The first blog I ever wrote, in January 2012, was prompted by the angst I felt when, on arriving at Heathrow Airport’s Terminal Three, I faced an almost hour-long wait to gain entry to the UK (see Heathrow Terminal Three – Welcome to the Third World).
At the time I was struck by how banana-republic so much of our Western public infrastructure has become, especially when compared to those places that we arrogantly like to refer to as “the third world”. Not long before that particular visit to London I had travelled to Bogotá, Colombia (20 minutes to enter that country) and Almaty, Kazakhstan (15 minutes to get in there).
Plus, I live in Singapore, a place that sets the standard when it comes to efficiency, and where sometimes it takes me less than seven minutes to get off a plane, go through immigration, collect checked-in luggage, and hop into a taxi. Whilst in the UK, USA and Australia a 45 minute wait is to be expected, in places like Singapore or Beijing or Bangkok a wait that long would be considered a major catastrophe, and which might even result in the person responsible losing their job.
A few days ago I arrived into London from Brussels, landing again at Heathrow Terminal Three. There I was met, no surprise, with a packed entry hall, tired-looking border officials, masses of irate travellers shuffling forward at the pace of arthritic snails, and a fifty-five minute wait. Obviously during the last eighteen months, the authorities at Heathrow have done nothing to shape up their act. Even though I blogged about it!
Still, for once, this ineptitude did not irritate me. Why? Because compared to an even worse recent experience, Heathrow Terminal Three seemed a picnic.
You see, about three weeks before I had travelled to Miami. There, to my horror, I was met with a five-hour long immigration queue – most certainly the longest queue I have ever encountered in my life. Even the queue for Space Mountain at Disneyland on the 4th of July is shorter. And just in case you think I am exaggerating, let me repeat: at Miami International Airport, a major gateway to the supposedly first-world of the United States of America, the wait to get through immigration was five hours.
How could this happen, you may ask? Well, apparently, Miami airport has reduced the number of personnel on duty at any one time, in response to recent budget cuts. Meaning that on the Sunday afternoon I landed there, a grand total of nine passport officers were handling the arrival of thousands of incoming passengers.
So it was complete mayhem. The immigration hall had over-flowed, with queues of dishevelled passengers snaking all the way down the corridors of the airport, almost right back to the doors of the planes. If Heathrow Terminal Three is a Third World experience, there isn’t even a scale on which to rate how bad Miami’s airport was. All I can say is that I’m guessing arrival into Baghdad’s Saddam International at the height of the Gulf War would have probably been a quicker, marginally more pleasant experience.
Anyway, standing in line at Heathrow the other day, with nothing better to do, I tried to calculate how much of my life has been spent waiting to get through immigration. I figured something in the order of four months. This was a downright depressing thought, and so instead I quickly moved on to thinking of all those times I had managed, by hook or by crook, to beat the queues. This cheered me up a bit, and I realised then that I have accumulated much useful information on this subject, which I really ought to share. So here is my list, of top tips on how to speed your way through immigration.
Tip One: Lie, Cheat, Kill – Do whatever it takes, but get into the Priority Lane.
Just about every airport has a Priority Lane at passport control, which is always better than the regular queue. Access is usually restricted to First and Business Class passengers carrying passes handed out on the plane. But usually a bit of creativity and pre-planning can get you into this queue. While still on board, beg a friendly flight attendant to give you a pass. Check your wallet: often high-level frequent flyer status or platinum credit cards holders are allowed to use this line. Another option is to attach yourself to a fellow passenger with access – you will never be turned away if you are accompanying someone. Or simply walk into the Priority Lane with confidence, like you belong there, and if anyone calls you out, lie. Tell them you lost your pass, got mugged, tortured in a CIA prison, or abducted by aliens – whatever works. And if all else fails, kick up an almighty fuss. Nine out of ten overworked airport employees couldn’t give a fuck anyway, and will let you through just to avoid a scene.
Tip Two: Be a Diplomat.
Sometimes, when even the Priority Lane is long and slow, the only line moving is the Diplomatic Channel, almost always empty, off to the side, and often hidden from view to the regular plebs. Here, if you have diplomatic credentials (or when in Indonesia, if you have a passport stuffed with a few notes of diplomatic cash) you can breeze through in an instant, smiling and tossing your hair as you go. As an added upside, diplomatic immunity means you won’t be searched, so if you happen to have a few cocaine-filled condoms jammed up your arse this is definitely the right queue for you. The downside is that to use this line, generally speaking, you need to be a diplomat. Which, unless you are a very high-ranking one, is a sucky dead-end job with shitty pay. True, you might wind up working in New York or Paris, but you could just as easily find yourself assigned to Addis Ababa, Caracas or Irkutsk, in which case a long queue at immigration is going to be the very least of your problems.
Tip Three: Pretend to be a Diplomat.
Now, while not all of us can be diplomats, we can all pretend to be diplomats. But to pull this one off you need (i) a very official looking piece of plastic that references a foreign Government, (ii) a dumb-as-shit airport employee, and (iii) brazen chutzpah, given that in some places impersonating a diplomat is a criminal offence. On my recent arrival in Miami, for example, the five-hour queue meant I had no choice but to resort to this extreme gambit. Luckily for me, access to the Diplomat Channel that day was being supervised by a fellow who, in evolutionary terms, was still half chimpanzee. I promptly whipped my APEC card out, and waved it under his nose. The Neanderthal studied it closely before pronouncing: “this isn’t a diplomatic passport”. No shit, Sherlock, but I held my nerve, pointing out that this was an official card, issued by the official Government of Australia, and it said I was an official member of the Asia-Pacific Economic Conference, which was a really, really important official Government organisation, didn’t he know? It worked. Based on nothing but hot air, I was waved into the diplomat queue. I think the bona fide diplomat who got stuck in line behind me was slightly peeved, but I was out of there in under fifteen minutes, which is all that matters in the end, isn’t it?
Tip Four: Don’t look like a Terrorist.
I am a swarthy, Mediterranean-looking type. If I haven’t shaved for a few days, I begin to resemble a card-carrying member of Al-Qaida. And no matter what politically-correct bull airports feed you publicly, racial profiling is absolutely how they do things. Trust me, I know. Whenever I am shaved, with my hair neatly brushed and wearing a suit, I am never selected for screening. At worst, officials might ask me a few banal questions before stamping my passport and waving me through. But show up in crappy clothes sporting a three-day growth, and I am invariably selected to be frisked, wiped down for traces of explosives, and interrogated at length. It’s a simple rule: dress well, shave, and don’t look like a terrorist. Follow this rule and the shmuck in line behind you will be the one detained for a “random” anal probe, not you.
Tip Five: Be Disabled.
In November last year I broke my ankle (see my previous post A Hospital in Hawaii). This was a singularly miserable experience, although it did teach me a very valuable lesson: the disabled get through passport control real quick. Initially I thought this was only seriously disabled folks – like when I was in a wheelchair, and got whipped through immigration as if on a magic carpet. But later, while hobbling around on crutches, and even later in my recuperation, while merely limping, it was still astonishing how often a sympathetic airport official would see me, take pity, and lead me right to the front of the queue. It seems the ability to be disabled is a very effective queue-busting technique. So put your morality side, and start packing a bandage and lightweight knee brace in your hand luggage. You never know when you might need it…..
Tip Six: Be Pregnant.
Approach a pleasant-looking airport official. With a pained puppy-dog look on your face, tell them you are in your first trimester, are suffering from horrible nausea and about to throw-up, and so could they please help you to skip the queue. (An equally effective variant on this ploy is to say you have just started your period). I assure you, especially if the airport employee you approach is a male, they will not dare question you. Even if they don’t believe you, they will be thinking to themselves: “What will happen to me and my job if, God forbid, what she says is actually true and I didn’t help her?” Obviously trying this if you’re a man won’t get you very far, but hey, in some cases women have an unfair advantage in life, so get used to it.
Tip Seven: Shamelessly Use Your Kids.
Travelling with kids can often be a pain. If those kids are of the whinging, whining, crying, temper-tantrum throwing sort it can be a downright nightmare. Except, that is, at immigration. Here, let them run wild, encourage them to terrorise other passengers in the queue, and if you are unfortunate enough to be blessed with perfect little angels, consider pinching them until they cry. For your part try to look completely frazzled, and perhaps even throw in a few tears of frustration. It might sound a bit excessive, but I have observed it time and time again: nothing will get you pulled out of line and rushed to the front of the queue faster than a posse of unruly, out-of-control little ones. If you don’t have any, consider renting some.
Tip Eight: Speak a Foreign Language.
Approach the Priority Lane or Diplomat Channel, and when stopped by whoever is controlling access, shrug your shoulders and pretend you don’t understand, responding to any questions in a foreign language. If you look sweet, confused and innocent enough, they will probably let you through (refer Tip One above: most overworked airport employees really couldn’t care less, and will do what’s needed to avoid an uncomfortable scene). Slightly off-beat languages are best (Finnish, Estonian, Afrikaans etc), as there is less chance the airport employee might speak it, too, which would completely ruin your day. And don’t be so stupid as to use any language that sounds vaguely like Arabic (refer Tip Three above: Don’t look like a Terrorist) or this particular strategy is liable to back-fire terribly, and before you know it you might be getting the third degree while spread eagle in some dingy airport back-room, or worse.
Tip Nine: Fly Somewhere Else.
The ultimate way to cut the queue is not to experience it in the first place. Really savvy travellers know which airports and terminals are notorious for delays, and avoid them like the plague. I was telling a colleague about my recent experience in Miami, expecting some level of kudos for having talked my way into the Diplomat Channel. He, on the other hand, was less than impressed: “Serves you right – why would you bother with Miami anyway? You could fly into Fort Lauderdale, go through passport control, collect your luggage, and drive to Miami, and you would still get there faster. Better yet, just go somewhere else, like Houston.” (Umm, not sure about this last one – see my recent post The Only Four Things You’ll Ever Need to Know About Houston).
Tip Ten: Whatever you do, don’t piss off the airport staff.
Like it or not, in the queue they are God, and can fuck up your day just for fun if they really want to. So don’t give them the excuse.
Sometimes, it doesn’t matter how hard you try, you are going to stand in a queue. That’s life on the road. Buy a book, do a crossword, listen to your iPod – the time will pass, and you’ll have another story to tell. But don’t be a masochistic dickhead and deliberately upset the already exasperated and overworked airport staff. All you’ll be doing is giving them a reason to single you out for specific punishment. Sure-fire ways to earn their hatred: insult them, raise your voice, or say something truly obnoxious like: “don’t you know who I am?” Trust me, I know from bitter first hand experience – unless you happen to be George Clooney, this last one will absolutely not help your cause. Instead, you will find yourself subject to intense questioning and intentional misdirection. Queues will mysteriously close as you approach them, and passport officials will, equally mysteriously, need a toilet break just as you finally reach the front of the line. And if you push it too far (like utter even a single swear word) you might find yourself arrested by airport security. Admittedly, this will get you through immigration pretty quickly, but is a high-risk strategy, unless you don’t mind spending your first night in a new country cuddling up to drug mules, refugees and illegal entrants of all sorts. You have been warned.
So there you have it. Standing in line at the airport is for mugs. Armed with my top ten tips on how to beat the immigration queue, you now have no excuse, and most times you should be able to find a way through in record time. Let me know how you get on, all donations happily accepted.