Waiting in a Customs Line? You Might Want to Put Your Phone Away

How—and when—to use your phone while passing through immigration to avoid penalty.

Overhead view of three lines of people waiting to go through customs

Putting your phone away is one of the easiest ways to help customs lines move more quickly.

Photo by Josh Denmark

Last month, as my international flight was landing at San Francisco International Airport, the flight crew made an announcement to remind us not to use our phones until after we had cleared passport control. And then on the way to the immigration lines, I saw a “no phones” sign, and I suddenly wondered: Why not? I mean, we use our phones in nearly every other sector of our lives. Why can’t we use them while waiting in a painfully long customs line? (Although with Global Entry, I rarely wait in line anymore—worth every penny!)

I suspected that it had something to do with security protocols. But what, exactly? To clear up the mystery, I spoke with Greta Campos, a deputy executive director at U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Can I use my phone in the immigration line?

The short answer, shockingly, is yes. Despite the flight crews’ warning—and the signs—“U.S. Customs and Border Protection does not prohibit use of phones while you’re waiting in the immigration line,” Campos says.

There are, however, caveats. You are prohibited from taking or making calls and from recording video or audio in restricted areas, Campos says. At the airport, restricted areas include the booth where you’re actually being interviewed by a CBP officer and places where the CBP does more extensive exams, such as luggage searches.

You are also not allowed to record (video or audio) those around you for reasons of security and privacy. And if a security concern arises, a CBP officer may ask people to put phones away, Campos says.

While waiting in line, you’re free to text, browse the web and social media, play games, or anything else to pass the time. Campos notes that you can technically make a phone call if absolutely necessary but asks that you be respectful of those around you (i.e., no speakerphone calls, which should be obvious but . . .). And if you are on the phone, she says, please, please pay attention to what’s happening around you.

“I think we’ve all been in that situation where we’ve been on our cell phones and we don’t hear instructions,” Campos says. “While that sounds like it’s not a lot of time, when you add that up over 20, 30, 100 travelers . . . that extra 5, 10 seconds actually makes a huge difference.”

If it’s allowed, why do the customs signs still say “no phones”?

At one time, there may have been a restriction in place (CBP won’t confirm or deny), which is why you may still see some signs in airports. But CBP is actively promoting Mobile Passport Control, an app that allows people to create profiles with their passport information before traveling so that CBP has your passport information before you get to the booth. And for that, obviously, you’ll need to use your phone.

As for those flight crew announcements, like the one that I heard, airlines and airports may have an ulterior motive, Campos says. When people are on their phones and not paying attention, it adds that 5 or 10 seconds to every person that needs to be processed. “That 5 seconds times 30,000 people makes a big difference,” she reiterates. Airlines, of course, tend to unload a big pile of people at one time, many of whom have connecting flights. And they want those people to move through customs as quickly as possible “so that then they can turn around and go back out.”

Are there any other customs restrictions?

Remember that Customs and Border Protection is legally allowed to search your phone even if they don’t suspect you of wrongdoing, so if you have sensitive data or information, you’d be wise to power down your phone and keep it tucked away until you’re through customs.

In addition to using your cell phone judiciously, make sure you have all the correct paperwork (customs forms and valid passport), and take a good look over everything you’re carrying with you. There are numerous items, such as certain foods and handicrafts, that could require additional inspection and possible fines.

In the end, none of us wants to pay in either money or time while we’re in the middle, or at the end of our travels. Which means that the next time I’m stuck in a long immigration line, I think I’ll tuck my phone away and bust out a good paperback.

Aislyn Greene is the associate director of podacsts at AFAR, where she produces the Unpacked by AFAR podcast and hosts AFAR’s Travel Tales podcast. She lives on a houseboat in Sausalito.
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