HomeTravelThere’s a US border on Irish soil. Here’s why | CNN

There’s a US border on Irish soil. Here’s why | CNN

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CNN
 — 

Long lines. Feeling bleary-eyed and exhausted after an overnight flight. Scrambling to get your documents ready.

For most international travelers arriving in the US, going through immigration and customs is another step in the travel process – and it can take a little while.

But international travelers arriving from a select group of airports, including Ireland’s Dublin Airport and Shannon Airport, step off the plane and breeze through domestic arrivals, whether they’re US passport holders or not.

That’s because Dublin and Shannon Airport are two of the 15 airports across the globe that offer US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) preclearance, allowing all travelers to go through US immigration and customs before they board a plane heading stateside. That means upon arrival on US soil, travelers bypass CBP and Transportation Security Administration (TSA) inspections.

Preclearance has been around for decades, but unless travelers happen to transit through one of the airports where it’s offered, it’s not necessarily on their radar. Nor do they necessarily realize that international preclearance facilities are staffed by US border force officials – not local airport workers.

In fact, CBP has more than 600 officers and agriculture specialists stationed at 15 airports hubs across six countries: Dublin and Shannon in Ireland; Aruba; Bermuda; Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates; Nassau in the Bahamas; and Calgary, Toronto, Edmonton, Halifax, Montreal, Ottawa, Vancouver, Victoria and Winnipeg in Canada.

Here’s how US preclearance works, and what it’s like for the American citizens who move from the US to Ireland to work the border abroad.

Travelers transiting through airports offering US CBP preclearance begin by checking in and going through security, as they would at any other airport. But rather than subsequently browsing duty free or grabbing some food, they head to preclearance and go through US border inspection there and then.

Travelers transiting through airports offering US preclearance can’t opt out, but officials suggest the only disadvantage of preclearance for travelers is the need to factor it into airport arrival times.

But lines at preclearance are generally shorter than those experienced by US arrivals on US soil – because generally speaking, fewer people are being processed at any one time.

Niall Kearns, airport director at Ireland’s Shannon Airport, tells CNN Travel preclearance “can save you hours.”

“I think people have maybe had previous experience of going to the States and just being stuck in immigration lines for a long time,” says Kearns. “But you can get all this done in a very hassle-free, quick manner in Shannon and then arrive in New York or Boston or Chicago.”

Plus, CBP recently introduced a mobile passport control app, which allows travelers to begin the process of preclearance before they even arrive at the airport. The app’s now in use at Shannon and Dublin airports.

The goal is the app will speed everything up, says Robert Murray, an assistant director who oversees preclearance operations from his base in the US.

“People are not always prepared for being inspected when they come through a preclearance location, because they’re kind of taken by surprise by it,” Murray tells CNN Travel.

“Because of the timelines that we face with trying to make sure people are getting to their flights, we really wanted to push the use of mobile passport control and people downloading the app and being ready for their inspection a little bit sooner.”

US preclearance is arranged via a legal treaty – a formal agreement signed between nations. That treaty stipulates that American officials can conduct their full immigration inspection in the host country.

One notable difference is US CBP officers working in Ireland are unarmed, in line with Irish law.

Murray – who worked as a preclearance border officer in Dublin, Ireland for six years before taking on his current role – explains that if anyone is, for example, pulled over for extra checks during preclearance, US CBP officials “will complete the inspections that we’re working on to the logical conclusion that we would in the States.”

If they decide the individual isn’t fit to fly, they return them to local immigration officials, “which is no different really, then it would be if you were stateside, except that we just happen to be in the same building,” explains Murray, adding it’s “a much quicker process, and obviously less consequential to the person, which is a nice benefit of preclearance.”

In 2014, then-secretary of Homeland Security, Jeh Johnson, praised preclearance by using an American football metaphor: “I’d much rather defend our end-zone from the 50-yard line than from our one-yard line,” he said. “I want to take every opportunity we have to expand homeland security beyond our borders.”

Murray also suggests screening travelers before they board a flight to the US is smart from a US security perspective.

“I think anytime that we have an opportunity to speak to someone, to do a full inspection on someone, before they board a flight bound to the US – I think that that’s advantageous for all parties involved,” he says. “For safety and security, being able to stop persons from boarding a flight that shouldn’t be on a flight, and make sure that people that should be on the flight are safe – I think it’s always advantageous to do that before.”

While many travelers enjoy the ease offered by preclearance, the program isn’t without its controversies.

In 2017, for example, in response to then-President Trump’s travel ban on Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen, the Irish government ordered a “complete review” of the preclearance system. However the system remained unchanged following the review.

Preclearance was originally called pre-inspection, and dates back to 1903, when it was first offered for passengers sailing from Victoria, Canada to the American Pacific Northwest.

In the 1950s, as commercial aviation took off, pre-inspection became preclearance. Ireland became the first country outside of North America to offer the program in the 1980s, at Shannon Airport. Dublin Airport followed suit in the 1990s.

Murray suggests “the already existing long history of diplomatic relations certainly fostered them choosing Ireland as the first location outside of North America for preclearance.”

He stresses that establishing preclearance abroad is “not a US alone decision.”

“The US has to do an evaluation of any location and determine if there is a security benefit for us to go,” he explains. “But at the same time, the host nation also has to see a benefit in having us come.”

The CBP has certain design standards that are required for preclearance hubs. In some cases, airports can refurbish existing facilities. Other times new facilities may be built.

Shannon Airport’s Niall Kearns says this involves host airports “investing significantly.” But preclearance is good for airport business, he adds – especially at Shannon, which also offers preclearance for private jet travelers, as well as commercial travelers.

This commercial benefit is often the impetus for host airports signing preclearance facilities. Kearns says Shannon Airport is proud to offer preclearance, and hopes it helps attract airlines and passengers to choose to transit through their aviation hub.

American border officials travel to destinations offering preclearance to live and work. Pictured here: the preclearance facility at Ireland's Shannon Airport.

While establishing preclearance facilities involves collaboration from the US and the host country, every preclearance facility is staffed entirely by American nationals.

Murray says that while locals he met in Ireland tended to be aware of the US CBP presence there, people from elsewhere in the world were often confused when they heard American accents at the Dublin Airport facility.

“I think one of the biggest misconceptions is that we are Irish, and that we work for the Irish government,” he says.

Of course, some CBP officials may be dual nationalities – but they are also “all American citizens, all full fledged law enforcement officers working for the US government overseas,” explains Murray.

So how does the US staff international preclearance locations?

Murray says preclearance jobs and other international postings are available to CBP officers via an open application process – CBP personnel aren’t stationed at preclearance locations abroad unless they want to be.

“For all of our preclearance locations, the people that are going to these locations, are people that have applied to go there,” explains Murray.

For Murray’s part, he worked as a CBP officer in the US for several years before he took a preclearance job in Abu Dhabi. Working in the UAE gave Murray “a taste of what the experience of being in preclearance was like, and I really enjoyed it.”

“And so being in Europe and working in a preclearance location was really desirable for me,” he explains.

Murray applied to work in Dublin in 2015 and moved to Ireland the following year.

“I actually arrived at St. Patrick’s Day of 2016. It was a very long day, as you can imagine, I was very tired,” says Murray, adding that he “didn’t really get much out of the experience” of the Irish holiday that first year.

But over his six years living and working in Dublin, Murray enjoyed getting involved in local holidays, embracing traditions and generally getting to know the city, and country, where he was living.

“One example is I made a personal choice to join a gym where I knew none of my colleagues were,” Murray says, explaining he wanted to force himself “outside of the comfort zone to meet new people, specifically in the community.”

He also enjoyed taking advantage of Dublin’s easy proximity to the rest of Europe.

“You have your base in Ireland and you can travel anywhere that you want to within Ireland but then you also have the airport available for quick easy access to other places in Europe,” he says.

Murray says living abroad was an “amazing” opportunity, but says there are also – as with any job that involves relocating – some challenges.

While many CBP officials relocate with their families, Murray moved solo.

“For the amazing experience it is that the government gives us – the great experience it is especially working in Ireland – it is a definitely a commitment and an adjustment for a lot of people,” Murray says, explaining you “go from a situation where you’re surrounded by your family, or you have close friends and family, to going to a place where you might not know anybody.”

But the CBP officials stationed abroad look out for each other, Murray adds.

“You do kind of become reliant on each other. You watch out for each other, look out for each other,” he says, adding this extends beyond the airport to the “larger embassy community.”

Shannon Airport is located in the west of Ireland. Airport manager Niall Kearns says Americans working there enjoy the picturesque local area.

Officers moving to Dublin are assisted with finding accommodation by the local embassy, whereas officers moving to Shannon must make their own living arrangements. Instead, colleagues will offer each other tips and tricks on where to live.

From his position at Shannon Airport, airport manager Kearns enjoys seeing how the US airport workers adapt to their new home.

“It’s really been great to see how they settle into local communities around County Clare and around County Limerick,” says Kearns. “I know from speaking to some of them, they love spending their time off going hiking, or going visiting different cities and exploring the Wild Atlantic Way while they’re here.”

American CBP officials are permitted to spend a maximum of six years working abroad at preclearance locations before they must return to the US.

Murray worked in Ireland for that full duration. And his current job might be based stateside, but he regularly checks in with his colleagues abroad –  his present role involves helping “make the lives and the experience overall for the employees overseas” smooth.

And as well as maintaining work links in Dublin and Shannon, Murray returned to Ireland last summer for a vacation.

“I have a number of friends that I’ve remained in contact with over there,” he says.

Overall, Murray says he enjoyed working in Dublin because it gave him “a much more expanded worldview of how other people think and how other people live.”

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