This free line-cutting app could save you hours at the airport

A month ago, I flew from Paris back to Baltimore full of despair: My vacation was over, and the trip home seemed to take an eternity.

Then I saw the snaking line for customs and immigration.

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What could have sunk me into a deeper woe actually revived me, because I didn’t have to wait in that soul-sucking purgatory. I didn’t have to wait in the shorter but still well-populated Global Entry line, either.

Instead, I headed to a third option that most people miss: the Mobile Passport Control (MPC) line. Thanks to this secret national treasure, I was out of the airport and hailing my Uber in 8 minutes. (I timed it.)

You, too, can experience this completely free VIP treatment the next time you fly internationally. Here’s how.


What is Mobile Passport Control?

Think of Mobile Passport Control like a fast pass for international travel. It’s a free service that allows select travelers to access a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) express lane with a smartphone app.

To be eligible, you must be a U.S. citizen, a lawful permanent resident, a Canadian B1/B2 citizen visitor or a returning Visa Waiver Program traveler with approved Electronic System for Travel Authorization.

You can only use the app when returning from an international trip at an MPC-approved site. That currently includes more than 30 U.S. international airports, 14 pre-clearance locations (among them airports in Abu Dhabi, Aruba and Ireland) and four seaports.


Why don’t more people use it?

While you’ll see signs promoting Mobile Passport around those sites and sometimes ads on in-flight entertainment systems, most people aren’t taking advantage of the service. Just 8 percent of eligible travelers used the app in the 2024 fiscal year, according to CPB spokesman Aaron Bowker, though that’s a 50 percent increase from the year before.

The company Airside Mobile originally developed the app and launched it in 2014, first at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. Awareness of its powers seemed to spread mostly by word-of-mouth and some signs around airports. In 2022, CBP officially took over the app, launching an updated version that left the original defunct. Some travelers missed the memo and figured the service had been discontinued when their app no longer worked.

But CBP is invested in the program’s growth.

“We’ve expanded the population of travelers that are able to use it. We’ve started to educate the airports. Airports have started to put in a better queuing system,” Bowker said. “And so we’re expecting to see this continue to increase.”


How Mobile Passport works

First, download the Mobile Passport app from the Google Play Store or Apple App Store. Unlike line-cutting services like Global Entry or TSA PreCheck, MPC doesn’t require preapproval or an application process. Even if you forget to do it before your trip, it’s so quick to set up, you can install it as you’re walking up to customs.

When it’s time to pass through, eligible travelers can just fire up the app, answer the standard few questions about their trip that they would at a customs kiosk, take a selfie and proceed to a dedicated Mobile Passport lane, where an officer will confirm their details and wave them through. Individual travelers and families of up to 12 people can use the app at once.

It makes me feel like a fancy diplomat - not someone who just spent 12 hours in economy - every time I use it.


Mobile Passport vs. Global Entry

Mobile Passport and Global Entry both promise a faster airport experience. Both also come with pros and cons.

One MPC downside: While it’s completely free to use and rarely has a line of more than a few travelers, it’s not at every airport. And Mobile Passport lanes may not always be available even in places that claim to offer it.

CBP spokeswoman Corey Daboin said the agency is aware of that problem. Sometimes, issues are due to infrastructure constraints - some airports may not have the lanes available to operate MPC continuously - or management. The agency stresses, however, that Mobile Passport is a priority, and “we are working on making that so it’s not an issue moving forward,” Daboin said.

If you fly internationally and your home airport doesn’t have MPC yet, Global Entry is a great option. It does cost $100 and requires an application and interview process. But it also comes with a TSA PreCheck membership and is good for five years - plus it’s still light-years better than waiting in that endless regular line.

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