensures that travelers are who they say they are – a job that is traditionally handled by a human being. 

However, as ePassport technology continues to improve in step with automation tools such as self-service kiosks, airports across the globe are likely to start relying more heavily on trustworthy authentication tools at the border.

The only caveat of this is that you can no longer cross epic motion pictures off your "movies to watch" list while waiting in line at customs. But it's worth it if it means getting to your destination in a more timely manner.   

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