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Inside SeaTac airport; behinds the scene Customs and Border Protection

I was lucky to join a behind-the-scene’s tour of the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) operation at SeaTac International Airport. (The tour was organized for local members of the American Immigration Lawyers Association). We spent about two hours going through the airport with senior supervisors from the port. Here are a few take-away points I thought might be helpful.

These folks are professionals

Many of our clients have had very frustrating experiences with CBP, and the agency is very far from perfect. But I left the tour extremely impressed with the professionalism and dedication of our hosts. Our lead tour guide – whose name I’m withholding here as a courtesy – was one of the most well-spoken professionals I’ve met in any capacity. In answering a question about CBP procedures he began with a quote from Greek literature. Does this mean CBP never gets it wrong? No. But I left more optimistic than when I arrived that there is room for productive engagement with the agency.


That security line you face when you’re trying to get to your plane? That’s the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). Like the name implies, the agency is primarily concerned with ensuring the safety of travelers. By comparison, CBP is charged with ensuring that people have legal authority to enter the US (admissibility), and that the stuff they are bringing is allowable (customs). TSA agents are mostly not law enforcement agents, but almost all CBP officers are. Obviously still follow the directions of TSA agents.

Out-bound inspections

If you don’t do a lot of international travel you might not have seen it. Happened to me on a recent flight to Asia and I was surprised. CBP will randomly (or not so randomly) conduct pop-up inspections as planes are boarded. The inspection takes place in the gangway, while you’re boarding the plane. For purpose of our clients, CBP is mostly looking for visa-overstays. Likewise while TSA agents are not primarily responsible for screening immigration status, they do sometimes spot issues at security checkpoints that raise their suspicion. If this happens they can call over a CBP officer. Bottom line is that there is a risk that a person who has overstayed their immigration status will get caught on the way leaving the US.

Automated Passport Control (APC) units

When you arrive on an international plane at SeaTac you’ll end up in a long line at CBP’s “primary inspection.” Some classes of travelers get to use a new automated system, referred to as APCs, to shorten their screening time. Who gets to use the APCs?

  1. U.S. passport holders;
  2. Canadian passport holders; and
  3. Visitors from Visa Waiver Program countries, traveling with Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) approval, who have been to the U.S. before.

Travelers go up to the APC, which scans their passport, photographs the traveler, takes a fingerprint, and asks a series of questions (in one of 16 languages). The machine then prints a slip of paper which the traveler takes to a CBP officer at the exit booth, along with the person’s passport. So if you fall into one of the above groups, make sure you’re not waiting in the wrong (long) line!

Mobile Passport Control

Is CBP getting hip? Looks like it, because there is now an app to help some people skip the passport line – it’s called Mobile Passport Control and is available on iPhone and Android. This free app lets you start the passport-checking process while you plane is still taxiing to the gate. To use the app you have to – well, first you download it – set up an account and answer questions to get approved by CBP. When your flight lands you answer questions about your trip on the app, and the app displays a bar code (called a QR code) that is scanned by a CBP agent. But the kicker is that you can skip the long primary inspection line and take a special express line for app users. How cool is this?

Get Global Entry or NEXUS

If you travel a lot and are a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident (LPR) please consider applying for one of these programs. (You don’t need a lawyer to do it – there, I said it). Canadian citizens and permanent residents can also qualify (NEXUS only). Either program gives you the ability to hop the line at SeaTac and at land border crossings, putting you in a fast-track lane. Check out the helpful chart here to learn the difference between the two programs. NEXUS applications can take a long time, because there is a required interview and not many slots available. Important gossip: there is a rumor that NEXUS interviews may no longer be offered in Seattle in the future. Currently they are offered at Boeing field, but the Canadian border patrol officer stationed there may be moved. So now would be a really good time to apply if you’re considering it.

Best time to fly

Inspection lines at SeaTac can eat up two hours or more at busy times – yikes! So when’s the best time to travel? Our CBP tour guide recommends before 10:30 a.m. or after 2:30 p.m. Regardless of when you fly you’ll cut down on the line using one of the time-saving strategies described above. But even people who get in the express line for immigration inspection will be tied up when they collect their luggage and have to go through another CBP inspection.


And while you’re collecting your bag at the international departures area, take a look at the huge mural on the wall. Notice the hidden inspection widows behind it? Now you’re in the know.

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