Customer service at the US and UK borders

I never thought I’d say that customer service is better at the U.S. border than the UK border. Until now.

I’ve recently returned from a trip to Costa Rica, which required connecting flights through Miami. I can’t say that I was looking forward to experiencing U.S. immigration based on past experiences, but this time I was pleasantly surprised. If you travel on certain types of visas or are on the visa waiver scheme with a valid ESTA, your initial clearance is now carried out using automated passport control (APC) self-service kiosks. Get this process right (which I didn’t the first time I used it as one of my fingers slipped off the biometric reader) and you can pass through immigration in a few minutes. Get it wrong (indicated by an “X” on your receipt) and it means that you have to wait in line, but not for too long as the pressure seems to have been taken off the officials by the kiosks.

On both occasions the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) personnel I met were unfailingly professional and polite, combined with good humour. After I’d failed to use the APC kiosk correctly on my first encounter with it, the CBP officer explained to me what I’d got wrong while sharing a joke with my wife (who’d got through APC at the first time of asking). Second time through, on our way back from Costa Rica after both of us had received a clear automated check, the CBP officer who collected our receipts looked at our passports, grinned and alerted his colleagues that the “British were coming (!)”.

Such a contrast to arriving back on Bank Holiday Monday at the UK Border at Heathrow Terminal 3. All of the automated passport gates were out of use as they were being “upgraded”, with a long line of EU nationals waiting to be checked through just two open desks. I’m glad that we were near the front of the queue. Worse, it looked as if all of the UK Border staff had been sent through the Theresa May school of “how to make your face look as if you’re sucking a wasp”. (I remember watching her present medals at the Paralympic swimming in 2012 and she couldn’t have looked more miserable if she’d tried). No smiles, no pleasantries and no obvious humanity present, making the experience a terrible advertisement for visitors to the UK and an unpleasant one for returning UK nationals. Customer service is important – and first impressions are everything.

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