If you've disembarked a large cruise ship in Port Everglades you know that they've got that process down to a science. You also know that this doesn't mean it's a quick process getting 6,300 passengers through customs. Today's announcement that Port Everglades will be the first cruise port in which US and Canadian citizens can utilize the Mobile Passport Control app promises to change that - but will it work?
The Mobile Passport Control app is available for iOS and Android and after a quick download, you can essentially enter in your information and answer the questions you're accustomed to answering on the blue customs declaration form. Using the app means less paper, which is always nice and it might even be easier for passengers, but Port Everglades and US Customs and Border Patrol also tout the increase in processing speed - something that would certainly be welcome to both cruise ship passengers and everyone else involved in the process.
Support for this app and process (which you've been able to use at major US airports for some time now) begins Friday at Port Everglades, just in time for the arrival of the Harmony of The Seas, the world's largest cruise ship, who will be calling Port Everglades home. Other large vessels are also handled at this port, such as the Harmony's sister ship, Allure of The Seas - and you can bet many other large ships from various cruise lines will bring thousands of guests each visit, ready to use whatever tools are available to smooth out and speed up the disembarkation process.
Will It Actual Make A Difference?
While this story made lots of waves today, likely on the heels of Harmony of The Seas much-marketed arrival, whether this will actually make any palpable difference remains to be seen. When you use the app, you still have to wait in line for a customs agent to scan your phone's screen, which will then present the agent with your passport information (you'll still need to hand over your passport) and your responses to the questions you'd have otherwise checked off on your customs declaration form. I suspect agents see a green light right away if you answers don't merit further discussion, saving them a second or two of looking at your form, but even at scale, I'm not sure this is enough. Forms are generally completed for each household, and if we estimate that the average household on an Oasis class ship (like the Harmony) is 3 persons, that's 2,100 declaration forms. If 1.5 seconds is saved with each use, then even 3/4 of passengers used Mobile Passport Control, that's just 39 minutes saved for the entire ship. That isn't nothing - but hardly matches the reports of "the end of long lines at Port Everglades." [See our December 2016 update below]
What You Can Do To Speed Things Up
For the record, I think the folks at the cruise lines, Port Everglades, and US Customs and Border Patrol do a fine job, but again, we're working with some big numbers here, so how can it be made easier? Right now there are two ways you can make your disembarkation as quick and smooth as possible.
First option, hire a porter. Even if you can carry your bags through customs just fine, the $5-10 you'll tip a porter can be quite helpful, as they get to skip much of the line. Why? It's an arrangement many ports make, as the porters wouldn't make any money if they could only handle a couple passengers each morning. Skipping the lines ads value to the service and enables them to collect tips from many passengers each morning.
Second option, Global Entry (GE). If you're a US citizen (and if you're not, you can't currently use the Mobile Passport Control option either), and you travel frequently, you may want to consider looking into the Global Entry program. Follow the link to read more, but in short, you pay $100 (per applicant), schedule an interview at a US CBP office, and if all goes well, GE is tied to your passport and your given an ID card. This allows you to use automated Passport Control terminals at many major US airports, skip the lines, and save a ton of time. This option is generally only available at airports, but at Port Everglades cruise passenger can use Global Entry to speed up re-entry (currently no other ports support this). At the port however there aren't actually terminals, you simply get to skip the long lines and go to a dedicated agent without the need for a porter. Global Entry also provides TSA Precheck benefits and is good for 5 years, so to me, this is a no brainer if you travel a lot and qualify for the program.
*December 2016 Update*
As initial feedback comes in from those using the Mobile Passport Control app, it seems that it has indeed been quite a time saver, but for reasons different than what might be expected. Passsengers leveraging the MPC app at Port Everglades are being sent to a different line than those using the traditional paper customs declaration form. Because only a small percentage of persons are using the new app, this line has been significantly shorter. This means that for now, you might be able to save some time with this app, but as the program becomes more popular, the benefit may wane. Let us know your experience with the new app!
*March 2017 Update*
The Mobile Passport Control app is now available for use in PortMiami. We saw a separate lines for users of the app while disembarking Navigator of the Seas and while there were a decent number of people using it, most guests were still using the paper slips, so use of the app did seem to be a time saver. If you're a frequent international traveler however, we still recommend Global Entry (or whichever similar expedited entry offering your country of origin offers) - PortMiami and Port Everglades both have separate lines for persons with Global Entry as well.