United States border preclearance
The United States operates border preclearance facilities at a number of ports and airports in foreign countries. They are staffed and operated by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers. Travelers pass through Immigration and Customs, Public Health, and Department of Agriculture inspections before boarding their aircraft, ship or train. This process is intended to streamline border procedures, to reduce congestion at ports of entry, and to facilitate travel between the preclearance location and U.S. airports unequipped to handle international travellers.
Preclearance exists at most major Canadian airports. Arrangements also exist with some airports in Bermuda, The Bahamas, Aruba, two airports in Ireland, and one in the United Arab Emirates. When travelers from a preclearance port arrive in the U.S. they do so as domestic travellers but are still subject to reinspection at the discretion of Customs and Border Protection.
Preclearance applies to U.S. citizens as well as citizens of most other countries who travel to the U.S. As United States and Canadian laws require that those in transit must pass through the relevant customs (unlike many other countries, which permit airside transfers), preclearance also applies to transit passengers.
Reasons for implementation
This process is intended to streamline border procedures, to reduce congestion at ports of entry, and to facilitate travel between the preclearance location and some U.S. airports that may not be equipped to handle international travellers. However, with the exceptions of LaGuardia and Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, many more US airports now have customs facilities compared to when the preclearance program first started in 1952.
US and other countries who engage in the practice have been accused of being motivated also by the desire to prevent the arrival of asylum seekers, who are protected under the 1951 Refugee Convention's non-refoulement provisions once they arrive at their destination.
Benefits and drawbacks
This is particularly beneficial to those who have an ongoing connection (such as a connecting flight), as there is no risk of border delays causing them to miss their connection. (A corresponding drawback, however, is that a delay in preclearance could cause the passenger to miss the outbound flight.) Air travelers with further connections have their baggage checked through to their destination; without preclearance the baggage would have to be collected prior to customs inspection and then rechecked onto the subsequent flight.
Preclearance also provides considerable flexibility to the airlines operating in those routes where such a program is available. For example, major U.S airlines and their subsidiaries routinely operate many daily flights from locations like Toronto or Nassau to New York City. Thanks to the presence of preclearance facilities in Toronto and Nassau, the airlines can choose to conveniently direct their flights from these locations to land at LaGuardia Airport instead of John F. Kennedy International Airport or Newark Liberty International Airport. This allows them to save the valuable space at JFK and EWR for their other international arrivals.
Preclearance exists at most major Canadian airports, theoretically enabling more convenient travel from those cities to the U.S. The waits at some busy preclearance facilities, notably Toronto Pearson, can also often exceed the waiting times of non-precleared flights at the destination and cause significant delays to departure schedules. With the notable exceptions of LaGuardia and Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, many more US airports now have customs facilities compared to when the preclearance program first started in 1952. Reduced staffing levels by US Customs and Border Protection have been blamed by airport authorities, whose pleas have been answered with deferrals due to domestic priorities. NEXUS and similar programs are now being explored and expanded as a means to try to restore some of the original convenience to the preclearance process.
These facilities exist because of agreements made between the federal government of the United States and the governments of the host countries. Travellers who have passed through the U.S. government checks, but whose flight or ship has not departed, remain in the legal jurisdiction of the host country. U.S. officials may question and search travellers with the passenger's permission, but they do not have powers of arrest (either for customs or immigration violations, or for the execution of outstanding warrants), although they can deny boarding. Local criminal laws apply, and are enforced by local officials. Some countries have laws in place specifically to cover preclearance issues. Since CBP does not have legal powers on foreign soil, passengers can only be detained for local laws by local authorities. A passenger can choose to abandon their flight and refuse search, and unlike in the United States, officers cannot search them. Most preclearance facilities have a sign explaining this. CBP Officers in the Preclearance Division are not armed while on foreign soil.
Informal preclearance arrangements between the U.S. and Canada began in Toronto, Ontario, in 1952, following a request from American Airlines. This was extended and formalized with Canada's passage of the Air Transport Preclearance Act passed by the Canadian House of Commons in 1974, the 1999 Preclearance Act and with the 2001 Canada–U.S. Agreement on Air Transport Preclearance. The preclearance agreement is fully reciprocal, meaning the Government of Canada has the option of opening Canadian Preclearance facilities in the United States. However, on average, U.S. international airports offer far fewer flights to Canada compared to the reverse, making this an expensive and inefficient proposition that as of 2016 has not been exercised by the Canadian government.
The following Canadian airports operate U.S. preclearance facilities:
- Calgary International Airport
- Edmonton International Airport
- Halifax Stanfield International Airport
- Montréal-Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport
- Ottawa Macdonald-Cartier International Airport
- Toronto Pearson International Airport
- Vancouver International Airport
- Winnipeg James Armstrong Richardson International Airport
The U.S. operates a preclearance post at the port of Vancouver. This is particularly valuable to travellers using cruise liners which visit Alaska or that depart from Vancouver and have a first stop at US cities situated along the west coast of North America.
The U.S. operates preinspection posts for immigration only (customs is still performed upon arrival in the U.S.) at the port of Victoria for both the Black Ball Line MV Coho car ferry service to Port Angeles, Washington and the Victoria Clipper passenger-only ferry to Seattle, Washington, and at the terminal in Sidney for the Washington State Ferries service to Anacortes, Washington.
Per the request of Porter Airlines, a new terminal building constructed at Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport (Toronto island) officially opened in Fall 2010 and includes both Canada Border Services Agency and provisions for U.S. Customs and Border Protection border preclearance facilities, however the latter has been denied by Washington.
In May 2012, U.S. Senators Charles Schumer, Kirsten Gillibrand, Patrick Leahy, and Bernie Sanders sent a letter to President Barack Obama urging him to fastrack the approval of a preclearance facility in Montreal's Central Station that will benefit U.S. bound travelers from having to stop at the train station in Rouses Point, New York for immigration and customs checks whenever they cross the Canada–United States border. On March 16, 2015, the United States and Canada signed an agreement that would allow for such a facility.
On March 16, 2015, US and Canadian officials signed the ministerial-level Agreement on Land, Rail, Marine, and Air Transport Preclearance Between the Government of the United States of America and the Government of Canada, which foresees significant expansion of the scope of preclearance facilities. Under the new agreement, US CBP officers working at US preclearance facilities in Canada will be able to carry firearms.
On March 10, 2016, US and Canadian officials announced that preclearance would become available at Toronto Island Airport, Québec City Jean Lesage International Airport, and Montreal Central Station. The necessary upgrades in Quebec City will take 18 months and $35 million to complete.
Caribbean and Atlantic Ocean
- Aruba – Queen Beatrix International Airport
- The Bahamas – Grand Bahama International Airport in Freeport
- The Bahamas – Lynden Pindling International Airport in Nassau
- Bermuda – Bermuda International Airport
Plans were underway for a preclearance facility to be opened at Punta Cana International Airport located in the popular tourist destination of Punta Cana, Dominican Republic by the end of summer 2009, however as of January 2014 the facility has not opened yet. In April 2011, a team from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security travelled to Jamaica for talks with Jamaican government and tourism officials regarding the prospects of opening future preclearance facilities on the island. In April 2016, plans were announced to open the preclearance facility by May 2017.
The United States Virgin Islands is administered as a separate customs territory from the United States and Puerto Rico. Passengers departing USVI airports for the USA or Puerto Rico pass through US customs and immigration prior to TSA screening. Private aircraft can choose to use preclearance or arrive as an international arrival.
The U.S. and Ireland entered into a preinspection arrangement in 1986. Shannon Airport initially offered only immigration checks, with customs and agriculture inspections done on arrival in the U.S.—a procedure more properly known as preinspection. In August 2009, Shannon opened an addition to its preclearance facility that provided customs and agriculture inspections as well. The facilities at Dublin Airport, like those at Shannon, initially offered only immigration checks on select flights. In January 2011, a section of the recently opened Terminal 2 dedicated to preclearance opened with full CBP facilities. Both airports now allow U.S.-bound commercial flights that use the preclearance facilities to arrive at domestic terminals instead of international terminals, which in turn allows arriving passengers to leave airports upon landing without further inspection. Since March 2010, the Shannon preclearance facility is also available for use by private aircraft; the Dublin facility is only available for commercial flights. Following Executive Order 13769, which introduced a ban on passport-holders of seven countries travelling to the United States, the Irish government announced that there would be a "complete review" of preclearance arrangements.
In December 2011, the government of Abu Dhabi signed a letter of intent to construct a terminal that, when opened, would house a U.S. border preclearance facility. On 6 June 2013, the House passed an amendment offered by Representatives Pat Meehan (R-PA), Candice Miller (R-MI) and Peter DeFazio (D-OR).
The amendment prohibits the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) from using any taxpayer dollars to conduct customs and border protection (CBP) preclearance operations at Abu Dhabi International Airport (AUH). The amendment was unanimously adopted during floor consideration of the FY14 Homeland Security Appropriations bill.  The US customs pre-clearance facility at Abu Dhabi International Airport officially opened on 26 January 2014. A US customs preclearance is currently being planned at Dubai International Airport.
On November 14, 2013, Rep. Patrick Meehan (R, PA-7) introduced the Preclearance Authorization Act of 2014 (H.R. 3488; 113th Congress), a bill that would authorize the United States Secretary of Homeland Security (DHS) to establish preclearance facilities, conduct preclearance operations, or provide customs services outside of the United States to prevent terrorists, terrorist instruments, and other national security threats from gaining access to the United States. Meehan indicated that the goal of the bill is to prevent the Customs Bureau from opening a pre-clearance facility at Abu Dhabi International Airport in the United Arab Emirates: currently just one airline there flies to the United States. That airline is Etihad, a state-run airline. Supporters of the bill wish to avoid giving an unfair competitive advantage that might result from travellers flying on Etihad through that airport in order to take advantage of the chance to be pre-cleared, an opportunity passengers on other airlines would not have.
On March 16, 2015, the United States and Canada signed an agreement to construct a preclearance faciliy at Montreal Central Station. The facility will eliminate a border stop for Amtrak's Adirondack service, and support a future extension of the Vermonter to Montreal.
In May 2015, the United States Department of Homeland Security announced that the following airports will be considered for the expansion of border preclearance scheme — Buenos Aires Ministro Pistarini International Airport, Argentina; Brussels Airport, Belgium; Punta Cana Airport, Dominican Republic; Narita International Airport, Japan; Amsterdam Airport Schiphol, Netherlands; Oslo Airport, Norway; Madrid-Barajas Airport, Spain; Stockholm Arlanda Airport, Sweden; Istanbul Ataturk Airport, Turkey; and London Heathrow Airport and Manchester Airport, United Kingdom. On the 4th of November 2016, Sweden and the US signed an agreement which would make Sweden the second European country, after Ireland, to offer preclearance, although no announcement has been made as to when the service will start. The 4th of November 2016 was also the date of a DHS announcement that 11 more airports in 9 countries had been added to the list of possible preclearance airports: El Dorado International Airport (BOG) in Bogota, Colombia; Ministro Pistarini International Airport (EZE) in Buenos Aires, Argentina; Edinburgh Airport (EDI) in Edinburgh, United Kingdom; Keflavik International Airport (KEF) in Iceland; Mexico City International Airport (MEX) in Mexico City, Mexico; Milan-Malpensa Airport (MXP) in Milan, Italy; Kansai International Airport (KIX) in Osaka, Japan; Rio de Janeiro-Galeão International Airport (GIG) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Leonardo da Vinci-Fiumicino Airport (FCO) in Rome, Italy; São Paulo-Guarulhos International Airport (GRU) in São Paulo, Brazil; and Princess Juliana International Airport (SXM) in St. Maarten.
Ministry of Foreign Affairs of South Korea stated that the Government of South Korea plans to establish the U.S. preclearance system at Incheon International Airport. However, on 15 January 2015, Incheon International Airport announced that it would not introduce the U.S. preclearance after in-depth analysis concluded that such establishment could lead to decrease in sales at duty-free shops, despite the potential income from usage fees remitted for the use of preclearance space.
On 23 May 2015, an Unofficial Member of the Executive Council of Hong Kong, Regina Ip, revealed in an interview that the US and Hong Kong had explored the possibilities "some 20 or 30 years ago" to set up the preclearance arrangements at the territory's Kai Tak Airport. According to Ip, she was dispatched by the Secretary for Security back then, in her capacity as a career civil servant in the Security Branch, to study the arrangements in Canada, but the plan was subsequently shelved because of room constraints at Kai Tak.
On 1 Feb 2017, the Netherlands pulled out of talks with the United States to set up a pre-clearance program at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol because of US President Donald Trump's Executive Order 13769, banning travel to the United States by citizens of certain countries.
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- Woodlands Train Checkpoint (a similar arrangement where Malaysian inbound immigration checks are carried out at the station in Singapore prior to boarding)
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The Netherlands has also been in talks with the U.S. since December about extending pre-clearance to its Schiphol international airport, but on Tuesday it abruptly ended them.