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2017 Customs Airport Wait Time Study: Smaller Airports Lead While Lines Grow at Major Airports

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Nobody enjoys going through customs after traveling abroad. If you don’t already have Global Entry or another trusted travel program, you could find yourself waiting in line for 30 minutes or more before entering the United States. Is the wait long and miserable at every airport, or do some airports get you through faster than others?

We asked the same question, and looked at 12 months of data to find the answer. To determine the best and worst in airport wait times, we looked at the average wait at airports that processed over 500,000 international passengers between October 2016 and September 2017, based on data provided by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. We ranked among the full set of airports as well as a subset of the busiest airports that processed more than 3 million international passengers.

Key findings

  • Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport has the fastest customs lines among the busiest U.S. airports that process more than 3 million international passengers a year, with an average wait time of 7.4 minutes. Charlotte Douglas International Airport came in second, with an average wait of just under 9 minutes, and Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport rounded out the top three with a time of around 10 minutes. If you don’t want to wait in line, plan to come home through one of these three airports.
  • Orlando International Airport is the worst of the busiest airports to clear customs, with an average wait of over 23 minutes and a maximum wait of nearly one hour. San Francisco International Airport was second worst, with an average wait time just short of 22 minutes, followed by John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York with an average wait of 20 minutes.
  • Among airports of all sizes, Sacramento was worst with an average wait time of over 32 minutes, while San Jose saw the biggest increase in wait times, more than doubling from the prior year to over 22 minutes.
  • Don’t plan trips for July and August – otherwise, you’ll wait 17 minutes on average to get through customs. If you want to beat the crowds, fly in February (average wait: 13.97 minutes), March (average wait: 14.53 minutes) or November (average wait: 14.8 minutes). We’ll break down the shortest and longest customs lines in this article.

The best and worst wait times at major airports

With flights coming in from 22 international destinations, Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport offers the shortest customs lines with an average wait of 7.4 minutes in line. However, the airport does not offer many international flight options, with only two nonstop flights to Europe, and the remainder split between Canada, Costa Rica and Mexico – of those, 9 are seasonal.

By comparison, Charlotte Douglas International Airport offers direct flights to 30 international destinations: 6 European cities, Canada, the Caribbean, Cuba, and Mexico. Even though they were busier, the American Airlines hub managed inbound passengers the second best among major international airports, with an average customs line of 9 minutes. But you shouldn’t arrive between 9 and 10 a.m., because it can take almost a half-hour to clear customs during the busiest hour.

In a big surprise, America’s busiest airport by passengers had the fourth best wait time among large airports. At Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the average customs wait time was just over 10 minutes. On the downside, when lines get long, they are among the worst: the average maximum wait time is nearly one hour.

If you live in Florida, try to avoid arriving through Orlando International Airport. Of the nation’s busiest airports, Orlando had the worst average wait time at customs. Although your average wait time is around 24 minutes, plan to stay longer: 35% of flyers wait over 30 minutes and the longest wait times are over 52 minutes.

And if your trip from Asia or Australia arrives at San Francisco International Airport, prepare to kill time at customs. San Francisco is the second worst airport for customs, with an average wait time of at least 20 minutes. If your flight arrives at 4 a.m., be prepared to wait even longer: the average maximum wait is just under one hour, and 3 of every 10 flyers wait over a half hour. John F. Kennedy Airport was the third worst airport for getting through customs. Your average wait time to clear customs is just over 20 minutes, and if you arrive after 1 p.m., expect your wait to be almost an hour.

The best and worst wait times at all airports

Among airports of all sizes that processed at least 500,000 international passengers in the last year, smaller airports saw more extremes – with some like West Palm Beach and Chicago Midway topping major airports for shorter wait times, while others like Sacramento saw longer wait times than even the busiest airports.

If you are coming from the Caribbean or Central America, you may want to consider booking your return flight to Palm Beach International Airport in Florida: the average wait time to pass customs was just over 5 minutes. Even at the worst arrival time of 7 a.m., you can only expect to spend 11 minutes in line.

If you are flying home from Mexico or Toronto and want to clear customs fast, consider flying to the Second City’s second airport: Chicago Midway. The average customs wait was almost 6 minutes, with a maximum average wait of 18 minutes when arriving at 11 a.m. Phoenix Sky Harbor was third – beating out John Wayne Orange County Airport in Santa Ana, Baltimore-Washington International Airport and San Diego International Airport.

Atlanta was also one of the fastest airports for customs when compared against all airports we studied, ranked 10th. Part of that could be attributed to less visitors flying to the airport: the National Travel and Tourism Office reported a 21 percent drop in foreign visitors arriving to Atlanta in 2016.

While the big airports are bad, the worst overall cities for customs airport wait times are Orlando and San Francisco. Both of Orlando’s airports – Orlando International and Orlando Sanford – ranked in the top five of the worst customs wait times. Between them, your average wait time at customs is nearly 27 minutes, with an average max time of 53 minutes. What’s worse, 60% at Orlando-Sanford and 35% at Orlando International wait over a half hour to pass customs.

If you are arriving at the airports serving the San Francisco Bay Area, plan on waiting at least 20 minutes to clear customs. San Francisco International Airport, Mineta San Jose International Airport and Oakland International Airport all ranked in the top ten worst airport wait times, with a collective average wait of around 22 minutes and an average max wait of just under one hour (51 ½ minutes). While one in three will wait over a half hour at each airport, the worst arrival times are different at each destination: don’t fly to San Jose between 7 and 8 a.m., San Francisco between 4 and 5 a.m., or Oakland between 11 a.m. and noon.

Over half of the longest customs lines were found in California, with Sacramento International Airport being the worst of all. The average customs wait at the capital city is over a half-hour, with lines growing to over an hour long between 4 and 5 p.m. Fresno Yosemite International Airport and Ontario International Airport also made the top 10.

Most and least improved airports

The good news is your customs airport wait time dropped at several busy airports.

Orange County John Wayne Airport in Santa Ana saw the biggest reduction year over year, with wait times dropping 68% to an average of under 8 minutes. Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport and Chicago Midway Airport each dropped over 60% as well, rounding out the top three.

Other airports among the busiest arrival points also saw great improvements, including Baltimore-Washington International Airport (56% decrease, 8.95 minutes average wait), and Detroit-Wayne County International Airport (45% decrease, 14.81 minutes average wait time).

As for the bad news, the worst airports saw even longer lines.

At San Jose International Airport, customs airport wait times increased by 117% during the summer months, with the average line climbing beyond 22 minutes in length, and 1 in 3 passengers waited over a half hour to get through. Las Vegas McCarran International Airport was second worst in the summer, with nearly a 100% increase in airport wait times for international arrivals year-over-year.

In Orlando, the worst wait times got even longer. Your average wait times at both of Orlando’s airports grew compared to 2016: Orlando-Sanford airport wait lines grew by 80% while waiting at Orlando International grew by 55%. At both airports, you can expect to spend more than 22 minutes in line, with the busiest wait times growing to over 40 minutes.

Other airports with increased airport wait times include Honolulu International Airport (44% increase, 16.55 minutes average wait) and Miami International Airport (30% increase, 19.98 minutes average wait).

The best and worst months to plan a trip

It comes as no surprise that your longest customs wait times are during the late summer and early fall months. If you plan on traveling abroad between July and September, get ready for a wait: in July and August, the average wait time was over 17 minutes, dropping to just over 16 minutes in September. The spring months of April and May also had long waits, with average wait times climbing beyond 16 minutes.

When is the best time to travel abroad? If you don’t want to wait at customs, plan a trip in February or March, with average wait times around 14 minutes. The end of the year also saw the fastest lines as well: the average wait to get through customs during November and December hovered around 15 minutes.

How to beat the customs lines

If you don’t want to wait at customs, your best bet is to join a trusted travel program like Global Entry. For $100, you will be able to use Global Entry kiosks at select airports and earn TSA PreCheck status. Global Entry requires a background check and in-person interview with a CBP officer at a select port of entry.

However, many premium credit cards offer a credit for enrolling in Global Entry. The credits are only good for Global Entry – you can’t apply for NEXUS or Sentri and get the credit.