Why can’t American’s clear UK immigration more swiftly by using our e-gates?

The US has introduced ESTA machines to reduce immigration queues, so why can't the UK?

As your typical moaning Brit (you know the type), we’re one of the first to complain when we land at JFK and have to stand in an immigration queue for an hour. I remember landing in Miami, for the first time, a few years ago, and navigating the longest, slowest immigration queue, taking 3 hours from deplaning until we picked up our bags. And that’s after a long flight and landing equivalent of 1am back in the UK. Agony and exhausting. As you can’t your phone when shuffling forward in the immigration queue, what do you do for 2 hours?

This has become a whole load better since the US implemented their fantastic ESTA system. Flying into JFK has been a breeze, recently. Sign up online, a short queue for one of the machines, which then takes about 10 minutes to process your application.  You simply hand the printed form to an immigration officer and answer a couple of quick questions about why you’re in travelling to the States. Superb.

It’s worth noting that Canada has implemented a very similar system called the eTA (electronic travel authorization), but this does not allow quick access via the self-serve electronic kiosks, which are limited to Canadian and US passport holders.

Recent bad press about UK immigration got us thinking. When England was playing in the World Cup, the lack of immigration officers was so obvious, people were having to queue for 3 hours if you flew in from outside the EU. Bearing in mind this is the first impression of your country and the start of your long-awaited vacation, it’s not a pleasant experience.

However, the UK has its own electronic terminals in the style of e-gates. These scan your biometric passport, check your eyes against what is stored in the passport and then allow you into the country. Sadly though, these fantastic machines, where there’s very limited queueing involved, are limited to UK and EU travellers. If you fly in from the United States or Canada, you have to queue with everyone else in the immigration line.

Heathrow’s chief excutive has spoken recently and said the same thing. We trust our American travellers, we trust their security, so why on earth can’t an American use the UK’s biometric e-gate system?  John Holland-Kaye said “If the Americans aren’t considered safe then no one is – they’re at least as safe as our European partners. What better way on 30 March to show the world has changed than have Americans, Canadians and Australians use the e-gates? You know who is coming to your country, why do we need to treat everyone like a criminal when they get to the border?”.

So, what can you do if you’re an American or Canadian traveller? The most obvious solution is to try and pick a flight which lands when immigration is quiet. Mid-morning is ideal. Most flights land early on a morning from the States or early afternoon. However, unlike in the US, where airports list border control waiting times and the hours (so you can easily see when the worst time is to land – often around early evening), neither Heathrow or Gatwick offer this information.

You can pay the airport directly for a Premium Passport Control service which offers a dedicated line and is limited to only 50 travellers per hour, meaning the likelihood you’ll be waiting long is minimal. But this can get expensive. For a family of four, you’ll be paying £24 just to get into the UK a little more swiftly and, no doubt, you’ll land when the airport is at its quietest and be dismayed to find there’s no-one in the regular immigration queue.

Another option is to become a Registered Traveller which offers pre-clearance and the ability to use the e-gates. This is mostly limited to business travellers who land in the UK, frequently. It requires a UK visa and you have had to previously land 4 times in any UK airport, in the last 24 months, before applying, to be cleared. The service also costs £70 per passport and has to be renewed every 12 months – that’s expensive.

Apart from this, apologies from Short Motivation if you fly here on vacation and get stuck in a long immigration queue! Let us know your immigration experiences in the comments below.


About Author

The co-founder of Short Motivation, Chris originates from a technology background, initially developing software and then migrating to the international magazine industry for the last 15 years. The idea for Short Motivation came from travelling through 2011 and eventually became reality six years later, in 2017.