This is the sixth in my series of stories from our recent vacation. You can read the earlier entries here.
I’ll wrap up this series, logically, with our return to the United States, through the absolute mess that is the Customs and Border Control checkpoint at Newark Liberty International Airport.
In retrospect, when we first started booking our trip, we should also have applied for Global Entry, the CBP’s program that speeds things up dramatically upon re-entry, in much the same way TSA Pre gets us through security domestically. Unfortunately, by the time we thought of it, we were too close to our departure date to have all our details processed, so we were stuck in the regular, ridiculously slow line with everyone else. Instead of breezing through in 5 minutes, it took more than an hour and a half to re-enter our own country.
First, we joined the queue for Automated Passport Control. With a name like that, you wouldn’t think there would be much of a backup, despite there being over 200 people in line. Unfortunately, travelers were not allowed to approach any of the 28 kiosks unless CBP personnel pointed us to them but, of course, there weren’t enough people on duty to do that, so quite often, the kiosks stood empty and the line didn’t move. At one point, a supervisor came out and shrugged as he told returnees, “We were overwhelmed.” What, you didn’t know a bunch of planes were coming in from overseas full of people who’d have to go through this process? How is that possible?
When we finally got to the kiosk, it asked us the same questions we’d already answered on the form handed out on the plane, regarding where we’d been, what we’d brought back, etc. I mean the exact same info. Turned out we never needed the written form once we had pushed the right buttons on the kiosk.
When we’d accomplished that task, after 45 minutes, we assumed we could leave, but no. We had to join another queue to see a Border Patrol officer (one of only two on duty, again despite the crowd). That took another 40 minutes, just so we could get our passports stamped. Were we done yet and free to exit? Not yet!
Next, all of us walked down another hallway to the exit queue, where we had to hand over the printed receipts we’d gotten from the kiosk to more officers. It took another 10 minutes just to get through that and finally get to an exit door.
Total time: 95 minutes.
Along the way, not one CBP agent or officer greeted us, welcomed us back to our homeland, or gave us as much as a smile — unlike at all three of the European airports we’d passed through in the previous two weeks. What made this worse was the understaffing, which meant dozens of entry point booths went unused, which is what created the backup in the first place. Ridiculous.
Of course, it could have been worse. We could have been separated from our families and put in cages with mylar capes to keep us warm.
If you missed earlier entries in this series, you’ll find them here.