Coming this month to Logan Airport, a not-quite-but-almost-secret express lane in the customs hall that will allow you to skip long lines as you come back from abroad.
Fueled by a free app for Apple and Android phones, Mobile Passport allows users to ignore those ubiquitous paper customs forms (the forms that lead to frantic in-flight queries of “Do you have a pen I can borrow?”) and passport-scanning kiosks at the airport. Instead, the app gives access to a dedicated lane where savvy travelers can simply wave their phones over a scanner like a magic wand and step quickly forward to a customs agent.
It sounds too good to be true, but I promise I’m not trying to sell you a tap dancing unicorn or a rusty bridge. Mobile Passport isn’t a substitute for TSA PreCheck or Global Entry, but as applicants now wait close to a year or more for Global Entry status, Mobile Passport is an appealing stopgap and a promising option for those who break out into hives at the thought of standing in long, snaking lines to re-enter the United States. Unlike Global Entry, which is $100, Mobile Passport is completely free.
An exact date for the Logan Airport launch of Mobile Passport has yet to be announced, but Massport spokeswoman Jennifer Mehigan said in a statement that the technology will be available in Boston this summer.
“A few last details are being worked out between Logan staff and Customs and Border Protection to make sure everything is working correctly before we launch later this month,” Mehigan said.
According to US Customs and Border Protection, the app has been downloaded 380,000 times and is currently available at 15 of the busiest US airports (that number will grow to 20 by the end of 2016). Studies have shown that you’ll spend a fifth of the time in the Mobile Passport line than you would in a regular customs control line.
“Global Entry has become extremely popular, but the wait time for getting Global Entry has grown quite a bit,” said Matt Cornelius, vice president of air policy for the Airports Council International-North America. “But Mobile Passport is, in most places, almost as fast as Global Entry.”
Setting up Mobile Passport is a straightforward process that begins with downloading the app to your smartphone. Next, hold your phone over your passport and the information will be scanned automatically into the app. You’ll be asked to confirm the information is correct. Your passport is now stored to the app. Even so, you’ll still need to carry a physical copy of your passport with you when you travel.
You’re then prompted to create a four-digit password so phone thieves can’t snatch your information.
Finally, go pretty yourself up in the mirror and take a selfie. It’s your Mobile Passport photo ID. You’re done. You can then repeat the process with your spouse and kids. All of your passports will be stored on the same phone. It’s best you do all of this before you leave for your trip. Better yet, do it now, but only after you’ve finished reading this article.
On your way home from your travels, open the app — you don’t need Internet access at this point — tap New Trip, and enter your flight information. You’ll then answer four entry questions to let the government know information such as if you’ve got a packet of seeds from Buenos Aires in your carry-on, or if you’ve been on a foreign farm frolicking with the livestock.
When your flight lands, connect to your carrier or Wi-Fi and open the app. All of the information will be submitted to customs, and you’ll receive a QR code on your phone. That code is what you’ll use when you go through the dedicated Mobile Passport lane.
Look carefully for the Mobile Passport lane (it will likely be the one with no one waiting). You may be steered in the direction of the general line if an employee is unfamiliar with the program. I haven’t used Mobile Passport, but I’ve heard from a few friends who have had mixed experiences with the entry process. Stick to your guns (don’t be rude about it), show your phone, and politely explain you need the Mobile Passport lane. After you scan the QR code, you’ll still need to talk to a customs agent. Unfortunately, your phone can’t do that for you. Grab your luggage, and you’ll scan one more time before you exit.
Mobile Passport isn’t new. It was first used in 2014 at Atlanta International, and according the CBP it has grown popular in traffic heavy airports such as Miami International. Logan may not have the same kind of numbers as Miami, but the customs hall here also sees logjams at peak hours. Earlier this month when I returned from an overseas trip, I saw the haves (those with Global Entry and no lines) and the have-nots (those without Global Entry and stuck in line). There was no in-between.
In the months that you’re waiting for your Global Entry interview, download Mobile Passport and make your return to the United States easier. Even if you’re an infrequent traveler or have no intention of applying for Global Entry, the short time spent downloading Mobile Passport now might save you from frustrating lines later.
Christopher Muther can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.