Customs Airport Security and Screening Service
Customs and Border Protection, Department of Homeland Security
As international travel resumes and border restrictions are lifted, Customs and Border Protection is increasing its use of technology to streamline the customs experience.
Updated automated kiosks, electronic gates and facial comparison technology are helping the agency reduce long customs lines and limit the need for CBP officers to perform lengthy security checks. Virtual interviews for renewing trusted traveler program enrollment, introduced because of the pandemic, are also making it easier and faster for customers to renew their participation in these programs.
In contrast with tech-driven improvements to CBP checkpoints, customers often experience frustration when trying to locate information and answers on CBP’s website, finding the content difficult to understand—a particularly significant challenge as people need to understand customs rules and procedures in order to inform the decisions they make. Improved communication with the public during the pandemic has been and will continue to be particularly important as travel restrictions keep changing.
decrease in the backlog of Global Entry applications since 2019, thanks in part to virtual renewal interviews.
of visitors surveyed on CBP’s website were not able to complete the purpose of their visit in fiscal year 2020.
Customer Experience Insights
The Global Entry program provides expedited screening to low-risk, preapproved travelers. While travelers give high ratings to the program and the convenience it provides, some people have had difficulty enrolling. In 2019, it was taking CBP 150 days or longer to process applications that required additional vetting, and appointments for the required security interviews were hard to get.
During the pandemic, CBP began allowing virtual interviews for people renewing their Global Entry applications—an option that has continued as the pandemic lingers. The virtual option saves time for applicants and enables CBP to conduct more interviews each week. This new process, along with a decline in new applications due to the pandemic, enabled CBP to reduce the backlog of Global Entry applications to 182,000 as of July 2021 from about 500,000 applications in March of 2020, a decrease of about 65%.
In July of 2021, CBP was processing about 70% of applications within 15 days or fewer. Applications requiring additional vetting were taking about 90 days, compared with 150 days or longer in October 2019, a decrease of 40%.
For passengers enrolled in trusted traveler programs, the agency is piloting updated mobile kiosks (called totems) and electronic gates, as well as expanding the use of facial comparison technology to verify a traveler’s identity. These technologies could streamline the customs checkpoint experience and reduce the need for passengers to present documents to CBP officials. Currently, it takes passengers about 90 seconds to check in and process their passports and other travel documents at CBP kiosks, but the new totem kiosks and automated E-gates equipped with facial comparison technology can process travelers in just three to four seconds, with the potential to greatly reduce long lines at customs. The new kiosks are also mobile, allowing officials to adjust the placement of them as volume at customs checkpoint lines fluctuates.
Although various facial recognition technologies are already in use by federal, state and local government agencies, research has demonstrated that some of these systems routinely misidentify individuals from certain demographic groups.4 When implementing this technology, CBP must pay particular attention to ensuring that it is used in an equitable way and does not negatively impact travelers. According to CBP officials, the facial comparison technology used for trusted traveler identification—which matches travelers to the photo they provided to the agency in their application—has no differences in effectiveness across races and ethnicities. However, officials noted that insufficient lighting at some ports of entry can alter the effectiveness of the technology, and that customers can opt out of the facial comparison process.
According to our analysis of CBP’s customer survey data, the most common reasons people have a hard time completing their task are:
- The content was not easy to understand (56%).
- There was a page error, bad link or technical issue (33%).
- The information was outdated (11%).
Customers visit CBP’s website to understand what items they may bring into the United States, learn about what they can expect at customs checkpoints and apply for trusted traveler programs. Difficulty interpreting this information can have serious consequences—customers may not be able to enter the United States or may have their trusted traveler program application denied if they misunderstand what they read on the website.
Noting that much of the language on CBP’s website is legal information about entry into the United States, CBP officials are working with agency legal staff to replace hard-to-understand content with plain language. Part of their strategy is giving legal staff more insight into the customer experience, including by having them listen to phone calls where customers were misinterpreting information they had read online. This helped legal staff understand, based on customers’ own words, why certain information was confusing and provided examples of how contact center staff typically answered questions, information that was then used in rewriting webpages.
Leading Customer Experience Practices
The Partnership and Accenture developed the following list of practices to understand how agencies prioritize the customer experience, and steps they can take to improve. The list is based on research about effective customer experience practices in both government and the private sector, and aligns with practices in a customer experience maturity self-assessment for agencies developed by the Office of Management and Budget.
A strong commitment and plan from agency leaders to prioritize customer experience is essential for sustained progress.
1. Includes high-quality customer experience in its strategic goals.
The agency’s strategic plan includes an initiative around the “stakeholder experience.”
2. Specifies customer feedback as a key measure of the organization’s performance.
The agency’s strategic plan does not include any metrics based on customer feedback.
3. Has a senior executive with the responsibility and authority to lead efforts to improve the customer experience across the organization.
Ease of Customer Interactions
Interactions with the federal government should be easy, transparent and designed around user needs.
For the most common services provided, customers can:
1. Complete common transactions using the service delivery channel of their choice.
Customers can complete program applications online, but sometimes must complete in-person interviews for security purposes. Although CBP is increasingly using video interviews, this option is not yet available to all customers.
2. Obtain status updates through online self-service.
Using their personal accounts, customers can check online for updates on the status of their trusted traveler program application.
3. Receive a response to feedback or answers to questions over social media.
CBP does not respond to customer questions on Facebook or Twitter, possibly because these sites are not a primary source of customer questions.
4. Access online information and support in languages other than English.
The CBP Information Center website is available in both Spanish and English, with fact sheets about specific programs available in 19 additional languages.
Listening to Customers and Acting on Feedback
To understand and prioritize customer needs, agencies should collect, publish, analyze and act on feedback.
1. Collects meaningful customer experience data across interactions and service delivery channels and shares it with the public.
While CBP collects customer experience data across service delivery channels, it does not currently share this data with the public.
2. Collects and analyzes first-hand customer feedback to understand customers’ experiences, based on their own words.
CBP collects feedback from customers on their interactions with the agency through its website, email and over the phone.
3. Aggregates and analyzes customer feedback across channels and programs, and shares feedback with relevant staff members so they can act on it.
CBP recently launched a customer feedback survey and once sufficient data has been collected, the agency plans to begin aggregating and analyzing it to improve services.