eAPIS – Coming Home

July 29, 2009 by Bruce Landsberg

eAPIS Customs TrainingNo safety this week—just an international story. If you’re leaving the continental U.S. by now you’ve heard of eAPIS, Electronic Advance Passenger Information System. If not, don’t leave home without going through the ASF eAPIS Customs Training course first. Here is my experience with the system.

Took a trip to Canada two weeks ago for a conference in Toronto with collegiate aviation educators. Before going I went to AOPA’s flight planning web area to see how things might have changed since my last trip north. There is an excellent brief on how to get out and back into the country without irritating the TSA or Customs.

First, register with CBP and only after doing that, can you put in a passenger manifest for outbound and inbound legs. It is a bit cumbersome and documents are needed so assemble them first: Passport, pilot certificate and aircraft customs sticker numbers. The government site is typically stodgy and not very nimble but you can get through it. I’d recommend registering a week before the trip to make sure you complete the process. After the first time, when they know who you are, it should go much faster.

Don’t ask me why CBP needs an outbound manifest but that’s the way it is. I also filed my return manifest into Buffalo to clear customs—you still have to stop at an airport that is a port of entry.

The Canadians were wonderfully efficient-call the central 800 number for CANPASS, tell them who, when, where and why with an ETA and call again on arrival. They welcomed me to Canada by phone and that was it! Wonder when U.S. might get to that point.

Coming home, I called Buffalo customs the day before. The officer knew exactly who I was and when I planned to clear through—apparently the government computers were inexplicably linked-odd! The next morning I flew across the lake and landed at KBUF. Before I could get out of the aircraft the officer was there. He glanced at my passport, pilot and medical certificate and wished me a nice day—less than two minutes and no paperwork to fill out.

Wish I could tell you that it was ugly but in this case the system worked very well. There are non-government eAPIS websites that likely will ease the way through for a small fee. Coming from the islands where web is not available, file both outbound and inbound manifests before leaving. If you get delayed or there is a change let customs know by phone. Apparently, CBP understands that there may be some flex as long as the contents of the manifest haven’t changed.

Other experiences – Good or not so?

Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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  • Brian Preston

    I read about the retired Vietnam officer who filed to go to Mexico from Long Beach, Ca with three passengers and were assailed with automatic weapons by Customs agents and airport police, and treatred like terrorists in his Cessna 210. They were afraid to take their hands off their heads for fear of being shot. The pilot later found out that this happened two other times, once in Long Beach and another at a nearby airport. He was considering suing. We really hope he does. My wife and I would NEVER fly over the border, because of this outrageous gestapo treatment of US citizens. They should be prosecuted. Of course, the so-called officials were in denial..

  • Egon Frech

    The U.S. will never get back to the point the Canadians are at. We used to be there before 9-11, but the terrorists have made our government so paranoid that we have now given up some of the freedoms (and courtesies) that we once had in order to chase the elusive goal of perfect safety.

    My experience was not as good as yours. The outbound trip to Winnipeg, Manitoba, was relatively easy.

    I filed the EAPIS form before I left (with some expletives as I tried to extircate myself from having entered my wife as a crew member instead of a passenger). I called the CANPASS office and made arrangements to clear into Canada at Piney, Manitoba. We encountered weather along the way and no fuel at our planned stop, so I called CANPASS to tell them of the delay. I also anxiously called FSS to alert somebody at Customs that our plans had changed. FSS professed not to know how to deal with this, but said they would try. Later, they called back to say the people to contact would be the Customs post at Beaudette, Minnesota, some distance removed from my route. How was one to know that, especially since I planned to leave the U.S. at Piney/Pine Creek, an airstrip that straddles the border adjacent to the highway and has both Canadian and U.S. Customs right on site?

    The Canadians were waiting for us at the edge of the ramp, were friendly and checked our passports through the opened window of the plane, just as if we had crossed the border in a car.

    The way back was more troublesome. I filed the EAPIS form a day in advance from my daughter’s place, got an acknowledgement of receipt, and called the U.S. border post at Pine Woods to make specific arrangements. The officer there couldn’t find the form, but said I must not have filed it, because the system forwards it to the border post where you say in EAPIS that you are going to enter. Finally, after some discussion, he found it in tomorrow’s pile, and said he thought they could handle my arrival, but I should call an hour before my departure just to make sure. (What else do they have to do there? They don’t even get a lot of automobile traffic.)

    The next day, I called two hours before my scheduled arrival (the AOPA book says they require two hours’ notice) and that officer didn’t seem to know anything about the previous day’s discussions or the EAPIS filing. He asked whether I had filed the EAPIS. I said yes. He asked whether I had received any communication from them indicating there was a problem. I said no. He said he thought it would be all right and they could handle it. I never did get an e-mail (as I had been led to expect) from EAPIS saying I was authorized to re-enter the U.S.

    When I arrived, there was a CBP SUV parked at the edge of the ramp, and a building near the self-service gas pumps. No Customs agent. I was puzzled. I had announced on the Unicom that I was landing, and after landing had specifically said on the Unicom that I needed U.S. Customs. I assumed they monotor the frequency. I waited a few minutes, then got out of the airplane to check whether the agent was in the building. Nope, it was empty. Also, big mistake, as the Customs agent came down the road in a second SUV and proceeded to shout at me that I am supposed to remain in the airplane (not just with it, but in it, he insisted). He then checked the whole airplane with a Geiger counter (looking for nuclear weapons?), and ordered me to take EVERYTHING out of the airplane. After pawing through my baggage and Oshkosh camping gear, he allowed us to reload the airplane and asked me to bring our passports and come with him to the office. There, I was directed to a seat, where I waited about 15 minutes while he did something on a computer in the far corner. Finally, a second officer gave me back the passports and wished me a nice day. I walked back to the airplane and we took off.

    At Oshkosh, I found a lady from USCBP who was fielding questions on behalf of EAPIS in the government pavillion. A number of pilots were seeking answers, some of which concerned WHY all of this is necessary, while others tried to understand how to comply. She said the web site is being revised to make it more user-friendly (I suppose operational security concerns prevented Beta-testing). She also said I needn’t have worried too much about the precise time of the outbound border crossing, as they’re not watching individual flights and checking them off against the EAPIS filings. Once you’ve received the EAPIS blessings to depart, they may choose to inspect you before departure, but after that nobody’s watching you. They have agreements with the border countries that close out the file.

    Just about all of the pilots were discomfited by the whole process and had difficulty understanding why all of this extra rigamarole is necessary, when you still have to make arrangements with the foreign Customs service and with the U.S. border post. She said, “You’ll get used to it.” I agreed that I probably will, but then, the Germans also got used to a lot of things during the events leading up to the Second World War. I really don’t like the way all of this is going.

    Egon Frech

  • Bruce Webbon

    I had a very unpleasant and somewhat scary experience with eAPIS and US customs earlier this summer. I tried very hard to follow their rules and was disgusted with the outcome. I was directed by customs to document my experience. I faxed them the letter (below). I have not heard from them since and certainly hope the matter is closed.
    1 July 2009

    The purpose of this note is to document the circumstances of my re-entry into the US from Canada on 27 June 2009. I talked with an Officer (name deleted) who requested this clarification.

    I recently completed a flying trip from WA state through Canada to Alaska returning to WA state. There were 9 GA airplanes in the group, which departed Olympia, WA on 16 June.

    The group leader from (name deleted) handled all of the customs notifications and each aircraft completed the required eAPIS forms separately. I completed my own eAPIS forms for all US border crossings on 15 June using a computer at (name deleted) hangar in Olympia. The web site said the forms were successfully submitted and I would receive a confirming email. However, I did not have my own computer and did not receive those emails (attached) until I returned home on 28 June.

    The group tour ended in Ketchikan on 26 June. I had decided to visit relatives in Canada before returning so I handled my own border crossing arrangements for the return. I was only able to find an eAPIS phone number through Canadian customs and I called on the 25th to verify that the form was in the system. I talked with someone who confirmed that and he read the information back to me and said we were good to go.

    We entered Canada through Prince Rupert customs on the 26th, spent the night near Smithers and got ready to return to Olympia the morning of Saturday the 27th. I tried to reach US customs from the Smithers airport before we left using the number I was given for Olympia. I tried several times and could not reach a person. I left several messages on the answering system giving my intentions and ETA of 1630 in Olympia. I tried again at a gas stop in Quesnel, BC and again from the air before crossing the border. I received a border crossing squawk code and landed at Olympia ~ 1645.

    We remained in the airplane for some time while trying to reach someone in customs who could tell us what to do. I finally reached Officer (name deleted) who was not a happy camper. Apparently he had not received any advance notice of our arrival or the eAPIS forms. After a lengthy discussion he directed us to call back in 15 minutes after he had checked out our passport info, et al. We did so and apparently he was satisfied by what he found. He provided a verbal clearance at 1745 on Saturday, 27 June. He asked me to fax the information in this note to:

    attn: VBT Tacoma

    Hopefully this matter is now closed. Obviously the eAPIS system doesn’t work. It certainly isn’t user friendly from the traveler’s side. I can be reached at the address below if there are further questions.

  • Jon Rudolf

    Bruce, I am glad you had an uneventful experience returning from Toronto. I too had no problems returning from Calgary to Montana last week, although using the eAPIS took at least five times as long as it needed to. Plus the Customs inspector spent fifteen minutes entering who-knows-what into a computer while we sat there. Frankly I’d rather have filled out the paper form and handed it to him, as I’ve done for years. The system is remarkably user-unfriendly, even by US government standards, and the annoyance at my having to be secretary and enforcement proxy for the DHS is only outweighed by the outrage as a US citizen of having to obtain permission in advance to LEAVE the country. I suppose I should be happy my departure was not celebrated with a dozen law enforcement agents with weapons drawn endangering the lives and safety of me and my passengers and delaying my flight for no practical purpose, as has happened to several of our AOPA members.
    This system makes it more of a pain to fly internationally for zero benefit. Frankly I can’t imagine why a foreign pilot would want to fly here and experience the hassles, wasted time and potential abuse for simply wanting to contribute to our flagging economy.
    As mentioned above, the Canadian system works well. Our system wastes time, money, and inhibits safety by leaving pilots absolutely terrified of making an enroute change due to weather etc. Yes, officially you can make a change, but the FAA cannot seem to get messages to Customs on any given day.
    AOPA has failed its membership on this one. True, the current rules are slightly less onerous than the initial proposal, but really not by much.
    Certainly there aren’t all that many members who fly private aircraft internationally…clearly not enough to attract the full attention and support of AOPA. Can I ask you what would AOPA’s response be to a proposal to abolish phone access to FSS and require DUATS filing, even to those not savvy with computers and those for whom English is not a primary language?
    Sorry for the rant, but it bothers me that AOPA seems content with this situation. What we need is something resembling the Canadian system, where you call one number, from anywhere in the world, and the government employees accurately pass on notification of arrival to the appropriate facility. If they insist on using this asinine internet system, that should at the very least be sufficient notification without having to make ten toll calls from outside the US to a phone that’s either busy unanswered, or the wrong number.
    Happy flying.

  • David MacRae

    I have been flying across the US Canada border for more than 40 years, right through the period when we had the US-based “GATE” (General Aviation Telephonic Entry) program that fairly closely resembled the Candian CANPASS program.

    GATE worked until it was shut down post 9/11. I could fly from Toronto to Trenton, NJ, land at TTN, taxi past the ramp, ascertain that there was no need to stop and then hop home to Princeton 5 minutes away. Without GATE it costs $400 to clear customs at TTN.

    While GATE was somewhat more cumbersome than CANPASS, instead of an updated GATE, what we got was a heavy handed clunky eAPIS system that in spite of the lofty promises of “seamless” operation is anything but.

    It took me as long to file the eAPIS notification as it took to make the flight from Montreal to Albany, and I still had to pre-arrange arrival at ALB. You would think that if the system were designed correctly it would not be necessary to call the intended airport of landing to arrange for arrival. In fairness the CPB staff at ALB are always unfailingly polite and efficient. There, at least, eAPIS hasn’t broken anything.

    It is important to remember that the reason that CANPASS and GATE were created, was that pilots were considered good risks. They had too much to lose if they strayed from the rules (like their aircraft for example). Regardless of the reason, this low risk scenario has been forgotten or never explored by the current ultra-paranoid DHS/CPB. The point is that the bad-guys are not going to obey the rules regardless of their intent, and there is no perfect system, even with a “Check-Point Charlie” approach that requires a special subset of law-abiding citizens to seek permission to leave their country.

    I hoped, and still do that the current administration might relax this nightmare somewhat. Online registration/flight planning – OK, but just one way, and linked to DUAT or its equivalent. Give us paperless procedures that are backed up with a functioning phone notification system. It really should not be a system that is harder to use than driving across the border. Otherwise we are really being treated as a lower class of travelling citizen.

    The constant myopic focus and bleating of AOPA about user-fees misses the point. The real threat to GA is over-regulation. The eAPIS and LASP regulations are just prime examples of the slippery slope that we are riding.

  • Bill Tharp

    I have flown from northern NJ to Montreal and back twice in the last 30 days and have to agree with all of David MacRae’s comments. I guess I’ve been lucky so far as to not have the experiences some the other commenters have had.

    The eAPIS system is cumbersome. Why one can save crew member info and not passenger info on the system is perplexing. CANPASS keeps a record of all my previous passengers, why can’t eAPIS. It would save quite a bit of time filling out the manifests. Also how about having the ability to press one button for a return to the US manifest form with the same crew and passenger info already filled in and just let me make any modificatons that might be needed instead of starting from scratch when the return date is the same as the departure date?

    When I needed to ask for help when filling out the manifest form my emailed response was really just a “canned” response and totally useless, although it did come in a timely manner. I found the answer to my question by simply playing around with the only choices the system offers, which actually took less time than the worthless response.

    The CBP at ALB has always been pleasant and efficient, and overall I can’t say I’ve had much trouble with the system in that regard, but it absolutely is more cumbersome and time consuming. I’ve always called and confirmed my return times with ALB a day in advanced and then made another call at least 2 hours before arriving at ALB and this procedures has worked well. However, I have had times, once in the last two visits and several times on previous visits, when I can not get through to ALB CBP in a timely manner which is distracting to say the least. Also, I’ve found that many of the “Landing Rights Airports” that would be more convenient for me to use don’t offer service after 5 pm anymore thereby forcing me to use ALB. Inconvenience of US citizens is a very low priority for the CBP and the TSA.

    As many have mentioned I too fail to see the security benefits of having to get permission to leave the US and the the email one receives for re-entry never states that I am “cleared” to come home but that I must make separate arrangements with the proper CBP office to do so. Hello? – isn’t that something I always had to do before?

    One last point. If as PIC, I have to act as a government employee, aka – a TSA agent I shouldn’t I get their pay and benefit package.

  • Bruce Landsberg

    I have your messages and have passed along to the people in AOPA who deal with these things. As it has been explained to me in the past, DHS and TSA are NOT concerned with inconveniencing citizens – even non-threatening ones.

    Their focus is exclusively on keeping the bad guys at bay. It probably will take an act of congress to loosen this up and most in congress are very careful not to look like they’re soft on security risk.

    Not the answer I’d like to give……Bruce

  • Discouraged

    I am discouraged by reading all the problems folks are having with border crossings. Years ago I flew to Canada and the Bahamas with just filing out a simple form and typically very pleasant agents to work with. Reading what has transpired in the last few years, I am sad to say I will probably NEVER fly my light aircraft into Canada or the Bahamas again. A sad statement on the sacrafice of our liberties in the pursuit of safety. If only our government would not take knee jerk reactions and think through what they propose, we’d all be a lot better off.

  • Lee Simkins

    I have, for two years, wanted to fly to Canada with my wife. However, the reports I have heard, warning of the investment of time, the paperwork (electronic or otherwise), and the risk of getting “cross threaded” with CBP or the FAA have kept me from making the trips.

    So I have traveled to Canada by car, and motorcycle, enjoyed Pelee Island– but not by flying.

    The reality is that CBP does what they do to GA because they can. The southern border is another matter, and there it is also much easier to walk into the US, illegally, than it is to fly in — legally. Our government is not working for us; we are working for them.

  • David W. Alger

    I have to take issue with Bruce’s experience. I fly to Canada 4-5 times a year. I did all the apis stuff for my last trip. Also note if you are REGISTERED with CanPass they will normally give you a number BEFORE you leave the states and tell you “if no one is there to greet you, you may continue on”. I have been using CanPass since it’s inception with no trouble and have yet to even see a customs agent in Canada using the proper procedures.
    However, apis is a different story. After the unbelievably cumbersome and un-intuitive forms the government has made were filled for outbound and inbound flights, I arrived in Albany, NY and was greeted by customs agents who promptly asked for all the same information that was on my apis form in the first place! Then , in turn, they wanted my airworthyness certificate and my registration! I asked what the point of asking for all that information was and got a curt reply that they needed to “verify”.

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  • Walt Roberts

    “I have your messages and have passed along to the people in AOPA who deal with these things. As it has been explained to me in the past, DHS and TSA are NOT concerned with inconveniencing citizens – even non-threatening ones.
    Their focus is exclusively on keeping the bad guys at bay. It probably will take an act of congress to loosen this up and most in congress are very careful not to look like they’re soft on security risk.
    Not the answer I’d like to give……Bruce”

    Bruce, this is indeed the problem. And the solution. The question is, how do we convince Congress to act? “Soft on security risk” is one thing. Converting the USA into the USSA is quite another.

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