One of the biggest annoyances in travel, particularly around Asia, is the snaking queues at immigration. While banks, airline check-in counters and immigration in the US and some places in Europe have moved on to the faster single-queue-multi-server model, the immigration queues in Asia are still stuck with multi-queue-multi-server models that result in longer average wait times. (See related NYT article: Longer line for a shorter wait at the supermarket )
The photo above shows the Changi Airport Terminal 2 queues, one of the most efficient immigration channels around. Even then, there's clearly a wide variation in queuing time depending on your passport and which queue you join.
There are a number of country-specific approaches to minimise queueing time at immigration. In Singapore: Singaporeans, PRs and employment pass holders can zip through the auto-gates. In Jakarta, you can apply for a Saphire card and get through their version of the auto-gate. Other airports like Bali have the meet-and-assist fast-track services that zip you through. Across most of Asia, there's also the APEC travel card that gives you access to the fast-moving APEC/diplomats counter.
Still, not everyone can pay for, or get access to, some of these more systematic solutions. Here's a set of queuing tactics that could help get you through immigration quickly, gleaned from many hours sucked into these time blackholes.
1. The twofer
|1 queue, 2 officers = good|
|1 queue, 1 officer = not so good|
This one pays off quite well if you find it. Quite simply, you find a queue that has two (or more) immigration officers serving the queue. Bangkok Suvarnabumi Airport is one of the airports where this happens quite frequently. Most travellers are oblivious to this and queue lengths are the same, but some queues would have two officers processing the queue, effectively more than halving the wait time versus an equivalent queue with just one officer.
2. The high option-value queue
|Counters 3 & 5 aren't manned but provide option-value to counter 4|
The shifts for immigration officers in Asia are quite erratic and queues can close or open suddenly for various reasons (e.g. Muslim prayer breaks, snack break, etc.). This also means that unmanned counters provide good option value. That is, the chance that an unmanned counter suddenly opens up and you get to whiz to the front of the queue is quite significant. In a situation like above, queue 4 would have the best chance to the front of both queues 3 and 5 if they open up.
3. One-plus queue
This is one variation of the high-option value queue: basically, you pick the queue next to the limited access counter, e.g. the 'Diplomat-only', or ' Airline-crew only' counter. When that queue is empty, the officer inevitably processes people in the next queue, which makes it marginally faster. The Manila NAIA Terminal 1 airport used to have this, but they've now changed to a single queue for all counters. It's still an option at the Ngurah Rai Bali airport though, the last time I was there.
If none of these options are available, well, fire up your smartphone and start clearing emails or play your favourite casual game. Inevitably, as soon as you get into a good rhythm of email or into a critical part of your game, it'll be your turn in the queue!