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5 ways to beat the queues at airport immigration

Most of my blog articles use my knowledge of market research software, but, as someone lucky enough to have flown all over the world, I thought it was time to share my knowledge of how to get through immigration as quickly as possible without cheating – well, not too much. So, here are my five tips that might save you hours because, in my view, there’s nothing worse than waiting for a long while at immigration, especially after a long flight. My record is 4.5 hours at Narita Airport in Tokyo. Of course, much of what is covered here may apply to security and leaving a country.

Be alert

Before giving you any tips (although this is arguably one of them), you need to be alert. After a long flight or even after a short flight, it is easy to switch off and follow the crowd. In my experience, the crowd is not usually that reliable, so let’s look at how you can gain an advantage.

Tip 1: Know the airport

The first thing is to do some simple online research. How does immigration work? Is everyone funnelled through one area or are there more areas to go through immigration. Most people will take the shortest distance rather than the quickest option. For example, at Bangkok Airport there are two immigration areas, which are almost next to each other. Yet, most people will take the nearer option. I’ve seen queues of 30-45 minutes in one of the areas and less than five minutes in the other. Similarly, at Dubai Airport, the security serves a block of gates. It doesn’t take long at many gates to walk to the next security point and find it almost empty.

Tip 2: Pick the right queue

If there are several queues, many people join the nearest one. If everyone is joining queues from the same direction, the farthest queue is likely to be the shortest. Walking maybe 50 metres may halve the time you take to get to ‘the other side’. When choosing your queue, take a look at how many immigration officers are serving each queue. Quite often, you will find that two officers are serving one queue, while only one officer is serving another. Simple arithmetic tells you that one queue will take twice as long.

Tip 3: Keep access to desks that may open

Often when you arrive at immigration, you will find some desks open and some closed. Sometimes, desks will open as your flight arrives or there is a fresh influx of passengers. This is particularly true if you have arrived on a big plane like an A380. If you stand in a queue that has other queues either side of you, you cannot take advantage of another desk opening, which may magically halve the length of the queue where you are waiting. If you stay alert and watch out for officers coming on duty, you might be able to gain an even bigger advantage.

Tip 4: Beware of winding queues

Many airports like to use zigzag queues which go one way then the other. I hate these queues. You keep meeting the same person as you zigzag your way to the front ten times (or more). If there is more than one zigzag queue, check to see whether the same number of people are in each row of he zigzag. I recently spotted one zigzag which held about ten people per line while the adjacent zigzag held just six — no prizes for guessing which one moved fastest.

Tip 5: Any chance of using special lanes

Queuing can be boring, but it can be even more boring for the staff looking after the queues. They tend to be either highly officious or almost comatose. If they are the latter, you have chances to make some good ground. First of all, look to see if there are any special fast lanes for diplomats, aircrew etc. If they look quiet, ask if you can use it. They might say no. A better question, therefore, is to ask ‘is this the diplomat channel?’ They will often say it is and invite you through assuming you are a diplomat. The immigration officer probably will not care and, if he does, you can tell him that the staff member said you could go through (which he or she did effectively), which is easy particularly if the queue organiser has gone.

Bonus tip: Be alert

Yes, I’ve already advised about being alert, but look at the detail. I recently saw a huge queue for non-nationals of the country I was arriving in. As I was about to join the queue, I suddenly noticed two desks which had a board saying ‘all passports’. Sure enough, I went through immediately, missing a queue of about 500 people served by two desks. 500 people had decided to follow the crowd. The officials working at the ‘any passports’ desks were quite happy to have an easy time, it seemed.


I can’t claim 100% success, but if you are polite, friendly and look reasonably smart, you are more likely to get more favours at airports. There’s no harm in politely asking if you can use a queue for nationals only, for example, if it is quiet at that queue. You can even make a pathetic excuse like saying you are very tired. It will work more often than you might expect. If there are several staff organising queues, take a look at their behaviour and try to judge how willing they might be to help. Above all, don’t give up.

Finally, a funny story

The best con trick I have ever seen was at Mumbai Airport. The passport control area was full; you could hardly move. Getting to the passport control desks to leave Mumbai entailed pushing your way and being crushed to reach one of the two open gates. As I got near to the front after an hour’s jostling, we were told to stand back as someone was coming through in a wheelchair. Everyone cooperated as the wheelchair came through. The airport helper took the gentleman through one of the open gates and started to wheel him towards the passport desks. Suddenly, the startled helper saw that his customer get up and walk out of the wheelchair to the passport desks. Now, that was finding a way to beat the queues!

Phil Hearn
Author: Phil Hearn - Date posted: 11 September 2019
Tags: Tips, Skip, Queues, Airport, Immigration

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