Jade OC, a long time reader and commenter of MFT, has graciously posted a detailed comparison of his experiences passing through both US and Japanese airline security and immigration checkpoints as a comment on an earlier blog post on the subject. As I suspect that many of our readers look only at the actual posts and not the comments, I thought I would promote this one to the front page.
As promised, here is my short report on the fingerprinting-immigration process in the US and Japan from the POV of a non-citizen of either (though a resident of Japan).
First big complaint. I never wanted to go to the US at all, at least not the first time. But you cannot bloody transit in the US – there’s no such thing as a transit lounge. Everyone who enters a US airport from outside the country, even if, like me, you are just taking a flight to Canada in about 90 minutes, needs to go through Immigration and Customs. This is seriously Fucked Up.
So I arrived at DTW and the queues were so long that they actually allowed us aliens to line up in the US Citizens queue. The immigration check was surprisingly thorough considering I wasn’t staying (I can get an I-94W Visa Waiver at least….). I was flying on to Canada, and the guy asked how long I would be in Canada. “None of your goddamn business, you’re not Canadian Immigration,” I so wanted to reply, but alas – I am a wimp. But he wasn’t too harsh – had a quick convo about the importance of visiting NZ over Australia, at least. The fingerprinting worked well, one finger at a time, and didn’t seem nearly as intrusive as I expected – almost sci-fi, in fact.
I had to go through Customs, pretty much pro-forma, and recheck my bag, which wasn’t too much of a hassle, then go through the infamous TSA (Totalitarian Sadists Authority) security check. I was prepared for it, wearing shoes easy to get on and off. It was a stupid process, but aside from the shoes thing, no worse than any other x-ray check thing. The agents were professional and efficient. I also kept my mouth shut, which helped. There is also no discrimination between Domestic and International flights, at least at DTW: they can all be accessed equally. BTW, getting through the x-ray at Narita was much the same sans the shoe thing, and I was definitely able to take an empty bottle through to fill up airside.
I do have to say that Canadian Immigration/Customs was one of the most pleasant I have ever been through – friendly and chatty, and the place was just about deserted.
Getting from Canada to the US was interesting, in that the US is obviously so paranoid about those Canadian terrorists that you aren’t even allowed on the plane until you have gone through Immigration. US border inspection while not in the US. The fingerprinting here took a bit more to ‘take’ – I had to rub my right finger in what looked like a small square petri dish, and was probably just as good at growing bacteria. The lady there also pressed my fingertips down, and it took a bit longer to read. Again, the US asks more questions of people coming in than any country I can think of – it’s easier to get into the People’s Democratic Republic of China.
Leaving the US is always very simple – too simple, really – there are no exit formalities at all, which is stupid. If they want to make sure people leave the country before they are supposed to, then they should at least check that they have left.
Getting back to Japan was very easy. For one thing, almost everyone on the flight was connecting to other flights, mostly going on to Beijing (same flight). And it must have been the time of day (3:00 pm) but the place was practically deserted. There were indeed lines for re-entrants, and there was literally no one else lining up – I could walk straight up to the guy and hand him my passport and gaijin card. The prints were done simultaneously, as Joe noted, but the guy (a ‘trainee’) didn’t even shift the camera, and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t looking directly at me. Both prints took immediately, and whether or not I had been conditioned by the US experience, it didn’t really seem that intrusive.
What was intrusive was when I arrived at Narita on the Keisei Express (not the Skyliner) to leave the country: got through the passport check that everyone goes through, only to have a cop come up and demand to see my passport again. While he is copying basically everything in it down in longhand on paper, which has similar notes for various other terrorist suspects – I mean gaijin – I asked him what this was about. Some lame excuse about the upcoming summit. I asked him if he checks Japanese, and he said they get checked ‘above’, presumably meaning the vehicle entry check. Dodgy in the extreme. And pointless – by the time he had finished his shift and ran my data to determine that no, I was not likely to bomb the place (especially as I am not a local farmer), I could have gone anywhere. Very annoying, and I was only able to keep my temper as he was both very polite and well armed, and I make it a rule never to argue with people with guns.
So that’s it really. The fingerprinting on either side was not a serious hassle, though the second time into the US did take a bit longer than ideal. US Immigration authorities hate everyone. The TSA checks (and I got SSSS leaving WDC) were polite and professional, though their system was insane (the guy ahead of me in the SSSS line was a 70-yr old white guy, about the least likely terrorist you could imagine). The fingerprinting on returning ‘home’ is annoying but on a more intellectual level – it’s possible giving returnees their own line could make it the fastest of the lot. Certainly the actual processing was very quick – scan passport, scan visa/re-entry 2D barcodes, and stamp. So given that, the US system needs to be able to do both fingers at the same time, and the grilling doesn’t need to be as long or rude (one Chinese guy coming in on a new student visa was getting the hard word), but the actual fingerprinting itself didn’t really bother me as much as I expected, on either side.