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U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

Know Before You Go: U.S. Customs and Border Protection travel tips for the 2011 Summer Travel Season

John Wagner, Executive Director of Customs and Border Protection's Office of Field Operations, Admissibility and Passenger Programs
Washington, DC
May 26, 2011

10:00 A.M.

MR. WAGNER: Hey, good morning. I’m John Wagner, the Executive Director for Admissibility and Passenger Programs in U.S. Customs and Border Protection. So thank you for coming this morning.

I wanted to take the opportunity to go over a couple of the initiatives we have been doing to make the U.S. arrivals process more welcoming and more efficient for travelers, and then talk a little bit about the specifics and the Know Before You Go Campaign, and then we’ll have questions and answers afterwards.

As you may be aware, or maybe not, a couple years ago with Department of State we kicked off the Model Ports Initiative, and this was designed to make the U.S. arrivals process more welcoming and more facilitative for people, and more efficient from our end as well. Some of the things we implemented at the ports – we did a couple videos that now play at all the primary processing areas on large video monitors at the top 20 airports in the U.S. There’s two videos that we show. One was done by the Disney Corporation and donated to us, which is just different scenes of America and Americans from around the country, with a very welcoming message and theme throughout that.

And then we also have a CBP instructional video which is about seven minutes long, and it goes through the arrivals process from start to finish, about what to expect through that processing, and then what the requirements are. And this is designed to get people informed, to get them ready, and really have them – help them understand what to expect when they arrive and reduce some of that apprehension or fear about that they might have their fingerprints taken, or they might be asked certain questions, or what forms they’ll need to fill out and how to fill out those forms, and how to help them be ready when they do come up to the officer in the booth to allow us to quickly process them and get them on their way and through the process.

We’ve also been working on the signage in the airports. We’ve been working with the airport operators on the physical layout of the buildings and the aesthetics of the building, just to present a more welcoming environment when people come off that plane for the first time. And what they see of America, we want that to be a hospitable and welcoming type atmosphere.

We’ve also designated uniformed supervisors. We call them passenger service managers. We have them out there on the floor during the peak arrivals times, and they’re there to work with the travelers, help them fill out their forms, answer their questions, address any type of situations that arise, and really take care of things as they’re happening in real time out there on the floor, and really to be the eyes and ears of the organization during the arrivals process.

Some of the other things we’ve been doing – we have our Trusted Traveler Programs. Global Entry is the latest one, which we have at the 20 model ports. At the land borders we also have the Nexus and Century programs. And the way these programs operate is a person fills out an application, goes through a series of background checks with us, pays a small fee, then comes in for a personal interview with a CBP officer, we take a full set of 10 fingerprints, check their travel documents, confirm their identity. But then what we offer them is an expedited and dedicated exclusive process for them to use upon arrival in the United States. At the land borders at all the major ports, we have lanes designated for their use and only their use. And they are issued an identification card by us, which also serves in lieu of a passport for most U.S. and – all U.S. and most Canadian citizens as well. There’s an RFID chip in there, and what that does is able to expedite their entry into the United States at the land border.

At the airports, the Global Entry Program offers a dedicated kiosk for these travelers to use so when they come off the plane, they go right to a kiosk. They don’t have to wait in line. The kiosk reads their passport. It will also confirm their fingerprints. It will ask them to put their fingerprints down on a reader. They can do their customs declaration via the touch screen, so there’s no forms to fill out on the plane. It does the systems checks in the background and then it prints out a receipt and they can claim their baggage and hand their receipt in at the exit. So the total transaction time is really about 40 – maybe 45 seconds to process through that. Every time someone uses this kiosk, it also saves us about a minute to three minutes of officer resources that we don’t have to spend time with these frequent low-risk travelers, and allows us to redirect those resources to everyone else to process them through more efficiently as well.

Global Entry is open to U.S. citizens, Canadian citizens, Mexican citizens, and the Netherlands. And we also have agreements in place with Germany, the United Kingdom, and Korea, but we have not opened up those operations yet and we’re working with each one of those countries to also extend the benefits to their citizens as well.

Speaking of the land border and the RFID documents that we put out for the Trusted Traveler Programs, for Nexus and Century, we also work very closely with CIS and the Department of State in the issuance of documents that also have RFID chips in them as well. And what we’ve been doing is designating something called a ready lane at some of the land border ports of entry as well. And they’re designated for travelers just with these RFID-enabled documents. By the way, there’s 10 million of them out there now issued. Some of the state driver’s licenses have these now, too. And what this does, it allows us to read and process the information as the vehicle as driving up to the land border. This way, the information’s ready and it’s presented, the officer has a picture on their screen or who that cardholder is, and all the system inquiries are done before the person even arrives. So it really just allows us to speed up the process and make it more efficient.

We just launched a lane at Otay Mesa in California, and I believe we’ve reduced the wait times by 20 minutes in the first week of operation. So they really have a significant impact on just helping make us more efficient and helping the compliant people get on their way and through the process.

Back to the airports for a minute, we’ll talk about the ESTA program. ESTA is required of all visa waiver applicants. You go to a website that CBP runs, you fill out your basic biographical information, answer a few questions that used to be on the I-94W, the green form. You do pay a small fee; it’s $14. That information is processed by us. We do a series of background checks and then return a response to the visa waiver applicant and whether or not they’re approved. It only takes a few minutes to get approval, and I believe over 99 percent of them are approved. This is a requirement, though, for the visa waiver applicant to have before they travel to the United States. And we work with the airlines to confirm that that ESTA is on file before that person boards the plane to the U.S.

Part of that fee goes to fund the Corporation for Travel Promotion. Then part of the fee also comes to CBP to maintain the program itself. We’ve been working very closely with the Corporation for Travel Promotion. The idea there was to help market the United States as a tourist destination overseas and increase the amount of travel to the United States. We’ve been working very closely with them, too, to make sure we’re getting our message out and that we’re doing things in conjunction with them, and that the U.S. arrivals process is seen as an understandable and welcoming and efficient process.

A couple of other quick mentions of programs we’ve been doing with the private sector at a few airports: Something we started in Chicago and now offer at seven airports is called Express Connection, and we work very closely with the airlines on this. And this is designed for travelers with tight connection times. The airline will identify them, bring them to us. We designate a processing booth for it and we’re able to process them through quickly and make their connecting flights, and we’ll be able to significantly reduce the number of missed connections at the airport and help these travelers make their connecting flight and get on their way.

And the other program is something called One Stop, which we’re piloting at Houston Airport right now, and the way the process works is you come up to our primary inspection area, you claim your baggage, then you go through an egress check at the end. For One Stop, travelers with no checked bags, there’s no need to have them go into that egress point and mix in with the travelers claiming their bags. So we were able to designate a specific exit for them to use. So they go to the One Stop, they’re out a side door, and we’re done with them, they’re done with us, and they’re on their way to their destination.

We have about a thousand people using it a day in Houston, and we’re looking to expand that to additional airports this summer. A lot of it depends on the logistics of the airport and the physical layout of what changes would need to be made to build that designated exit. But that’s something we are going to pursue as well, too, and it helps makes us more efficient as well.

There are a few publications which we’ll be handing out which help us get the information out to people. One’s called the Know Before You Go pamphlet, and then the other is the Welcome to the United States. It’s just a reminder to people of what the requirements are and what the travel document requirements are, some of the agriculture reminders of what you can and cannot bring to the U.S., reminders for travelers to declare everything that they’re bringing in or things that they acquired abroad, especially foods and gifts and any type of articles that they’re bringing into the U.S., and really to help people become aware of the process and be ready when they do present themselves to the officers so we can quickly process them and get them on their way as well.

One final thing we’ll talk about is for small boaters, recreational boaters. We’re in the process of launching the Small Vessel Reporting System. It’s an online application for travelers, can register their small boat with us, and they can file their plans in advance of their trip and allow them to phone in their arrival for further instructions when they return home. We did get this out across the northern border, Florida, and the Caribbean in time for Memorial Day, which is traditionally a very busy boating season for us. So it’ll help all those small boaters comply with our regulations, and help us process through the large numbers of boaters out there.

So with that, we can open it up for any questions.

QUESTION: Good morning. My name is Dagmar Benesova, World Business Press Online. Well, I have a couple of questions if you don’t mind.


QUESTION: Okay. First, you mentioned that there is Express Connection, which is already in Chicago and in seven other airports. Please if you could specify also the other airports where is this Express Connection?

MR. WAGNER: They are at Boston, JFK, Miami, Atlanta, LAX, and there’s one I’m forgetting.

QUESTION: In Washington also or no?

MR. WAGNER: Not yet.


MR. WAGNER: Not yet. Let me get you that final one. I have it somewhere here. I will get it for you.

QUESTION: Okay. Thank you. And I have also questions about the ESTA program. You launch or implement this $14 fee, and my question is: How much money have you collected so far for this fee? And also after implementing the fee for ESTA, do you observe some decrease in applications, or is this – is it the same? Thank you very much.

MR. WAGNER: I’m looking for the latest figure. We’ve had 31 million applications to date that we’ve processed. We have not seen any decrease in the applications because of the fee. I believe it was about 80 to 90 million of what we’ve collected. Ten dollars of that fourteen dollars goes to the corporation to fund the Travel Promotion Act, and then four dollars comes back to CBP just to maintain the program itself. But we have not seen any decrease in applications, and we continue to see a very steady stream of applicants. And this time of year, as travel increases, we are seeing the commensurate increase in applications.

MODERATOR: Okay. Other questions?

QUESTION: Nikolay Zimin, Russian newspaper (inaudible) ITOGI. Sir, could you please clarify one technical thing? This Global Entry program, is it open only for American citizens, Canadian citizens citizens, but what about the green card holders?

MR. WAGNER: Yes, I’m sorry I omitted that. It is U.S. citizens, permanent residents, citizens of Canada, citizens of Mexico, and the Netherlands right now. But yes, green card holders, permanent residents, yes, can apply. We have – in our Trusted Traveler Programs, we have over a million people now enrolled. In Global Entry in particular, we have about – over 650,000 people are eligible to use those kiosks right now. The website’s to apply. We’re seeing about two to three percent of our traffic at the airports now using those kiosks. They are at the top 20 airports, in all the terminals at those airports. We’re getting about 2- to 3,000 uses a day of the kiosks. So it’s a great efficiency saver for us and it’s a great timesaver for the people using it, because if you don’t check a bag, really you can be out of that airport in about a minute to get through the process.

We had – a gentleman at JFK told us that he got from the plane to his car in six minutes using the kiosk, so we thought that was pretty good. We’ve also been getting a lot of assistance from the private sector in helping us market the Global Entry program. The airlines in particular have been sending the information out to their frequent flyers, who are really the target audience for this. It’s that frequent traveler. So they’ve been helping us promote it through their frequent flyer clubs and memberships to get them that information and make them aware of the program.

And then we also had American Express contact us and they offered to pay the fee for all their platinum cardholders, and that brought us about 20,000 applications in two weeks just from that effort. So American Express has been also marketing this for us as well. And we’re seeing the other credit card companies and some of the hotel chains now contact as well. So it’s really starting to catch on, which is good news for us.

Yes, sir.

QUESTION: Zhengzhu Liu from Phoenix Television, Hong Kong. I did find at some major airports that people with (inaudible) sometimes a long line there and waiting for that process there, visa or their entry permission. So sometimes most of the people missing their connection flights. So do you have the schedule to have – do all airports have the experts to handle these visitors with (inaudible)?

MR. WAGNER: Yes, we’re at seven locations right now and we’re trying to expand it as quickly as we can to additional airports. We’re working closely with the airlines because a lot of the work is on the airlines to identify the people with the close connections and then bring them to us and we’ll process them through. But we don’t want anyone to miss their connection either, so we want to make sure we an accommodate that and process people and get them to their connecting flights. So we will be expanding it to additional locations this summer. We’re just in discussions with a lot of the airlines and the airport authorities on how exactly we do it.

MODERATOR: Other questions?

QUESTION: Hello. My name is Grace Lee from the Korea Daily. I’m just wondering whether there are any changes from last year to this year regarding the (inaudible) of any (inaudible) security from any other countries from, you know, like, any changes from last year?

MR. WAGNER: Any changes for?

QUESTION: Like regulating or checking or any other foreign country in a traveler’s –because I see all the regulation now is actually quite similar to the last year’s. So I was wondering.

MR. WAGNER: We did do away with the NSERS program. We put that notice out last month. And basically, it became a redundant process, so anyone that was subject to that special registration, it would take them awhile to process through the port. But we were already collecting all that information from other programs that we already have between the APIS and the US-VISIT process and some of the other systems we have. So we were able to do away with that program.

We did automate the I-94W with the ESTA program so you don’t have to fill out that green form anymore. And that actually made us more efficient in processing people as well, because we didn’t have to process that form. It allowed us to speed up the primary inspection process, and I believe we took about 20 to 25 seconds off of each process of the person just by not handling that form anymore.

We’re looking at trying to automate to I-94, that – the other form, the white form. There’s a few more challenges with that, but we’re looking at that. And we’re just always looking for ways to make the overall process more efficient, so those are the big things we’ve changed.

MODERATOR: Okay, we have a question from New York. Go ahead, New York.

QUESTION: Hi, this is Susanne Lingemann from ZDF German television in New York. And please, could you repeat what makes traveling easier for tourists from Europe? What could I tell them?

MR. WAGNER: Well, there’s several things we’ve been doing. Any visa waiver applicant does need to have the ESTA filled out and approved. And this helps us address and identify any type of document concerns and allows the traveler to take care of that before they travel so they don’t have to do it upon arrival in the U.S. By doing that, also – we’ve also eliminated the I-94W form which speeds up the inspection process upon arrival.

Then we’ve been in discussions with the United Kingdom and Germany about extending Global Entry to citizens of those countries. We’re fairly close on both accounts to open pilots up. We do have the pilot with the Netherlands; that’s a couple years old. They were the first country in Europe to sign up for that. And this allows, then, participants to use an automated kiosk upon arrival in the United States.

MODERATOR: Do we have other questions? Okay.

QUESTION: Hi, it’s me again. If you could please, one more time, specify this Global Entry? How does it work, this procedure, when the tourists or the passengers are arriving to U.S.? Thank you very much.

MR. WAGNER: Yes. They have to be approved first to use it, so they go online to the – our website, fill out the application, which is all their biographical information and some questions about their employment and residence history. We then do a series of background checks on the information. The person comes in for an interview with a CBP officer. That’s done at the airport. They can schedule it separately or in conjunction with a trip. We’ll take a full set of their 10 fingerprints. We’ll also review their travel documents and run them through an interview. This, by regulation, is considered a pre-inspection of the person, and that’s why a CBP officer has to do it.

Through the biometrics, then, on each trip after that, we’re able to confirm that that interview took place, the person is admissible to the United States, they are who they say they are, and they are that low-risk person we’ve enrolled in the program. Once they’re enrolled, then, when they come off the plane, they go right to a kiosk. They do not have to wait in line. They do not have to fill out any forms like the customs declaration. It’s all automated via the kiosk. And they read their passport at the kiosk, it asks for their fingerprints, they do their declaration via the touch screen, it does the systems checks in the background, and then it prints out a receipt which they then hand in at the exit point, and they’re able to process through.

So it takes really about 35 to 40 seconds at the kiosk. There’s generally no wait for the kiosk, so you come off the plane, you go right to it, and you can go right out the door. We have about 135 kiosks at the 20 airports. We’re ordering some more and we’re putting them out as we see the usage increase, so we’re – every day, we look at the numbers to make sure we have enough kiosks out there. And it would do us no good to have a longer line at the kiosks than it does for the regular process, so we want to make sure we’re – we have enough there to process people through.

QUESTION: So, if I could understand – so it is understanding that these – for example, employment background and all this background information you collected before the flight, and they also schedule the appointment at the country where they are actually?

MR. WAGNER: Yes. We collect it. We put it into a system that we own and operate and stays with us. We do our background checks based on that information. And you only enroll one time – you provide that – and then it’s good for five years. So then when you travel, you go right to the kiosk each and every time over that five-year period. And through the fingerprints, we’ll confirm you’re that same person we enrolled.

MODERATOR: Okay. We have a question in New York. New York, go ahead, please.

QUESTION: Yes, my name is Tom Deptula. I work for the Polish Newsweek. And as you probably know, Poland is one of a very few EU member countries with a visa requirement. And it looks like recently you tightened your databases and there are lots of people, Polish citizens, who are called inadmissible to the United States despite the fact they visited this country before, but they had some, let’s say, immigration scenes from the very, very long past. And my question is: Are you going to tighten these regulations in order for them to be included in the Visa Waiver Program?

MR. WAGNER: I’m not aware of anything we’ve tightened specifically to Poland. We’re always reviewing the information we do get in advance through the airlines, through our what we call APIS data, which is advanced passenger information, or the use of the reservation data that we do get from the airlines as well. We do use that and process it and do our systems checks before the person departs for the U.S. It does allow us to identify any type of document discrepancies or any questions and allows that person to resolve that, hopefully before they board the plane and come to the U.S. But we – there’s nothing specifically new that we’ve done just in relation to Poland.

QUESTION: Guido Olimpio from Italy. You mentioned several countries have special treatment, we say. Poland, Germany – correct? England. It’s very strange for me. I study terrorism. And all these countries – from these countries came a real threat for the United States – from England, from Poland, from Germany – September 11. So it’s very strange how you decide these countries from other countries? (Laughter.)

MR. WAGNER: And that’s part of the reason we’ve talked to those countries. And what the arrangements allow us to do – it allows – they’re predicated on both governments doing background checks on their citizens. So what happens is the United States does their background checks on the person. The – say in this case, the United Kingdom also a deep level of background checks on the people. We exchange whether or not that person has met our threshold for disqualification, and then we’ll enroll them in the program. But this gives us greater visibility into data that we ordinarily would not have access to by the virtue of their own country doing their systems checks and not necessarily disclosing the information behind it but whether or not the person raises any concerns of their own as well.

So it increases the security of that, allows that person to be enrolled as a trusted traveler, gives them an automated process to use, which does the same level of checks we do a the officer in the booth. But because they’re a frequent traveler, we just don’t run them through the same routine questioning each and every time, but the systems checks in the background are identical. And it gets them through the process, allows us to redirect more resources to people we know less about, theoretically higher risk, and allows us to focus our attention on that. It’s just a risk management type approach. If we have to make our best guess about which people we check with our finite resources, we want to make the best decision we can about the person we may or may not know the least about, and make sure we’re putting our resources where it’s valuable.

We’ve had the discussions with those countries, partially also because they have programs that they’ve allowed U.S. citizens to enroll in as the reciprocal nature of that arrangement, so U.S. citizens can participate in their country’s programs well. And they know that the U.S. Global Entry member will sit down and discuss with them the types of background checks we’ll do and what we’ve done to make us confident this person’s a low-risk traveler and allow them to use that status to facilitate their entry into that country as well.

QUESTION: After the death of Bin Ladin and the threats to attack the U.S. coming from overseas, did you tighten your inspection of all the foreign visitors coming to the U.S.? Any special measures you’re taking after death of bin Ladin?

MR. WAGNER: Nothing specifically in relation to that, other than a heightened – a general heightened awareness over an abundance of caution. I don’t believe there was anything specifically related to that. We do use our systems and the information we collect in advance to screen all travelers, U.S. citizens or foreigners, through that information the airlines provide to us, and we do run that through our systems and do our checks before the person boards the plane. And then, working with our colleagues in TSA and Department of State and other agencies, we’re able to identify those people before they do board and address whatever type of questions or concerns we may have with that person before they board the aircraft overseas.

We also have something called the Immigration Advisory Program, where we have CBP officers working overseas at 11 locations at the boarding area, which are able to meet certain travelers, verify their identity, verify their travel documents, and then work with the airlines as to whether or not those passengers present a concern to us, whether or not they’ll be admissible to the United States if they do fly them. And it may end up in us making a recommendation to the airline that they don’t board the person and bring him to the U.S. because they’ll be found inadmissible and then they’ll have to bring them right back.

But it also helps us address any type of similar names issues, people confused with someone who might be on one of our watch lists, and it also helps those people with document deficiencies – it can correct them before they travel – or U.S. citizens that might have lost or missing documents, we can help board them and facilitate them as well, too. But we work very closely with the airlines at these locations, and they’ll refer passengers over to us as well that – to check certain documents or check the validity of certain documents and really help them secure who’s boarding that aircraft, is it the right person, is it the true document holder, and then are they admissible to the U.S. when they do ultimately get here? And it helps the airline make that decision.

So we have several things we’re trying to work because we want people to have confidence in air travel. We want people – we want to do our part to help keep air travel secure. We want people to come to the United States. We want to increase travel to the United States. We want to be seen as a welcoming and facilitative process, but there is a very serious and significant security and law enforcement response that we also take because we want people to have confidence when they’re flying the planes that they are safe and secure. So we have a very significant role in keeping that, too.

QUESTION: Just – I will tell my experience. Last year, I went with my family to Mexico. I flew from Baltimore to Cancun, no problem. When I tried to board from Cancun to Baltimore, the computer say you’re not allowed to go. I have visa. I’m journalist. And I was stuck for two hours. Then, they changed my reservation and the computer allowed me to go inside. What’s happened? They say it’s just after you introduced the new regulation, new rules. You remember in April last year, it was a new TSA – I think TSA –

MR. WAGNER: Maybe it was secure flight --


MR. WAGNER: -- process. Yeah, I would have to defer that to TSA on – see, the airline also interfaces with TSA on the secure flight checks, and –

QUESTION: That is very strange. I have visa for four years. I’m journalist. So might be sometimes happens when you’re traveling. You are – I’m Italian. I’m traveling from another third country to the United States. I think the computer – in the computer is a red flag that said: Why this man came from – it says Italian – is traveling from Mexico to the United States? I think the computer said this man is threat, okay? (Laughter.)

MR. WAGNER: It’s not that uncommon, so I don’t know that we would particularly look for that, but –

QUESTION: But it’s – a lot of people told me happened the same story.

MR. WAGNER: Yeah. It’s not that uncommon, so I don’t know that that would necessarily flag something. But really, I have to defer to TSA on what would happen with the secure flight checks as well, because TSA does have a hand in the process as well.

MODERATOR: Okay. All right. Well, thank you all very much for joining us, and this concludes our briefing.

MR. WAGNER: Thank you.


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