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  • Transit Tangent: Hell to pay at LAX

    Posted by Dr. ARUDOU, Debito on September 16th, 2010

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    Hi Blog.  Now in Calgary after one day (more than that, actually) flying from Narita to Los Angeles, then transferring to San Francisco and finally here.  Redeeming air miles gets you some pretty circuitous flights.

    One of the most frequent questions I get is, “Now that you’ve given up your American citizenship for Japanese, what kind of reaction do you get from US Customs with a Japan passport?”

    Well, actually, up to now, not all that bad.  First time I went back was in 2005 (I never left Japan once between 2000 and 2005; boy that’s hard core), and that was Newark on the way back to Japan after getting to Montego Bay via the Peace Boat.  (The Jamaicans, btw, were so amused by my passport that they took it to the back room for a quick guffaw amongst themselves before letting me pass.)  US Customs gave me a look, asked me what I did in Japan, how long I would stay, and that was it.  I thanked him for the painlessness of the procedure, and spent the night drinking with Rutgers law school grads Curzon and friends.

    Second time was more interesting.  Went to San Jose with my university students in 2006, and the African-American gentleman manning Customs did do a double take, then talked to me in Japanese about where I was going and how long I was staying.  No altercations, no incidents with my students (who didn’t speak much English and were happy to meet that Customs officer), easy peasy.

    Other times also, no real issues.  Taking the train from Vancouver to Seattle in October 2006 (I always wonder why American Customs is allowed to have their border check IN VANCOUVER STATION itself — the Americans certainly wouldn’t allow another nation to plant their Customs flags on US soil), the officer actually talked to me for about ten minutes about potential places to eat and see in Japan (he was going there with his Korean wife in a few weeks); had to break off conversation because the train was about to depart.  Other visits in 2007 and 2008 also passed by without interrogation.

    But this time was different.  Landing at LAX yesterday, a buff tattooed officer did more than just a few double takes, and, in addition to the regular questions about how long, birthplace, and what I did for a living, wanted to know why I was coming in on a Japanese passport instead of an American one.  “Japan does not allow dual nationality,” I explained.  “So you have no other nationalities?”  No.  “Wait a minute, I’m going to have to talk to my supervisor.  I can’t let you in on this passport if you still are an American by birth.”  I let him check, but I’m not sure if he’d get the concept of an American actually renouncing.  He came back and gave me a smile (rare for these people, as you know), and said, “Anyway, welcome back.  Enjoy your stay.”

    It was a nice welcome after all that, especially given the inauspicious beginning of this trip at Narita.  Let me back up a few hours:  When I first checked in at NRT, the ticket clerk asked, “Have you checked in with ESTA?”  What’s that?  “The Electronic System for Traffic Authorization.  Every non-citizen going to America has to check their passports in with the US Government before departure.”  Oh oh.  Er, no.  But I’m only transiting to Canada.  “Doesn’t matter.  Okay, go to the internet terminals down at the end of the hall and check in online.  Should be pretty quick.  You’ve got three hours.”

    So we unpacked my computer, got a day pass for online use, and went to the ESTA site.  It requires name, address, passport, date of departure, airline (hell, there are lot of them, and United was far down the alphabetized list) and flight number, a list of questions you should answer “no” to, the address you will be staying at in the US (no option for people transiting).  And oh, fourteen USD for those who qualify for the visa waiver program.  Credit cards accepted.  Humph.  How convenient, for them.

    I typed in all the info with middle finger raised and got a screen which said, “AUTHORIZATION PENDING:  …A determination will be available within 72 hours.  Please return to this web site…”  That’s where I began to get pretty antsy.  My passport still has my previous surname (Sugawara) on it, and four pages later an official amendment indicating that my surname is now Arudou.  But when we tried to use the automatic check in, “Sugawara” came up in the scanner, with a button to press saying “Is this the same as the name on your ticket?”  (It wasn’t.)  The MOFA hadn’t gotten around to updating their records after four years, I guess.  Maybe that was what snagged me with ESTA.

    I took my computer screen back to the ticket clerk, where he said, “Hm, that’s the first time I’ve ever seen that.  Let me try to see… Oh, look, it’s just come up.  You’re cleared.  Here are your boarding passes.  Enjoy your near-heart-attack.”  Okay, I made that last one up.

    So if the ticket clerk was Charon piloting me over the River Styx, the tattooed Customs officer at LAX was Cerebus at the gates of Hell.  And LAX was indeed a reasonable facsimile of it.  Consider this:  We have to get our baggage, of course, but they came to a different carousel than the one announced on the plane (and there was no sineage saying that the emerging bags were from our flight).  Then I saw a sign saying “Connecting Flights”, waited twenty minutes in line, and found out that it was actually lost baggage claims.  “No no, you go dere, dat line”, said the clerk.  “But that’s not what your sign says.”  “You go dere, dat line,” was the automated response.  So I joined everyone else in an enormous line to hand in the tickets that say, “We are not bringing in any fruits or vegetables or whatever into the US”, which required an individual passport check again with only two people on duty (took about another 45 minutes).  Then I followed the signs to Connecting Flights, got into another line, and was told after another fifteen minutes that I just needed to hand my bags to “dat guy over dere”, since they were already tagged through to YYC (then why the hell did I have to collect them myself, then?).

    Bags stowed, I followed the CF (no longer “Connecting Flights”; more like “Cluster F*ck”) signs, and felt like I had been Barnumed (“Come see the Egress”), as I found myself out on the street!  Some friendly guy came up and asked if I was looking for CFs and directed me down the street and up the stairs.  Then he asked me for a donation (as an Official Airport Volunteer, with embossed name tag) to his orphanage.  I begged off and got upstairs, only to be told by another TSA officer to get into another 45-minute long line to go through Security scanning again!  Finally through that, I was back in the transit zone.  But the LAX lounges looked in a state of permanent decomposition, and the TSA people acted as if they were defending a fortress, and we would be damn lucky if we were let into their compound.  No thanks for our cooperation, no pleases when requesting.  Just, “We’re protecting you, so be grateful.  Or else.”

    And what was the Or Else?  I got a glimpse of it when talking to my Calgarian seat neighbor on the last leg of my flights.  I was noticing how Canadian Customs forms for “Are you bringing any fruits in?” allow for families to write their names on one tag (no individual tags lengthening the line), and don’t even require a passport number!  He said, “Yes, my wife and I have separate surnames, and once we got to the head of the line the US Customs guy said we had to have separate tags.  So he crossed her name off and said, ‘Fill this out and get back at the back of the line.’  I reacted and said, ‘You’ve gotta be kidding.’  He didn’t like that.  ‘You sassing me?’, he said.  I tried to take it back, but he called for an officer to escort me to an interrogation room where I sat alone.  I couldn’t go anywhere — he had confiscated my passport!  So after twenty minutes or so he came in and asked me the standard questions again about where and how long, then let me go to find my wife on the other side.  I don’t say anything beyond ‘Yes sir’ and ‘No sir’ to these people anymore.”  Wow, way to put travelers in their place.

    Not ten hours out of Japan, and I was already missing it.  Customs people (not to mention Narita Cops and their random racial profiling) there can be pretty surly too, but at least things are signposted, and somebody is making an effort to be clear about where you’re supposed to go and what you’re supposed to do.  And the transit lounges, although Spartan, are still clean and reasonably airy.  LAX was, in a word, a shithole.

    I’ve seen it before at other decrepit airports in the US (try JFK), but what a great impression to leave upon visitors to the US — one of decay.  Enough people have complained about Japanese airports (particularly Narita), and there have been improvements (Haneda, Chitose, Centrair, and KIX are all decent if not downright nice, and even Narita has have gotten better).  Japan takes very seriously its impression overseas and works on it.  America just doesn’t seem to care — hey, you’re lucky if we let you into our fortress.  I’m sure Ellis Island too was a shithole.  But at least you only had to go through it once — it’s not a major international hub for citizens too.  What kind of place takes more than two hours to allow people just to get on a connecting flight, and charges them for the privilege?  One that doesn’t deserve my ever going there again.  I got to YYC, got my bags, and was outside and all done within fifteen minutes.  Oh Canada!

    Other American airport horror stories welcome.  Seems like the American airline industry is on a race to the bottom for standards of customer service.  Some airports have already essentially become bus stations.  I look forward to getting back to Japanese standards.  Arudou Debito in Calgary

    36 Responses to “Transit Tangent: Hell to pay at LAX”

    1. Johnny Says:

      Transited twice through LAX in 2001 (prior to 9/11), and it was a pain then. Only reason I was there was to catch a connecting flight to Europe.

      Lined up for an hour went through immigration, got my bags, raced to another terminal to check in again for my next flight.

      Coming from down under, if you want to go to Europe, via Asia is the way to go from a hassle free point of view.

    2. Allen Says:

      Ah, American airports…..got a flight in 60 minutes? Let’s take 59 of those minutes going through procedures! Got some luggage? Its on the other side of the airport! And it got stolen! Yay! You want Hell? We’re gonna give it to ya! We only have your interests at heart. Sincerely, American Airports

    3. Eido Inoue Says:

      The reason why Canadian airports have U.S. customs inside them is so Canadian airlines can fly direct to smaller “domestic” airports in the U.S., which don’t have real immigration controls or infrastructure.

      – I thought as much. But again, reciprocity. I doubt the US would allow this on their soil.

    4. Derek Blais Says:

      I’ve transited through the US over 10 times and I can only remember two positive (more like neutral) experiences. This post reminds me of what I feel every time I transit (via US) to Canada.

      I’ve learned my lesson: get to your destination via other means; avoid the US.

      FYI Detroit was the worst experience in an airport I ever had.

    5. Joe Jones Says:

      I think you’ve got “customs” and “immigration” mixed up several times above. Common mistake, so I’ll let you off the hook.

      LAX is definitely one of the worst transit airports in the US, if only because the terminals are all separated from each other and there is no straightforward way to get between them other than wandering through crowds on the street. San Francisco is much nicer. I’m also partial to Detroit, Chicago and Minneapolis despite their periodic severe weather problems. JFK is a lot better than it used to be, as most of the terminals (with the exception of Delta’s) have been renovated or replaced in the last 10 years or so.

      The Department of Homeland Security is destroying America in many ways, including those listed above. I can only hope that citizens will eventually get fed up with the security theater and the red tape, but for now it seems like rich people have switched to private travel and poor people have switched to staying at home, so there is no core constituency to change anything.

    6. Dosanko Says:

      Debito,

      Actually, the US does allow this on their soil. Under the applicable agreement between the U.S. and Canada, the ability to locate pre-clearance facilities in the other country is reciprocal. Check it out at: http://www.treaty-accord.gc.ca/text-texte.asp?id=103842.

      Derek,

      That’s funny–I was actually going to recommend Delta’s new hub at Detroit as one of the better places to transfer in the US, having used it more than a handful of times this year. When was the last time you transited through there?

      I’ll grant both you and Debito that JFK and LAX, in particular, are miserable places for international arrivals. Moreover, I find myself disappointed and embarrassed by the customs experience in the US in general (even at the “nice” airports). For what it’s worth, though, my single worst experience to date was at YVR a few years back, with JFK this April running a very, very close second.

      – Thanks for the correction. What happened at YVR? It’s my favorite airport.

    7. Kimpatsu Says:

      Not US, but Japan. Flying from Narita to Heathrow last week (I’m writing this from a hotel room in London), it was still35C in Tokyo, but I kndew I’d need a jacket in London, so as I was leaving home, I grabbed my jacket from where it had been hanging all summer, placed it over my laptop case, and took it and my suitcase to the airport. After checking in, I passed through security on my way to departures, and the metal detector beeped, but the smiling security guard (yes, there are a few) waved methrough. It eas only after I had boarded the plne that I found that my kubotan was still in my jacket pocket from before the summer! So I carried a martial arts weapon into the cabin of the plane! Whither security?

    8. Douglas Says:

      Whenever I visit Montreal from Japan I NEVER go via the US – I fly straight to Vancouver and then get a connecting flight. I have only heard horror stories about US immigration etc.. When I was taking high school students to Australia there was a really cheap flight via Hawaii. There was a 2-hour stopover both ways. One of the students was Chinese (well, of Chinese origin). Just for using the airport we needed a US visa (and here I was thinking airports are intl airspace). Wasn’t going to happen so we ended up getting a more expensive flight via South Korea. Did have a very positive US border experience almost 20 years ago when entering from Vancouver Island (Anacortes ISlands (?)) – two old ladies welcomed me to the US with glowing smiles and a nice chat – wouldn’t go now even if you paid me!

    9. Iago Says:

      I’m not American but I need to travel to the US several times a year. It’s painful every time, but it’s also inconsistent. Sometimes I get straight through passport control. Sometimes I get asked twenty questions, have to show my return tickets, etc. Sometimes shoes off at security. sometimes not. Sometimes belt off. Sometimes not. But all commands barked out like we’re just starting boot camp.

      Curiously, the “income” from the new ESTA fee (which makes the US the first country to charge an entry fee to visa waiver country systems, I believe — and also makes the trip even more like a visit to a Satanic Disneyland) is earmarked to promote tourism. Guess they need to do that, ’cause who would go back a second time if they didn’t have to.

      One good thing about the ESTA system is I don’t have to fill out the green visa waiver form any more — but good luck getting an ESTA number if you don’t have a credit card, or if your credit card is JCB…

    10. Doug in Kamakura Says:

      Originally from So. California, I’ve used LAX more over the years than any other airport. Generally speaking, not many bad experiences beyond the usual excessive paranoia that most other US airports have these days.

      This year was bad, though. I was in New Orleans for a few months; my 14-year-old son flew over by himself to meet me. I met him at LAX, we spent a week relative-visiting.

      When it was time for him to go back to Japan, we went to LAX together for our separate flights, me back to NOLA, him back to Tokyo. After we checked our bags, we of course went through security together. We handed our passports together to the TSA person who checks them before you go to the x-ray machines, so it was obvious that we were together. Taro went through first, and he was given a full pat-down. I’m talking thorough. I was behind him, and was just waved on through, no check at all.

      I was pretty conflicted as to what to do. I wanted to demand an explanation as to why the hell they were just this side of strip-searching a 14-year-old boy while totally ignoring his father, but I ended up not saying anything. Taro didn’t seem to be giving it much thought — hopefully he thought that such a check was probably normal, and didn’t notice or realize that I hadn’t been searched — and decided that not calling attention to it was the better choice.

      So, why was he checked, and not me? I’m Caucasian, and he’s Caucasian/Japanese. Was that it? Or were they assuming that I was a potential terrorist who had been smart enough to hide my bomb under my son’s t-shirt?

      I still can’t come up with any possible reasons that they would thoroughly pat down a child during an airport security check. While I now regret that I didn’t say anything, I’m sure that the response would have been along the lines of, “We are not required to disclose our reasons for searching someone.” Or, “It was a completely random check; could have been a 1-year-old baby and we still would have searched.”

      Doug

    11. Jonathan Says:

      Usual conundrum – since Americans are really very nice, but American infrastructure, civil servants, etc, are really very bad, how to enjoy time in America or contact with Americans in that evironment?

      Well, from when I was very young we learned “yes, sir” and “no ma’am” when crossing from blessed Canada into boot camp America.

      But the incredibly surly, agressive and inexplicable processes and profiling that goes on has gotten worse. To wit:

      Travelling by car to visit my Canadian brother foolishly but legally residing in the States, my Japanese wife is detained over an hour with US Customs crossing into the US, but only 2 minutes with Canadian Customs crossing into Canada.

      Even though she is Japanese, fluent in English, a Senior High School university-educated teacher who has been to the US before, perhaps they suspected she had a suicide vest on under her blouse? What kind of profiling or 1970s-era technology red flags someone like her?

      Americans should be embarrassed of the ineptitude and inefficiency of DofHS

      But the climate of fear in the near-police state that America has turned into combined with absolute shite customer service standards and attitudes make them either fearful of demanding or unaware of what to demand when it comes to issues like this.

      I really feel bad for Americans, I really do, and I like Americans and have always enjoyed visiting and studying there – hell, I have relatives there, but I avoid US airports and travel there in general like the plague now.

      I hope it turns around but I’m afraid I’m a bit to Orwell-/Huxley-/you-name-the-disutopian-author – ian to think it can get better in the next 50 years.

    12. SomeGuySomeWhere Says:

      Debito,

      Noticing your incredible experience in Japan with Human Rights and Communication Studies…Why not cross pollinate your insights with a Canadian institution (university/college)?

      Or at the very least perhaps you could do some writing/lecturing in conjunction with some Canadian university.

      It’s worth a ponder, eh?

      – Sure. Any offers?

    13. Curzon Says:

      “and spent the night drinking with Rutgers law school grads Curzon and friends.”

      Good times!

    14. CJ Says:

      Let me speak up for Guam. It probably helps being the only American getting off the plane, but the customs and immigration people in Guam are always nice. They let my non-American wife come through with me and often say “welcome home”. I have never had that at a mainland airport.

    15. Curzon Says:

      If it makes you feel any better, I’ve been grilled by “obese-and-obnoxious-Latina-passport-control-woman” and “Tim McVeigh-lookalike-psycho-killer-skinny-passport-control-man” about why on earth a US citizen could be a resident of Japan without being in the military.

      “What do you do in Japan? What? Where? Who for? Where does your money come from? Why are you back here in the US? What? Really? etc., etc.”

      10 minutes later:

      “OK, you pass….”

    16. Brian Says:

      Yeah, I remember arriving at LAX after having lived in Japan for several months and the disorganization of the place, in comparison to super-orderly Japan, really jumped out at me. That was 10 years ago though… I hope it hasn’t gotten worse! Since I’ll be flying to LAX this December for the first time since then, although this time from Canada.
      But regarding the differences between DHS and CBSA (Canadian Border Services Agency, the Canadian equivalent to the U.S. DHS); although Canadian Customs (and airports in general) are usually much better organized, don’t kid yourselves that CBSA officers aren’t bullies. Many of them most definitely are! Periodically, horror stories about their misdeeds surface in the newspapers here in Canada. It seems to me that like the RCMP, the CBSA as an organization is not being properly overseen at the federal political level and because they have many more rights to legally search you, the traveler, than the police do, this leads to lots of problems. (Side note: CBSA officers now carry firearms as well, a recent, unnecessary and unfortunate development — for the many who already were prone to swaggering, you can imagine how carrying a firearm on the job would affect them. And it doesn’t exactly say “Welcome to Canada” either…)

    17. Ken Aston Says:

      Doug, but in fact those checks have a random factor in them. It’s an easy explanation and your son would probably understand it.

      Kimpatsu, it’s a misconception that because of tight security there are no dangerous items on planes any more. By accident I had a pocket knife with me on a US domestic flight, and that was shortly after September 11 2001.

    18. Originalz Says:

      Heh, I remember when I used to drive to Niagara Falls back with my Japanese friends, it was guaranteed that they’d get stopped at the border even though they had all the proper forms. One of them even asked the security why they were stopped and they said that they’re not even sure why they were flagged since everything was in order. Bloody waste of an hour.

      LAX is a pretty bad airport though, horrible congestion and it takes forever to get through immigration, even if you’re a US citizen. I haven’t found JFK to be too bad, although I’m sure a lot of it is based on timing. There’s a reason they say you need to be at the airport at least 2 hours before your flight takes off, and considering how those long lines at check-in, security, immigration etc. add up, you’ll be lucky to just barely make it in time!

      I had an issue at Melbourne’s airport once where the person at the check-in was reluctant to let me through because my final destination was Japan but posessed a US passport. Even after I explained that I have a valid visa and re-entry permit, they still had to get their supervisor to come and authorize the flight. Bloody hell, how can an international airport be ignorant about such a simple thing?

    19. Joe Jones Says:

      For some reason, I have always gotten nice immigration people in the US. Nasty airline employees and security screeners, yes. It may be because I usually fly there right before a holiday like Thanksgiving or Christmas, so everyone is in a good mood and ready to go home for turkey.

      My only nasty interrogation-like experiences have been when entering the UK. It must be the weather there, or maybe the food.

      Most awesome port of entry experience: Flying to Frankfurt, Germany at the start of our honeymoon earlier this year. There is no form to fill out, and also no customs check to speak of. You show your passport, the inspector stamps it, and you are in Europe. (In fact, they didn’t even bother to stamp my Irish passport.)

    20. Dosanko Says:

      Debito,

      YVR featured the single longest line I have ever fallen victim to (besides Disneyland), followed with a surly immigration official who’s apparent aspiration in life was to make every traveler miserable and keep the line as long as possible.

      To be fair, though, I find that so much of the airport experience is pure happenstance. All it takes is two 747s landing within minutes of each other and even the best airport and staff will be overwhelmed.

    21. Brooks Says:

      hey, it isn`t just in America. I find Canadian immigration to be difficult at times. Heathrow can suck too. I had the full body search this February.

      at Vancouver I once had to go to a back room to have my bag opened. I was in the wrong line and wanting to get a connecting flight.

      In Ontario I once had to go to the back room to get the third degree.
      I was let go and allowed to get back on the bus. That was back in 1999. I didn`t have my passport with me but it was not required. Those Canadians were just nasty.

      Last year at US immigration in Quebec (at the border with Vermont), the official (probably ex-military) just couldn`t believe I was living in Japan. Why does it matter? I was going to meet my father. I am American. I was on vacation.
      The problem was that my wife drove the car and she got all the questions.
      Never again will I let my wife drive if we return to the US from Canada.

      The funny thing is that Debito is now Japanese and he can see what it is like on the other side.

    22. Craig Says:

      I had a pretty awful experience in April when I went back to the US for a week.

      My grandmother was sick with cancer and didn’t have long to live so I knew if I didn’t go see her then, I wouldn’t get another chance. So I bought the cheapest ticket I could find home. I normally fly through Detroit or Chicago but this ticket was for Atlanta.

      I knew that when I got there I would have less than an hour to claim my bag and have it rechecked and get to my connecting flight but I’ve never had a problem at immigration before so I figured it would be smooth sailing. The reality was anything but.

      I got up to the counter and the guy asked me “Where are you traveling from today?” (Didn’t even have the courtesy to add “sir” to the end, but whatever.) The rest of the conversation went like this:

      Me: Japan.
      Him: …aaaand, what were you doing in Japan?
      Me: I live there. I work as a translator.
      Him: Okay…

      And I stood there for 3 or 4 minutes while he looked up God-only-knows-what on the computer, occasionally looking at me. Two lines over, some people with non-native-sounding English keep getting waved through quickly while being told “welcome home.” The guy finally said to follow him, so I did. We went to the end of the aisle there where there was a table, and he put my passport and boarding pass in a clear file and said for me to take them and go into the door over there, as he motioned to the far side of the room. I had no idea what was going on, but as I got ready to take my stuff and head that way, a female police officer (or airport security or something, I’m not sure) came over and said “I’ll take him.”

      Since she was talking about me, I turned toward her but she barked out “walk in front of me, sir.” So I walked. As we got close to the room I could see the sign on the wall said Department of Homeland Security. The lady punched in a code on the keypad and opened the door for me. When we got inside she took my passport into a room down the hall and then told me to stay here until my name was called.

      So I waited in a waiting room with a few police officers at computers, and the only other two people waiting were a Mexican guy and a Middle Eastern-looking fellow. After about 10 minutes, they took the Mexican guy up front and were questioning him, asking stuff in Spanish like how many brothers and sisters he has living in the country and so on. After another 10 minutes or so, a big guy came into the doorway shouting my last name. Then again a second or two later like he was impatient. I stood in front of him and said “yes?” and he asked “You been arrested?” It was either the tone of voice or the lack of grammar, but something made it sound like he knew for a fact I had been arrested before and was waiting to see how I’d respond. “No, never.” I told him.

      We went to his office and he sat at a computer and asked my social security number. I told him. He stared at the screen and then back at me several times before finally saying “you got lucky.” I was confused by that so I asked what he meant and he says “tell me your social again.” So I told him and then finally asked what the hell all of this was about, and he said that I had a very common name so basically someone with the same name as me (different birth date, SSN, etc.) is on a terror watch list or something for some reason and I was mistaken for that person at immigration.

      On the way out, I asked him about my connecting flight since I didn’t think I’d make it. He said, (and this is verbatim) “connecting flights ain’t got nothin’ to do with me.” I told him thanks for nothing and was on my way.

      To add insult to injury, when looking for the gate for my next flight, the lady at the information desk said “welcome home,” but she had a thick Russian accent.

      On the way back through I filled out their customer survey or whatever and detailed my situation. The form clearly said they respond to all complaints within 10 business days. Several months later not a word by snail mail, e-mail, or phone. I’m still pretty frustrated by the whole ordeal.

    23. Inflames Says:

      As for your passport, as your name was “Sugawara” at the time so it’s printed on your passport (there should be 2 lines at the bottom of the information page of your passport), so it’ll always come up with “Sugawara” until you get a new passport.

      Immigration and customs everywhere can be nasty. My parents had an awful experience leaving Australia (getting yelled at when leaving as they didn’t have seat assignments [flight was overbooked in economy). I've seen immigration employees yell at people in the UK (apparently the person got deported before and didn't wait long enough before coming back) and the US (when I worked at the airport they had some guy who committed a crime, was deported, then got caught trying to come back in). I got grilled by Canadian immigration and the drones at customs in Japan love to search my bags (they're batting 80% at that; the guy seemed personally offended when I told him he could eat the food I brought back he opened).

      Australia also has an ETA program (it got relaxed so that Europeans don't have to pay but pretty much everyone else does, unless you ask your travel agent first [not all of them will tell you about it]). Ironically enough, the US just started charging for it this week (it previously was free and it’s valid for 2 years).

    24. Jonathan Says:

      Every time I go back to the US I’m reminded of how much better the airports, and airlines are in Japan. The first incident happened on my Delta flight to JFK, where a flight attendant became agitated at a Japanese passenger because he had trouble reading the menu to pick out a meal. Beyond the issue of getting agitated as a passenger for doing nothing, shouldn’t Delta require its flight attendants to speak at least a little Japanese? Another incident on the flight, this time involving a drink. A Japanese passenger asked for black tea, and the flight attendant with a surly voice said “I’ll have to make it”, in a tone implying it’s too much work for her and she’s not doing it. I don’t think the passenger understood much English, so after a few seconds of silence she said “you want green tea?” while simultaneously forcing a green tea into his hands and moving on to the next person.

      The Delta terminal at JFK was just nasty. I hear it is the worst one at the airport. The international arrivals area felt like a cattle line, with all us passengers being ferried down tiny cramped ancient corridors. Amazing to think people who have paid $1000 are being treated like this. The cramped immigration area was confusing, and a lot of the Japanese passengers didn’t know where to go. There was a young lady snapping at the Japanese passengers. I wonder if even those who knew English could understand her thick NY accent as she angrily shouted at anyone straying towards the wrong line, like “NO NO, that is NOT where you go” and “YOU, get in this line HERE”. The immigration officer was as discourteous as they get, a stern look to confirm the passport pic and nothing else. No hello, welcome back, thank you, nothing. I always wonder why I’M the only one who ever says thank you. There was some sort of problem and everyone had to stand (no seats of course) in the crowded baggage area for at least half an hour until the bags started coming out. People wanting carts had to pay $7 at a machine to get one. Once people got their bags a massive line formed at the two (there were only two) customs officers. There was a promotional sign on the wall which said “Welcome to NY”. Exactly.

    25. Yang Yan Zhao Says:

      For all of you Americans there you don’t legally have to answer immigration’s questions. American citizens can not be denied re-entry under any circumstances.

      Check out Paul Karl Lukcas’s blog about why you may want to keep quiet:

      http://knifetricks.blogspot.com/2010/04/i-am-detained-by-feds-for-not-answering.html

    26. ken44 Says:

      Yeah, I dislike going through LAX as much as the next traveler but I had a weird experience at San Diego Airport this week.

      When I went up to the ticket counter and check (commuter flight to LA and connecting flight to Tokyo) I was asked how long I would be staying in Japan. I explained I didn`t know and was then asked what I did and I told the ticket agent I was a teacher.

      Next he asked if I had permanent residence to which I asked why?

      Why did it matter what kind of redicence I had?

      He explained he was required to ask. I said yes I have a PR card but what the hell? He couldn`t read it so what`s point? Also if I didn`t have the card what did that mean? That I couldn`t board my flight to LA?

      He looked pissed off and handled over my boarding passes (one to LA and the other to Tokyo)

      When I went through security I asked the TSA agent about the questioning I got over at the UA counter and was told to forget about it.

      The ticket agent has no authority except to check your id and be sure your passport is valid.

      Traveling is no fun no matter where you go these days but as far as US airports are concerned I`m more worried about baggage handlers and theft than anything else.

      Over-all I think security measures in the US are pretty good and worth the hassles. I just make sure I have plenty of time when I arrive so that any unexpected delays don`t cause panic.

      No hassles at Narita through. I travel in and out of Narita at least twice a year and have yet to be stopped/questioned by J-airport police. In fact I rarely even notice them.

    27. Derek Blais Says:

      @Dosanko I transited in Detroit via NWA two years ago. I was prepared to wait because I had a 10 hour layover, but this was just the beginning of HELL.

      At customs the officer asked me “Where you comin’ from?” “Japan,” I said. “Why do you have a Canadian passport?” “I’m Canadian. I was born and raised in Canada. I work in Japan.” I guess this was the wrong answer, because they sent me to an interrogation room, held me for about an hour, asked me a bunch questions, then let me go. I’m glad I has such a layover…

      One hour before our flight, about 3pm, they delayed our flight. It wasn’t their fault, because it was due to landing visibility in Halifax, NS (my destination).

      The flight continued to be delayed every hour until about 11pm, which was when they decided to cancel the flight and reschedule for 6am. I had a hotel reservation in Halifax and was planning to stay there that night. I was charged for it because I didn’t cancel before 6pm. Nice.

      I calmly and politely explained this situation to the NWA employees and asked if there was anyway I could be reimbursed. She BLEW UP in rage saying “This ain’t our problem! Y’all are gonna have to figure somethin’ out…” Fine… “Well, is there any accommodation?” “There’s a shuttle bus that goes to a hotel. It’s a 40 min. drive from here. I don’t know if the bus is running now, but we can give 10% off vouchers.” Awesome.

      Of course I slept in the airport. I didn’t want to pay for a hotel that I would only be in for less than five hours.

      When boarding the flight the next morning, I was relieved to finally be on my way, almost out of the USA. I was sitting in my seat, waiting for takeoff, when an announcement said “The plane is over its capacity, a few passengers will have to get off.” The flight attendant approached me and said “OK, sir, you’re going to have to get off.” I, a 70kg athletic male with very little luggage, surrounded by obese passengers and overweight flight attendants, was ready to go nucking futs. But, a man stood up and said “You know what? F*ck you guys and f*ck this. I was here on work and I missed a huge meeting because of you. I’ll get off. You can stay.”

      I was shocked. I sincerely thanked him and was on my way to Halifax.

    28. Kimberly Says:

      I’m glad to hear that the US will let you in with your Japanese passport… I’ve still got most of my two years of dual nationality left, but with the intention of many Americans (particularly, perhaps, those employed by the government and/or military?) to brand people as “traitors” and/or tax dodgers left and right, being denied entry to visit family or friends was/is definitely a concern. Nice to hear that it doesn’t have to be.

      My last trip to the US was actually pretty problem-free. Didn’t get asked anything inappropriate at either Narita or JFK… only had a problem with the security at the little regional airport I transferred too… TSA woman up front making stupid chit-chat about the weather and how cute someone’s kids were, with the occasional “Oh, sorry it’s taking so long, we’re understaffed” (So, stop the small talk and start waving people on through?) and then a TSA guy (not even from the airline” shouts “You guys only have three minutes till they close boarding!” as though HE and his colleagues weren’t the ones who had total control over whether anyone was going to make it. It was terrible, but the immigration officers themselves were unusually decent on both ends. I got lucky.

    29. Mark in Yayoi Says:

      Joe Jones, my experiences mirror yours pretty well.

      Never any hassle in the US, even though I use the monster-sized airport in Newark where they always seem to be overwhelmed. They do a good job of getting everybody through painlessly.

      Heathrow was the worst. This was a few months after the 7/7 bus bombing, so it’s not much of a surprise, but I had a six-hour layover on my way from Japan to Austria, and the entire six hours was spend passing through two security lines where everything was inspected. (The immigration area nearby was near-empty; I could have moved to the UK in less time!) I had to sprint for my gate, and just in front of it was another “bonus” security check. Fortunately they were only checking every third person or so, and I wasn’t picked so I made my plane.

      Then I arrived in Austria and was dreading having to go through more security plus immigration questioning auf Deutsch… and they just stamped my passport and I was in!

      Japanese immigration and customs officials have also been models of deportment and decorum. If there’s one redeeming thing about police officers stationed in Narita to hassle people, it’s that maybe some of the professionalism of the regular staff will rub off on them!

    30. Luke Says:

      Arudou San,
      Just passed through Chicago Ohare last week, absolutely ridiculous. I declined to go through those new X-ray machines, on the account of all the lies about them from the state department on their procedures and on their radiation levels. I was immediately treated like a criminal and made to be patter aggressively, at the same time I discussed if they believed it was ok to decline a procedure that is in fact not lawful in anyway. They were trained well to deal with “trouble makers” as they called on their radios. The concepts of personal privacy and personal liberty are systematically being eroded through improper public education and corrupt media. Where are the real stories about insurgents? why do they fight, what do they feel about America, free media? a free society? America’s going the same way as the gestapo and fast. It’s ridiculous where America is going, I was born Brazilian, became an American, but plan to not die as one. There’s some hope in the rising popularity of the libertarians, but when and if it becomes a more profound movement, the establishment will act to disassemble it, lets all hope that when they try, they fail.

    31. Dosanko Says:

      Jonathan,

      If your disdain for the US was as thinly veiled when you went through customs as it was in your post, I can’t imagine why you had any issues ;-). Cheer up!

      Derek,

      Yikes! That does sound awful. I guess it just proves how one very bad experience can ruin one’s perception of an airport–much how Debito loves YVR and I abhor it. Here’s hoping you can avoid DTW in the future.

    32. Oscar_6 Says:

      a buff tattooed officer … wanted to know why I was coming in on a Japanese passport instead of an American one.

      Erm, why did he assume you should have an American passport in the first place? Japanese passports don’t have bearer’s birthplace written in them, do they?

      – He asked.

    33. CdeS Says:

      I go to the US about twice a year (cannot avoid it), and they find something new to keep me waiting every time. The latest was at Atlanta, where they looked at my visa renewal stamp and said “it says PERMIT, not VISA.” After a long wait, they let me go because I had an alien registration card (not sure what the logic is).

      For us brown-skinned people, Narita is a much better airport than most in Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand.

    34. sendaiben Says:

      I got selected for ‘secondary’ interrogation yesterday entering Guam (first visit to US territory) because the nice but dim lady from Homeland SS saw European Union on my passport and assumed that this was different from UK and therefore I was not eligible for the visa waiver program…

      Only took 30 minutes to sort it out ;)

      No apology or any indication of remorse, either. Ahh.

    35. Getchan Says:

      Debito, I can confirm your experiences @ LAX, and as far back as 1998 (before 9/11, mind you!).
      I flew into San Francisco in summer 1997, declared the $50K worth of (non-dutiable) merchandise I was bringing for a trade show, and – while raising an eyebrow -, the customs officer just waived me thru.
      LAX was totally different. I had only $30K worth of (non-dutiable!!) merchandise, and was held up by a rather unfriendly customs officer, who explained to me, that I had to go thru a customs broker. I came in during the A.M., I finally left the airport around 1700, minus $350 brokerage fees (and of course, no duties to pay), and also missed the pre-show hours, when most of the bulk buying and selling was done.
      The “friendliness” and “efficiency” of customs staff with Uncle Sam not standing to lose a single red penny left a bad taste.

      On another note, I just returned from Germany with my GF. Immigration officials were efficient and friendly, and upon entry, let us pass thru the “EU passports” lane (I’m German, but my GF is Japanese). Only upon leaving, the immigration official stamped my GF’s passport and then said with a big smile “Last time I checked, Japan wasn’t in the EU yet”.
      No hassle at customs either way, just a routine question @ NRT, because we had to fly via Malaysia with 17 hrs between flights & had left Kuala Lumpur airport for a downtown tour, with local entry and exit visa stamps.

      Air travel can be interesting ;-).

      On my way to Orlando, FL, back in 2003, I had to go thru Atlanta, GA, and pass immigration there. I had three hours to catch my connecting flight, and my incoming flight from NRT was on time.
      With three other B747s full of tourists arriving from Japan and Korea at about the same time, lanes were long, and due to language problems, also a bit slow. I had 15 minutes left when I boarded the plane to Orlando.

    36. Ricardo Says:

      ken44: Ticket agents are required to check not only your passport but to verify if you have the proper documentation to enter a country. If an airline sends a passenger without the proper documentation the airline in question gets fined and the employee who checked you in gets written up.

      Most countries that don’t require a visa state that a return ticket is required to qualify for this, hence if you don’t have a defined stay period you might be asked for your residence permit or such.

      Curiously enough my worst experience as customs so far has been Canada when I was coming in from Washington Dulles, got sent to secondary inspection where the agent was actually very very nice (unlike the dragonlady who sent me there).

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