I’ve traveled to 75 countries, including many underdeveloped nations. But I’d never heard a pilot announce that we couldn’t leave a plane because an airport was “too crowded” until I flew into Fort Lauderdale International Airport on a Monday night last month. Our involuntary detention on the tarmac came after a nine-hour flight from Oslo, preceded by a three-hour flight and a six-hour layover. Eventually, we were permitted to deplane, but once inside the terminal, security guards forced us to stand in line in the corridor for about an hour before we could proceed downstairs to a sprawling immigration line. Welcome to the United States!

Experiences like ours aren’t uncommon, and they’re not limited to airport wait times. Anyone who wants to visit our country, or leave it for that matter, better not be in a hurry. An immigrant friend from Venezuela recently told me of the travails of trying to renew his 82-year-old mother’s tourist visa. The American embassy in Caracas is closed, and I thought he was exaggerating when he said the wait time for an appointment at our embassy in Bogotá was two years. But I looked it up, and at the time of writing, the State Department website showed that the wait time is 788 days. Wait times at our embassies in other countries in the region—Panama (488 days), Quito (390), Costa Rica (448)—were only marginally better. My friend considered meeting his mother in Mexico, but it’s even worse there— the Mexico City wait was 807 days, while Guadalajara’s was 808 days, or just after Thanksgiving 2025. (Obviously, those who don’t respect our laws can skip the wait and proceed directly to our porous southern border.)

Americans who need a passport also must plan far ahead. The normal processing time to get a passport, which costs $165, is ten to 13 weeks plus mailing time, which can add another two weeks in each direction unless you pay extra. Expedited processing, which costs an extra $60, takes seven to nine weeks, plus mail time. Last year, we booked a cruise about a month before sailing, only to realize that my 13-year-old son’s passport would expire three months after our trip. Since two of the countries we were set to visit required visitors’ passports to be valid at least six months after entry, we tried to get an urgent appointment, but these are available only at passport offices in select cities. I was unable to get a timely appointment in Miami—an eight-hour round-trip drive from my house—until I requested assistance from one of my U.S. senators.

Why is it now so time-consuming to enter or exit the country? Officials at the State Department and Homeland Security reduced staffing during the pandemic, based on lower travel demand, and they haven’t adequately ramped back up yet, even as travel has boomed. According to the market research firm Destination Analysts, nearly one-third of American travelers expect to go abroad this year, and demand for U.S. visas is surging. Meantime, if you’re trying to beat the lines by joining Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) global entry program, better plan far in advance. CBP officials recently said that applications now take up to 11 months to process.

CBP has launched a mobile passport-control app that lets travelers expedite their entries into the United States at select airports. Fort Lauderdale’s airport (FLL) supposedly offers the program, but I saw no evidence of it, and in any case, everyone from our plane was corralled in the corridor before even proceeding to the lines.

CBP publishes wait-time data for international arrivals at airports around the country on its website. On the chaotic Monday night that we arrived at FLL, CBP claims the maximum wait for American citizens at our arrival time was 111 minutes, with an average wait of 39 minutes. But those are gross underestimates that don’t count all the time we waited just to get to the lines. Even so, a quick perusal of the website reveals that 100-minute-plus maximum wait times were not uncommon this summer at busy airports in Florida, New York, California, Chicago, and elsewhere.

 As a former consular officer who has interviewed thousands of foreign nationals for visas, I know that screening travelers can be stressful and tedious. The State Department and CBP need more funding to staff up, but officers can also be more efficient. I’ve worked with indecisive colleagues who took 20 minutes to make a tourist-visa decision that shouldn’t have taken so long. The Foreign Service evaluation process puts no emphasis on one’s ability to process applications quickly, so there’s little incentive to be fast and efficient. And while I’m not familiar with the evaluation process for CBP officers, every time I’m in line, I’ve heard officers needlessly shooting the breeze with returning American citizens, asking for details on what they did on their holidays, seemingly to pass the time and amuse themselves.

Travel is the world’s biggest industry, and foreign visitors are crucial to the economy in states like mine. If it takes more than a year to get an appointment just to get a tourist visa, people visiting loved ones and those trying to move here will wait—but authentic tourists will go elsewhere. And neither foreigners nor Americans should have to wait hours at U.S. airports to get through immigration and customs. That should never be anyone’s first impression of our country. If we can send people into space, we ought to be able to process passports and visas and screen travelers more efficiently. America remains the greatest country in the world, in my view, but when it comes to facilitating international travel, we’re more like a banana republic.

Photo: hapabapa/iStock


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