Earlier this year I took a trip to the USA. While the situation regarding trans people has deteriorated since then, I thought it would be a good idea to explain the process and my experiences for when someone more sensible is in the White House.
For those new to my blog, I’ve explained the process of changing my name and gender on my UK passport in a previous post.
Thoughout this post I’m assuming that you are eligable for visa free travel. If you require a US visa then contact the US embassy for advice.
The process starts with the ESTA website. I would strongly advise filling this out before booking anything. That way if you are declined visa free travel you have time to arrange visas and alternatives with the US embassy. And double check everything, especially that you have not said “Yes I am a terrorist”!
Also being a little wary of being turned back, I booked my flights via Dublin. Ireland is the only European country to offer preclearance. This is where passengers undergo the US border formalities before boarding the aircraft. If anything did go horribly wrong, it would just be a 1 hour flight across the Irish sea to get home.
In the end, it turned out that my flights to the US would be ultra stressful, but not for any immigration reasons. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.
On the day before my flight, I attempted to check in online. While I could check in for my flight to Dublin, I was unable to print a boarding pass for the US flight. Checking various forums this means I had the dreaded “SSSS”. The US authorities select passengers for enhanced security checks. According to the forums this can take up to 40 minutes. Officially you are not meant to know before reaching the airport. But if you can’t check in online that’s a good sign that you have been selected. The forums advised minimising cabin baggage as that would be manually screened. So I moved a few extra items to my hold bag to make it easier.
Things went down hill when I reached the airport. It was blanketed in thick fog. Many flights were canceled with the passengers being bussed to other airports. My flight was due to fly from Cardiff. Thankfully the fog lifted in time for the flight to operate, but with a 1 hour delay. This wouldn’t leave me much time in Dublin. This was concerning me as I had the dreaded ‘SSSS’ printed on my pass. We were still over Wales when the gate officially closed in Dublin. Things were also were also getting lively in the cabin. Most of the passengers were Welsh rugby fans, and they’d been drinking heavily. I was worried that the police would be meeting the plane at Dublin.
The Dublin Rush
We landed at Dublin with about 50 minutes to spare and to further increase my stress levels the plane was parked on a remote stand. The bus ride to arrivals seemed to take an eternity. Once in the terminal, I followed the signs for connections. Irish passport control was pretty quick, and then it was down stairs to the preclearance zone.
This was where I had to face my SSSS fears. The buzzer went off when my pass was scanned and I was taken over to the enchanced check area. I had to go through the metal detector, the body scan machine and a very thorough physical search. The staff were lovely and did a lot to help calm my nerves. All in all the process took about 5 minutes. My pass was stamped to show I’d been through the checks. (I should add that security leaving the US was very slow, it took 20 mins to go through the TSA checkpoint without the enhanced checks so I can see how they take 40 mins)
Then it was on to US border control. The agent was surprisingly friendly, and I had to answer a couple of questions about my visit. I was photographed, and had my fingerprints scanned, before one final question. Did I have any food? I did have a chocolate bar which was OK.
I arrived at the gate with just a few people left to board. My name was checked off the ‘SSSS’ list and I was free to walk down the airbridge to the plane! The feeling of relief was incredible when I took my seat and knew I was really on my way!
Coming back I just had the TSA to negotiate. I’m guessing travelling through New York where almost anything goes helps. That said they are very slow compared to UK or European airport security. They only had 1 lane open for normal passengers and 1 fast track for business class. It took 20 minutes in line before being checked. As someone used to 2 or 3 minute waits and even smaller airports having multiple lanes open this felt very odd. The check though was fairly standard, just very very slow!
I hope this is useful to anyone planning a trip to the US. I would like to go back when the political situation improves.
If you have any questions, then feel free to ask in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer them.