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  Edition # 148  
San Francisco, 04-18-2023

Figure [1]: After landing, it's off to immigration and customs

Angelika The last few times we've been flying from Germany to San Francisco, we noticed that we no longer had to fill out a customs declaration form on the plane. Since we always have a lot of stuff in our luggage when we come from Germany and have to list these items on the form, we were initially a bit confused. Of course, there was no clear messaging about this on the plane. Those of you who are familiar with traveling to the United States know that everyone, including tourists, green card holders, and American citizens, must fill out the so-called "CBP Declaration Form 6059B" upon entering the US.

On this form, not only goods brought into the country had to be listed, but the traveler also had to answer a series of questions, such as whether they had food in their luggage or had been on a farm. The question of fruits, vegetables and meat products in the luggage was also to be answered with "no". Usually, the immigration officer then took the form from you, after he had glanced at it, and perhaps asked one or two questions, stamped it, and gave it back to you. A popular question for travelers coming from Germany was always: "Do you have sausages with you?" which of course you didn't. Then you went on to get your luggage, and finally handed the stamped form back to another officer at the exit of the baggage claim.

Figure [2]: Even the New York Times has been wondering about the immigration kiosks.

The last few times we've been traveling, however, it was different. The officer we showed our passport to only asked if we had brought anything from Germany. I mentioned a few things and the officer was satisfied with my answer. I then did some research and found out that most airports in the US are moving away from paper documents. In the style of the EU, they want to rely more on random customs checks, e.g. by service dogs at the baggage carousels, which sniff out unauthorized goods, after which officers pull out suspects and thoroughly inspect their luggage. That's fine with me. After all, it was always me who filled out our family form, and I can really imagine something better to do than rummaging around for a pen after hours in a cramped airplane and do paperwork. However, there still seem to be airlines that distribute the form amongst the passengers of the flight. As mentioned previously, there's hardly anything to be found online on this topic, I'm just telling facts from experience.

Also, right at the beginning of the immigration area in San Francisco, there used to be a barrage of so-called kiosks, which passengers had to use to scan documents and get their photos taken. Those are now gone. Behind the word kiosk was a terminal with a monitor, on which you answered the customs declaration questions electronically and scanned your green card and passport. This was supposed to speed up the entry process, but the machines were pretty clunky and often didn't scan properly or inexplicably didn't accept the documents. The officers we went to after the kiosks often got quite annoyed because it meant more work for them. Not to mention that I had to fill out a paper customs form a few times while standing in line, because the kiosks were out of order.

Nowadays, all international American airports rely on facial recognition. Upon entry, when the passport is shown, the responsible official takes a photo of the face of the passenger, which is then compared electronically with the biometric data stored in the passport document. A photo is taken of anyone over 14 years old, including American citizens. If you have an American passport, the photo is allegedly removed from the database within 12 hours, while for those entering without an American passport, the photo goes into the biometric database of the American agency "Homeland Security". Allegedly, American citizens can refuse the photo. However, what happens then remains unclear.

Something else is slowly disappearing due to digitalization: the entry stamp in passports that foreign travelers used to receive upon entering the U.S. is no longer needed in most cases. This stamp indicated when and where the traveler stepped on American soil, what class of entry they received (e.g. as a tourist), and how long their stay in the country was going to be permitted. Our old passports have many pages with these stamps. The clicking of the stamp was the familiar sound when we stood in line at the immigration counters at the airport. It's a shame, because other countries are also eliminating entry stamps. I still have an old travel passport with DDR entry stamps. A truly historical document.

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Latest update: 03-May-2023