I have long maintained that the worst aspect of flying from Australia to the USA isn't the 14 hours in the air — it's the hideously lengthy queue to get through customs and immigration when you land. Recent technological improvements mean I might have to revise my view.
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Most people who fly from Australia to the USA don't need a specific visa — instead you need an ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization), which you apply for online. You need to do this at least 72 hours before you fly (it lasts for two years). Travellers regularly show up at the airport without an ESTA and often get away with applying online right there, but it isn't guaranteed. When I checked in for my flight yesterday, the Qantas check-in agent told me the ESTA site had been down for seven hours, which had caused mild panic for some people.
Ever since the ESTA came in, the amount of paperwork you've had to fill in to enter the US has been reduced to a single customs form. However, that hadn't cut back on the length of the queue as each individual traveller was processed. I was gobsmacked by this the very first time I flew to the US some two decades ago (I was in the queue behind Jacki Weaver, fact fans), and it hasn't changed in the intervening years.
I'm normally seated near the front of the plane and I stride through the airport at a ludicrous pace, but I could always confidently assume the process would take at least half an hour, and an hour wasn't unheard of. The only upside of this long wait was that you could be confident your baggage would be on the carousel by the time you descended. Nonetheless, it also meant that I used to allow a minimum of four hours between landing and any connecting flights. By the time you allow for delayed departures, that long queue and then needed to clear security again for domestic flights, anything less seemed risky.
That scenario was very much in place when I flew to the US in May, which was (somewhat uncharacteristically) my last journey there for almost six months. When I broke the drought and flew into Los Angeles last week (en route to San Francisco), the old "everyone in a queue" system had been replaced with a huge bank of kiosks. If you had an ESTA, you used a kiosk instead — a much faster system.
As it happens, I have to travel on a visa (all journalists heading to the US need one), so I couldn't take advantage of the kiosks. But I still got the benefit, because hardly anyone was using the visa queues. I waited behind two people. That has never happened before — 20 has usually been the minimum, and 100 or more isn't unheard of.
My flight last week was the very first one into the Tom Bradley International terminal, so that didn't make it clear whether other flights arriving would jam up the system. However, today I landed in Los Angeles again (yes, too much flying) at 0930 in the morning, and the system was equally smooth. There are lots of tricks you need to know when travelling to the USA, but it looks like entry hassles have dropped a long way down the list.
I don't know whether those systems are in place in Dallas and San Francisco (the other cities directly accessible by air from Australia). Update: it seems Dallas has this too, which is good news.
I can imagine that if you came into LAX just behind a flight from a country where everyone needed visas for the US, the queues for that part might still be lengthy. But for the most part, the system seems very much quicker, and I'm grateful. I might even slice my recommended time between transit flights down to three hours.
Lifehacker Australia editor Angus Kidman only just noticed that his visa will need renewing soon. His Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears each week on Lifehacker.