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How a Preclearance Facility Almost Caused Me to Miss My Flight

How a Preclearance Facility Almost Caused Me to Miss My Flight
Caroline Lupini

Did you know that sometimes when you are flying back to the United States, you’ll actually go through immigration and clear customs before you board your flight? That’s right. The United States operates preclearance facilities in a handful of different locations around the world (many Canadian airports, Dublin and Shannon, Ireland, a couple in the Caribbean, and Abu Dhabi).

Preclearance is generally said to be a great thing. I mean hey – you get to go through immigration and customs when you’re waiting at the airport for your flight anyway so that when you land you can exit the airport faster and be on your way.

I’ve never been the biggest fan of preclearance because with Global Entry, clearing immigration and customs takes hardly any time at all when I’ve arrived at my destination. Plus, usually, once you pass through preclearance, there are no more airport lounges that you can visit. I would much rather spend my time waiting at the airport in a lounge!

After my most recent experience with preclearance, I’m even less of a fan.

I usually don’t check bags, so I’m not sure if this experience was a total fluke or a more regular occurrence — hopefully, some of you can weigh in!

I landed in Toronto on my way back from Australia. Between my boyfriend and I, we had three checked bags (that’s what Christmas shopping while traveling will do!). When we entered the preclearance area, we had to visit a kiosk which told us that we needed to go to the bag processing waiting area and wait for our bags to be finished processing before we could continue to immigration.

Now, typically when you fly back into the US, you’ll have to claim your bag at your first port of entry and re-check it to your final destination within the US. But in Toronto, all of that happens behind the scenes. You merely need to wait until your bag has finished processing until you can go through. It sounds great.

But what happens if your bag hasn’t finished processing? You have to wait. What if your flight is leaving soon? Doesn’t matter, you still have to wait! We had to wait over an hour from the time we got to the bag processing area until the third of our bags finished processing. At this point, we had less than 20 minutes until our flight was supposed to leave and we still needed to go through immigration and make our way to the gate.

Amazingly, we somehow made it in time (though unfortunately our bag still ended up missing the flight – it was delivered the following evening).

I find it to be kind of crazy that we were held up and almost missed our flight because our bag was still processing. And we would have been stuck overnight in Toronto, too!

To be fair, I honestly don’t know what would happen if a similar situation occurred at a regular US port of entry (like Chicago or LAX). If you had a checked bag that hadn’t come out yet, but you were going to miss your flight, would you leave your bag there? Would you be able to go through immigration? If so, would you have issues getting your bag back? I’m not sure.


Have you had experience with slow bags when arriving back into the US (or a preclearance facility) that caused you to miss or almost miss your flight? Tell me about it in the comments!


[Image: Flickr/CBP International Travel Preclearance Operations in Canada]

View Comments (43)


  1. BigFlyer

    January 9, 2019 at 4:36 pm

    Preclearance is only a potential advantage if you are connecting WITHIN the US. If your first airport of arrive in the US is your final airport, then it is a disadvantage.

  2. cre95

    January 9, 2019 at 5:12 pm

    I thought that when preclearance was available, it would required with no way to opt out.

    I can’t see how they would tag some passengers as having already precleared with others still needing to go through clearance at the destination.

  3. M.Wilson

    January 9, 2019 at 5:29 pm

    Very curious how you landed in Toronto on your way back from Australia? (And not YVR or LAX that are more direct?) Processing at YYZ tends to be very good because its the busiest airport in the country and you have loads of passengers connecting. I think you just had bad luck that your 3rd bag was so slow.

  4. TBD

    January 9, 2019 at 5:48 pm

    This happened to me, too, in Toronto. My bag took over an hour. The AC baggage team started filling in missing luggage paperwork. Even the agent directing passenger traffic came over to ask why I was still there. Fortunately, it eventually “cleared”, but it makes me avoid connecting in Canada now.

  5. Utskicat

    January 9, 2019 at 5:48 pm

    This seems like a fluke. I live in YYZ and use T3 pre-clearance all the time. I also have Global Entry/Nexus. When originating in YYZ you put your bags onto a special belt and scan your boarding pass so they can track it. From what I understand, the fancy system indexes bags so that they can locate them if a customs agent wants to inspect. I have many times dropped by bags and then proceeded to the Global Entry kiosks with just a few minutes of each other and never had that message. I wonder if they had already pulled your bags for a random search of some sort. In dozens of flights I have not seen this happen.

  6. CaptHolic

    January 9, 2019 at 6:45 pm

    Pre-clearance works great on your first leg. Beyond that, it is a pain.
    Then there is the YYZ part of your story… Further explanation not required…

  7. r m a h

    January 9, 2019 at 8:56 pm

    “Between my boyfriend and ~~~~~I~~~~~, we had three checked bags (that’s what Christmas shopping while traveling will do!). ”

    “I” should be “me”.

  8. SMART51

    January 9, 2019 at 9:40 pm

    AUH has a lounge for First and business passengers after they are finished with immigration and US customs. Not a large one but a nice one.

  9. Kremmen

    January 9, 2019 at 10:02 pm

    I experienced preclearance in DUB. Huge lines. Way worse than doing it in the US. Plus it means having to get up earlier just to get to the airport. I’d way prefer to just pad my US connection time.

    To answer your questions, I was on a very late international flight into SFO and my bag had no chance to come out in time, as my domestic flight was already boarding. I was given the choice to leave my bag behind and make my flight or wait for it and be re-booked.

  10. PrincipalMember

    January 9, 2019 at 10:58 pm

    I hate pre-clearance. When you are in a foreign country, you are trying to maximize your “tourist” time. Instead of that, you now have to get to the airport even earlier. On top of it, now you have to be more aware of what you are carrying. If you have fruits in your possession for eating on the plane, you are dead! The morons at the pre-clearance will pull you to a separate area and treat you like a criminal. You cool your heels waiting for some “your highness” officer to clear you and in the meantime, you are hearing the last boarding announcements. The customs officer have zero regard for whether you catch the flight or not – you just committed a crime by bringing food on “US soil” even though it is not US soil. This is not hypothetical – this actually happened to us.

    I wish the foreign countries will send the USA agents packing – don’t know what they get out of cooperating with US on this and making the life of travelers more miserable.

  11. PrincipalMember

    January 9, 2019 at 11:01 pm

    I should have mentioned – another disadvantage of pre-clearance is that you are now cordoned off. There is no more visiting shops or food places or anything. You are now a prisoner of the pre-clearance mafia.

  12. mikeschemm

    January 10, 2019 at 12:57 am

    r m a h, no – it should be I. Simple test. Would you say “me had three checked bags, or I had three checked bags?”

  13. WASSadFlyer

    January 10, 2019 at 7:53 am

    @mikeschemm – nope. “Between my boyfriend and me” is a prepositional phase, which takes an objective pronoun (me). While you wouldn’t say “me had three checked bags” the subject of the sentence is we…”we had three checked bags.”

  14. hyho61

    January 10, 2019 at 8:29 am

    Pre clearance is only good for Canadian airports and some Caribbean airports where the airlines fly to many different cities in US which may not have CBP or have to staff exclusively for that flight. Do not see any point in having pre clearance in Dublin and especially Abu Dhabi, when all the flgihts from these cities only go to major airports which already have customs and immigration facilities.

    Similar to Canadian airports, I am sure Cancun and Mexico city may also benefit from pre clearance.

  15. coastgirl

    January 10, 2019 at 9:29 am

    Sorry, can’t stay out of this. r m a h is correct. Mikeschemm, “Between us”, or “Between him and me” is a prepositional phrase. It modifies the rest of the sentence. The pronoun is the object of the preposition “between”, so it’s the object form me, him, us, etc. Separate part of the sentence is the main clause, “We had three checked bags”, where “we” is the subject form of the pronoun. So, “Between us, we had three bags” is correct. Might make more sense to you if you reorganize it: “We had three checked bags, between my boyfriend and me.”

    And, yeah, don’t blame preclearance, blame YYZ. I assiduously avoid connecting there. Other Canadian airports (e.g. my home airport YHZ) also do it and it’s not awful. I’m not sure what’s in it for the US customs folks, but it’s my understanding that it benefits us by allowing flights to land at “domestic” terminals and therefore gives more options. Our preclearance area does have some facilities, but fewer, because of less traffic.

  16. Shiv01

    January 10, 2019 at 9:30 am

    I’m guessing most of those who commented are US nationals or residents. For those of us who don’t live in the US and might visit from time to time, pre-clearance is a godsend. I have used it a couple of times in recent years in Dublin. The agents there are not agressive, they don’t automatically assume you’re a criminal, they’ve lived outside the US… I’m a big fan of being able to arrive in the US and just pick up my bags and go. And in Dublin there is a lounge after pre-clearance.

  17. PHL

    January 10, 2019 at 10:40 am

    No, it should be “me”.

    The test is on the first part of the sentence before the comma…. Between ME is correct grammar rather than Between I. The rest of the sentence after the comma is unrelated to the first part.

    Or, it could have been simplified and correct to say “my boyfriend and I had 3 checked bags”.

    Another point of clarification to this story is that Global Entry is available at Canada, Ireland and Dubai pre-clearance airports. So, to someone with global entry who doesn’t care much about a pre-departure lounge, it’s still a good benefit.


    January 10, 2019 at 11:55 am

    I waited two and a half hous for my bag in Vancouver. It turns out the label was misread. If it been the kind of connection where you grab your bag and re-check, I would have been through in 20 minutes.

  19. sdsearch

    January 10, 2019 at 12:10 pm

    No ,mikeschemm, because it was the object of the preposition “between”, it’s “between me and my boyfriend”, not “between I and my boyfriend”. And that doesn’t change when you reverse the order of the two objects, and thus it’s “between my boyfriend and me”, not “between my boyfriend and I’. So r m a h was correct, given the exact phrasing that was used in the article. You changed the phrasing from what was in the article, and that’s why you came to the wrong conclusion.

  20. JimInOhio

    January 10, 2019 at 6:01 pm

    As a couple have astutely mentioned, the main point of pre-clearance at Canadian airports is to facility service from those airports to US cities which don’t otherwise have international service. As for nearly missing the connection at YYZ, that has nothing to do with US CBP. It’s the airport that has to process the baggage. I’ve done inbound US connections at YYZ and never had a problem with the baggage and immigration drill.

    As for the only advantage being for connections at US airports, it’s also worth noting that the time you spend at YYZ, YYC, YUL, etc. is time you don’t spend after landing in the US and for many, that is their endpoint.

  21. AltaBound

    January 10, 2019 at 7:00 pm

    Your near miss had nothing to do with preclearance and everything to do with the bad back-end operations at YYZ. Had you been on the old system you would have missed your flight. By the time you schlepped your bags from the baggage carousel to the new drop off you would have been toast.

    I am a big fan of preclearance. Just get off the plane and go.

  22. dereiziger

    January 10, 2019 at 7:24 pm

    M Wilson – it’s not out of the realm of possibilities that the writer flew Australia to Vancouver to Toronto with the final destination in the US, in which case they would have used pre clearance at Toronto.

    Alternatively, maybe they flew from Austria to YYZ to the US.

  23. BigFlyer

    January 10, 2019 at 9:10 pm

    Actually, I have read that DHS want preclearance in more airports so they can exercise stricter control over who boards flights heading to the US.

  24. AsiaTravel2019

    January 10, 2019 at 9:18 pm

    Checked baggage defeats expedited services like this and even Global Entry.

    The problem is you are at the mercy of the airline that has your bags. So if I am coming back into LAX and the country, I have to wait to claim those bags. Depending on how tight the connection was or how late the flight was, I am out of luck. But I have to claim the bags in person.

    Which is why, I will never check another bag again on an international flight. Not worth it, even though it is free for me

  25. Occupationalhazard

    January 11, 2019 at 9:29 am

    And this, dear ones, is why I never, ever, ever, ever check. On pain of death and torture. Ever.

  26. Dubai Stu

    January 11, 2019 at 12:12 pm

    I do not agree with the original poster.

    US Preclearance closes the time you need for a connecting flight in the US. Say you are going Toronto to Tulsa OK. You’d clear in Toronto, land inside the US transit airport’s sterile zone and proceed directly to your Tulsa plane. If you went the other way, you’d land in the international arrivals area, get commingled with several inbound jumbo jets from around the world, clear immigration, customs, and then go through the TSA. In Atlanta, you have a special TSA search so you aren’t mixed with normal departing customers but there is no Precheck. In say Detroit, you have to take an elevator up two floors, join domestic departing customers and but have Pre. You thus have two security inspections. I also forgot your luggage isn’t checked through the final destination so you got to wait in your first point of entry to get your luggage and recheck it.

    The original poster is also wrong that there is no lounges in US transborder terminals. Plaza Premium and American is in Pearson’s transborder terminal.

  27. Dubai Stu

    January 11, 2019 at 12:44 pm

    PS: Pearson Terminal 3 Preclearance is getting better. Check out this article:

  28. bostontraveler

    January 11, 2019 at 1:31 pm

    Completely against preclearance philosophically… it is totally an encroachment of sovereignty… the US shouldn’t be operating its processing facilities abroad. That said, it’s a trend that’s likely to expand… there are quite a few more countries that have been strong-armed into building their own facilities. Nauseating if you ask me.

  29. djheini

    January 11, 2019 at 2:11 pm

    Every airport I’ve entered the US you go through immigration before you claim your bags and go through customs. So a delayed bag wouldn’t prevent you from that.

    The only time I’ve had a bag not make it to a foreign port was when I was flying to Sydney, in which case they just had me go through customs without it, leave the airport and delivered my bag the next day just like any other delayed bag case.

  30. nycityny

    January 11, 2019 at 2:19 pm

    I had a different experience in Toronto two weeks ago when flying from Paris to New York with a plane change in Toronto on Air Canada. I too have Global Entry, am a US citizen and reside in New York. Previous times it worked the way the writer described. This time I used a kiosk and when I was done it directed me to a door that bypassed the luggage waiting area. There was a “fork in the road” where some were sent through the door to wait for the luggage to be cleared while others (including me) went right to the US Customs agent and on to my gate. I was actually surprised and a bit confused when I bypassed the luggage wait.

    I don’t know why it worked that way for me. The kiosk did ask me if I had one checked bag and I answered “yes.” That seemed to do it.

  31. AA/UAL

    January 11, 2019 at 2:48 pm

    I had a different experience at Dublin airport’s US preclearance. My flight from Milan was late – very late – like 4 hours, but we still made it to Dublin in the early evening AND our flight to Chicago was still on the ground; however, the people who work at Dublin preclearance had gone home for the evening, probably knocking off around 5 PM. So Aer Lingus booked us on a Chicago flight the next morning and took us to a fine hotel outside Dublin and fed us a terrific supper and a big American breakfast before returning us back to the airport. The hotel was not far from a trolly into the city so I was able to see a bit of Dublin and down a pint of Guinness in a quintessential Irish bar. This was all at Aer Lingus’s expense. No frustration here with Dublin preclearance! Did my grammar in this note pass muster?

  32. trmbn65

    January 11, 2019 at 3:54 pm

    In Dublin, it was one of the most painful things I’ve done. Took about 2 hours. Most flights to the US leave between 11am and 1pm. The queue to get to the TSA-like screening went all the way up the escalator and to the gate area. Then, the immigration queues were backed up, so they stopped the TSA screening for a good 20 minutes. I’ve never waited that long at a US airport.

  33. pjcflip

    January 11, 2019 at 4:09 pm

    preclearance is good till something goes wrong. I flew from asia to DCA via toronto on AC and cleared customs just fine and waited for my late connection flight which was cancelled. I had to then go through canada customs (2 hours) and then wait another for my bag and find a hotel room for the night, then I had to go through US customs again the next am. Nightmare. Any travel disruption and your screwed.

  34. i59bravo

    January 11, 2019 at 5:25 pm

    The ongoing expansion of pre-clearance is done for the benefit of Customs and Border Protection, not for travellers. It started back in the day as a way of allowing flights from Canada to go to US airports without CBP. Now they are growing it in order to be able to screen and exclude people before they arrive in the USA.

    If your bags took an inordinately long time to process, it may be because CBP was searching them. The likelihood of this increases with your Christmas shopping. Packaging, odd shapes, metal parts that resist scanning might all be triggers for a search.

  35. SMHarman

    January 11, 2019 at 5:43 pm

    It’s equally a problem when you know you are going to be tagged for secondary screening every single time (expired green card extended by passport while citizenship processing).
    Just how early do you check in?

  36. leonidas

    January 11, 2019 at 5:44 pm

    Pre-clearance at YYZ is YMMV. I am based in Chicago and would prefer YYZ Pre-clearance any day than going through ORD immigration (and I have GE). But, my connections at YYZ have all been >2 hrs so I am not sure what a short connection could be like.

  37. johnstafford

    January 11, 2019 at 8:21 pm

    Preclearance is great for airports like Boston. All Customs is in terminal E with international airlines — this lets American, Delta, JetBlue land back at their terminals for connections (or to be on the same side of the airport as your car. Going from CBP to Terminal B parking with luggage and kids is a truly epic hike.).

    A long time ago, I spent over 3 hours waiting for my luggage in Philadelphia coming off a military charter. Lightning storm stopped offloading halfway through — those still left couldn’t clear customs until they had their luggage.

  38. windygal21

    January 12, 2019 at 8:21 am

    Another issue is not knowing that there is going to be pre-clearance and not planning time for it. There were no signs in Dublin sayhing that was going to be the case. Our only hint was that they had the boarding time way before the flight time. We decided that even though it seemed crazy we should go ahead. So, you have to go though Irish immigration, and then stand in another line again. We did get one small break for having Global Entry, but not nearly as much that we would have in the US. What I kept wondering was whether people actually missedd thier flights. They need to have signs to let people know. It was our first time in Ireland.

  39. Jackie_414

    January 12, 2019 at 11:19 am

    Once arrived back in the US through ORD from Europe. After immigration, my checked bag never showed and the United concierge told me to proceed to my next flight, which was to Denver. When I got to Denver I went to the United baggage office to report the missing bag. The agent asked me to wait and see if the bag comes up anyway. It did. So I went back and asked him if I can schedule that service in the future, that way the bag would never go through customs, hee hee.

    Nowadays, one can check to see where the checked bags are along the way.

  40. alggag

    January 12, 2019 at 1:09 pm

    I hate preclearance. It worked fine in Calgary but the other times that I’ve experienced it in Montreal, Dublin, and Abu Dhabi I was stuck in the slowest moving lines I’ve ever seen at an airport and was worried about missing my flight despite arriving to the airport at least 3-4 hours before the flight in each case. If it was up to me I would rather just handle the immigration on arrival to the USA. I honestly don’t understand how anyone has anything positive to say about it.

  41. robsaw

    January 12, 2019 at 1:23 pm

    The original article author and a suprisingly large proportion of the commentators seem not have the foggiest idea of the two-step process that was occuring from an International arrival to a US pre-cleared departure via YYZ. In addition, there are significant misconceptions as to what US pre-clearance entails and allows. Insufficient time to go into the details, but this article is simplistic in the whole.

  42. spartacus

    January 14, 2019 at 8:49 am

    Hey, r m a h, if you are going to be the Grammar Police, perhaps you need to work on your grammar first. Google MUGS and take a refresher crash course. Not as exciting as a John Greene crash course in history, but probably just as effective.

  43. CEB

    January 15, 2019 at 2:32 pm

    Missed bags are not a rarity on incoming international flights and the system is quite straightforward. You report it to the airline and make your customs declaration in writing. The airline then takes responsibility for transporting the bag through customs when it arrives and eventually delivers it to you. While not the most convenient if you need something from the bag in short order, it really is not that complex and there is thus no reason to miss a flight over this sort of mix up.

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