Waiting in US Immigrations Line

By Ron Pereira Updated on January 14th, 2011

I have really enjoyed learning more about the Queuing Theory from our friend, Peter Abilla, over at the excellent shmula blog. Peter’s most recent post is about the Queuing Psychology at the Gus Pump.

Yesterday I traveled home from England. Instead of my normal route from Gatwick to DFW I had to start at Heathrow with a stop over in Chicago before getting to Dallas.

Upon arrival in Chicago I needed to clear customs, pick up my bag, and then get back on the SAME plane 2 hours later. I won’t even talk about all the NVA steps in this disastrous process.

Initially, I was thinking I had lots of time and would even be able to grab a bite to eat. That was until I entered the queue at US immigrations.

The line was super long and I am kicking myself for not taking a picture of it. I even had my camera handy but flying over the ocean with no sleep takes a bit out of even the most serious blogger!

Anyhow, I got in line and stood there for about 5 minutes. I didn’t move. The guy in front of me looked back and said something like, “this is going to suck.” I concurred. A lady then came and yelled out, “If you are not a US citizen move to this line.” I looked and noted that the non-US line was much smaller and grew irritated. I wondered if I should attempt my “English-that-sounds-more-Australian” accent and get into that line. I decided against it.

In his most recent post Peter noted the propositions for the Psychology of Queuing. They are:

  1. Unoccupied time feels longer than occupied time.
  2. Process-waits feel longer than in-process waits.
  3. Anxiety makes waits seem longer.
  4. Uncertain waits seem longer than known, finite waits.
  5. Unfair waits are longer than equitable waits.
  6. The more valuable the service, the longer the customer is willing to wait.
  7. Solo waits feel longer than group waits.

Number 3 really jumped ahead of the pack for me. I needed to catch another plane and panic could have easily crept in. Then number 4 was definitely relevant here as things were not looking good. The line was simply not moving. I won’t venture into numbers 5 or 6 today as this deserves a post of its own! Lastly, number 7 is very true. I struck up a conversation with the guy in front of me and we chatted our way through the line. We complained to one another, talked about Giordano’s pizza, and basically had a nice conversation. This helped a lot.

In the end, it seems the US customs agents were on a break before the big rush as things did begin to pick up after waiting for about 10 minutes. I made it through no problem and even managed to choke down a Filet-o-Fish from Mickey D’s. Ah, the joys of traveling.

Oh, I did take note of the non-US line once our line started to move quickly. They didn’t look pleased seeing our line move so fast while their line crept along at snails pace. I am glad I kept my terrible English accent in the bag after all.

  1. Mark Graban

    May 13, 2007 - 9:55 am

    You’d probably get in trouble with homeland security for taking pictures of the line or customs, probably better that you didn’t!

  2. Ron Pereira

    May 13, 2007 - 12:30 pm

    Good point Mark. You are probably right!

  3. Maciej

    May 14, 2007 - 3:27 pm

    Flying into the U.S. through Toronto a few years ago I recall seeing signs forbidding photography of any sort as soon as we crossed into the U.S. side of the terminal.

    On a tangent, getting into Canada always seems much more pleasant. At the very least, Canadians tend to replace words like “strictly forbidden” with “please” :). Even though the wait might be the same, going through Canadian customs in Toronto or Edmonton is done in a larger room so it doesn’t feel like you’re being herded like cattle quite so much. Less anxiety, and it seems a lot easier to estimate how long it will take.

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