For decades, foreign visitors traveling to the United States had to fill out their immigration arrival forms after they were passed out by attendants during flights originating abroad. Then those passengers handed the form to a passport-control officer at the airport.
As of Friday, that process will end at Miami International Airport and several other U.S. airports, including Chicago, Las Vegas and Houston.
The change is part of an effort to shorten passport-control lines, which have slowed as a result of increased security and the budgetary cuts from the so-called “sequester.” Passengers have sometimes missed connecting domestic flights because of the slow immigration lines.
The elimination of paper I-94 arrival forms for international visitors will take effect nationwide at all airports and seaports by May 21. Foreign visitors arriving by land will still be required to fill out the paper forms, officials say.
Last month, federal officials at MIA launched a publicity campaign to encourage U.S. citizens and permanent residents to sign up for Global Entry.
The program exempts citizens and registered residents from being processed by a passport-control officer on arrival. Instead, they will run their passports and Green Cards through the slot on an automated kiosk.
Speaking to reporters Thursday, MIA and Customs and Border Protection officials said the I-94 paper form will be replaced by electronic passenger manifests sent by airlines. Airline ticket agents will gather the travelers’ information at check-in in the country of departure.
Ken Pyatt, the Miami-Dade Aviation Department’s deputy director for operations, and Roland Suliveras, the Customs and Border Protection director at MIA, said the change will reduce the time it takes to process arriving passengers by at least 20 seconds apiece.
The idea is to ensure that passengers don’t spend a lot of the time in line, and at the same time enable passport-control officers to spend less time scrutinizing paperwork and more time questioning passengers if necessary.
“The I-94 record will be generated through previously transmitted traveler information that we currently receive from the carriers,” Suliveras said. “This will, in turn, speed up the process from when the passenger gets off the flight and actually gets processed through CBP through our primary booths.”
Pyatt said MIA will benefit from the new procedure because it is a major gateway.
“As the fastest-growing U.S. airport for international passengers and the second-busiest gateway in the country, this will make a huge difference for us,” said Pyatt. John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York is the busiest.
In 2012, 9.6 million foreign passengers arrived at MIA, and each day, at peak times, 2,000 passengers arrive to be processed by passport agents, according to MIA officials.
Automation of the I-94 process will save CBP between $1 million and $1.5 million every month, the agency said.
Though the I-94 paper form will no longer be required on arrival, CBP officials said that if a foreign visitors wants a copy of the form, it can be obtained through the website www.cbp.gov/I94.
Details on the procedure to access the website will be available in 13 languages, including Arabic, Chinese, Farsi, French, German, Korean, Japanese, Polish, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish.
The Customs form still has to be filled out, though Suliveras said CBP was studying the possibility of phasing it out as well.
The first airport to adopt the new system was Orlando International Airport on Tuesday, when foreign passengers on three flights were no longer required to fill out the I-94 form. By Wednesday, all foreign passengers on all international flights arriving at Orlando were exempted from the chore.
Friday is the day Miami, Chicago, Las Vegas and Houston will join the system. Next Tuesday, airports in New York, Boston, Buffalo, Baltimore, Detroit, Atlanta, Tampa, San Juan and New Orleans will come online.
On May 14, the system will include San Francisco, Hawaii, Guam, Tucson, El Paso, Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles, San Diego and Laredo. Finally, on May 21, all remaining airports and seaports are expected to go online with the new system.