Near Yellow Mountain

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Crossing the Line

One experience common to all international travelers takes place shortly after you exit the plane. In some cities like Singapore the walk through passport control and customs takes place so efficiently it goes almost unnoticed. In other places, like LA or Washington, the experience can be grueling and add two hours or more to your trip. Although each country has its own procedure for granting permission to enter, there is usually the common element of waiting behind a line before your passport and luggage is checked.

I like the sheep analogy

After more than two decades of international travel and adding hundreds of stamps to my passport(s), I feel reasonably well qualified to comment on the topic. Although the basic procedures haven’t changed that much over the years, improvements in technology and the rise of terrorism have certainly changed the experience.
In the mid-1990s, when I first started traveling to Hong Kong, the only unpleasant aspect of the trips was the period between getting off the Cathay Pacific 747 and getting into the waiting hotel car. The immigration hall at the old Kai Tak airport was hot and crowded. Getting to the front of the line was how I learned what it would have been like to play rugby. A small price to pay to visit Hong Kong.
Of course, landing at Kai Tak was always exciting given its close proximity hundreds of apartment building. You could literally see people inside their living rooms and kitchens on final approach. Kai Tak closed in 1998 – check out the old BBC video on YouTube

Hong Kong now has a modern, if less exciting, airport with rapid immigration procedures.

Never a dull moment landing at Kai Tak

I visited Singapore on my first trip to Asia shortly after an American teenager named Michael Fay was sentenced to a good old fashion caning for theft and vandalism. The warning on the Singapore landing card that states in bold letters “DEATH FOR DRUG TRAFFICKERS UNDER SINGAPORE LAW” didn’t strike me as terribly welcoming. I was a little concerned getting on the plane. In fact I left my “Wrigley’s” in the Hong Kong airport because I didn’t know what the punishment was in Singapore for “gum” traffickers. My worries were wasted energy. I found Singapore to have the fastest and friendliest entry procedures I have ever encountered. Who else has a jar of fruit candies at each passport counter?  Singapore is a great place to spend a few gum-less days.  Despite the severe appearance of landing card warning, the city is friendly, modern and has great service.  Nobody does Christmas decorations better than the people of the ”Lion City”. 

Merry Christmas - Singapore style
 I have flown in and out of Japan more than any other country. When I was a resident of Japan, my resident (aka “gaijin”) card allowed me to enter the country via the Japanese line – always fast.  After my period as a “card carrying gaijin” ended; entering Japan was still relatively quick and effortless but required a little planning. There are certain passports (I will not name them) that draw more scrutiny from Japanese authorities than others. You never want to enter the foreigner immigration line with a 747 load of citizens from one of these unnamed countries in line ahead of you. I learned the hard way – I think I could have read “War and Peace” before I got to the window on the unhappy day I learned that lesson. In any case, Japan gets a five star ranking for passport control and customs clearance.

A lesson on "giving the finger(s)" at Narita Airport
My impression of Australians is that they are a generally friendly, low key bunch. After more than a dozen visits, I still believe that with one exception. The customs people in Australia seem to me to put the “A” in the country name – “A” for anal that is. I understand their “island nation” argument as to why they worry so much about what is brought into "Oz" that could cause issues with their ecosystem. On the other hand, Japan is an island nation and they don’t do the over the top searches and inquisitions. My dopp kit has been searched several times "down under". Like most global travelers, I carry pills for diarrhea, colds, etc. Sometimes the labels on the packages get worn. Even when  it is obvious what the item is, if the label isn’t perfect; say goodbye. Aussie Border Security also seems to think “heroin” is spelled “Sudafed”.  Ok – I know what some of you are thinking - Japan probably has as more regulations than Australia. The Japanese are just much more pleasant about how they handle their procedures. Even when I have had an OTC med in my bag and been inspected in Japan, there has never been an issue. I actually had friends have their unopened box of tea bags seized at customs in Australia. #lightenupmate

Maybe Australia Border security should focus on their job instead of their reality TV show

I have a theory that Australia and Germany have an exchange program for customs people. I always expected Germany to be efficient and tough with respect to entry procedures but after more than 50 trips through Frankfurt, I have never had an unpleasant experience (except for a two mile walk between gates on occasion when transiting) and gotten a lot more friendly service in Deutschland than I have in Oz. I still love Australia except for entering and exiting.

One of my favorite procedures for getting inspected was the old “button game” in Argentina. They no longer do this but when I first started going to Buenos Aires,  as you exited customs, you pushed a button – if the light turned green, you could go. If the light turned red, you were inspected. I got a few reds over the years but it never took long to complete the inspection. Unfortunately, the button went the way of $1 Malbec.  
Finally, I am glad I am American because with the Global Entry program entering the US is a breeze. I put my right hand on the fingerprint scanner, smile for the camera and head out. I have never had to wait for a Global entry kiosk.  The application fee is the best $100 I ever spent. Unfortunately for non-citizens and Americans without a Global Entry card, entering the US can be a huge hassle. Many of the US gateway airports are simply 3rd world operations. LAX is a national embarrassment where it can take over 2 hours to get through customs on a regular basis. Washington Dulles operates like a government project run amok. We owe visitors an apology for the sorry state of many of our airports but there is no excuse for the slipshod way we handle the entry procedures for visitors. The US still seems to use "security" concerns after 9/11 to run an inefficient, overstaffed with under-qualified people operation. Anybody who travels overseas frequently learns that there are better ways to run immigration and security than the US does.

Wall Street Journal depiction of summer at US entry checkpoints
 Just as the service on US airlines has fallen behind competitors from Asia and maybe a couple in Europe and the Middle East, except for Global Entry and TSA Pre, the US government has failed to use technology effectively at our airports. I look forward to the day when I don’t have to apologize to my overseas friends for the hassle it is to “cross the line” in most American airports.