How Private Jets Allow Travelers to Skirt Immigration Around the World

It was a revelation that cost David Neal his job. The British official and retired soldier had been in charge of the U.K.’s borders until he began whistleblowing last month. “Borders chief sacked for revealed security threat from private jet passengers,” blared The Times of London.

What Neal revealed was that just one in five private jets touching down at an airport in London had been inspected by immigration officers. In other words, the passengers of hundreds and hundreds of planes each year effectively bypassed the border and slipped into the country. It was all because, Neal noted drily, they were wealthy enough to arrive by private plane.

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The government blamed bad data-recording at the airport Neal cited, London City or LCY. It’s an important private-jet touchdown because of its location, close to London’s answer to Wall Street, but is far smaller than Heathrow or Gatwick, the two major airports in the capital. (In 2022, LCY’s annual passenger tally was 3 million, less than one twentieth of Heathrow’s 61.5 million fliers that same year).

Border Force officials, the U.K.’s answer to DHS, are required to check 100 percent of passengers on any flight classed as “high risk,” which could simply mean that an adult onboard is traveling with a child whose name they do not share, or it could mean a flier’s details turn up on an intelligence database. But 79 percent of private flights, like those to LCY in 2023, faced no passport scrutiny whatsoever, according to the supposedly defective records Neal flagged.

It’s a startling revelation: Are fliers like these truly too VIP to be troubled by the TSA? Surely, there’s no such thing as sidestepping immigration? Can you cheat immigration simply by booking a charter flight? The worrying answer is: Maybe.

Airport Check-in Kiosk with Passport
What passport control. A shocking number of private jet fliers simply land and walk.

“It doesn’t surprise me at all,” said Justin Crabbe of charter specialist Jettly, which processes around 50,000 flights each month. “I’ve flown private hundreds of times, and when you land there’s such minimal security, even at customs we’ve pretty much breezed right through. And even the customs officers are nicer. There’s a different level of service when you’re going through immigration with a private aircraft, and there’s less scrutiny because you’re flying private.”

There are two ways that a private plane touches down in a new country, according to expert Doug Gollan, who runs the website Private Jet Comparisons. Both of them will make it breezier than trekking through the terminal at a Global Entry booth.

First, at a private terminal at a commercial airport such as LCY, the handling agent will escort you from the plane and whisk you away from the hordes of hoi polloi. “At Basel, we were taken through the back entrance, where they stamped out passports,” he said. “It’s the same back door type thing for cabin crew or diplomats.”

The second way to arrive is at a standalone private airport, or FBO, where a flight attendant or pilot might gather passengers’ documents and take them for review while fliers wait onboard. “All of a sudden, they come back and you’re good to go,” said Gollan. “It’s definitely a more low-key experience.”

The pandemic made that clearer than ever. While commercial aviation cratered, private planes took off like never before, with certain countries even opening their borders solely to those arriving by charter.

The Cayman Islands, for example, welcomed private jet tourists in October 2020, 18 months before all protocols were dropped. Fiji permitted private jet and yacht arrivals, within certain parameters, at around the same time. Both Thailand and South Africa offered similar exemptions to those arriving privately, as did the Seychelles.

But no matter how or where your private jet arrives, the flight manifests and other paperwork should be in good order, and reputable operators will handle such complexities. Still, that’s a less stringent check than any in-person, in-terminal assessment.

“From my experience, a private jet will allow you to skip the line, not the inspection,” said David Gitman, of private-charter specialist Monarch Air in South Florida. “At the end of the day, you’re going through the same checks commercial passengers do.”

In some cases, he notes, even more so: All luggage arriving and departing on private aircraft to certain countries, including Mexico and the Dominican Republic, will be individually scanned by customs. But there are also countries that operate more on trust than technicalities, like Canada, via its CanPass program. That’s aimed at creating friction-free touchdown for frequent, lower risk visitors and essentially allows clearance by phone. A pilot can land, call the CanPass office and wait 10 minutes or so for approval to open the door, without passports ever being inspected in person.

Aircraft in the hangar
Private jet operators admit that security is often lax at best.

“It happened to me twice, and honestly, I was shocked that they just took our word for it,” said one frequent private flier, who asked not to be identified. “We never saw a customs or immigration agent.” Added another: “You can easily understand how someone could get from Mexico to Canada then into the U.S., simply by flying private on a legitimate passport but they’re not the right person.”

The onus for such admin lies squarely on the operator, of course, and such criminality would require complicity from pilot and aircraft owner both.

“Technically, it’s doable, because it’s up to the pilot completely,” said a charter broker who requested anonymity. “Nobody is checking who is physically on the plane, and they can put anyone’s name they want on the manifest. It’s more like an honor system, so you’d need the pilot to lie, or at least give him a fake document, perhaps your brother’s passport if you resemble them.”

Still, it didn’t stop regular enquiries asking how to sidestep border controls, the broker said.

“Every six months, someone would call to ask to fly out of the country without going through customs and immigration,” he said. “And we’d just tell them that they’d need to contact someone else for what they were looking for.”

And the reasons for wanting to slip past the immigration booth can be sinister, as a different broker learned after arranging a plane from the U.S. to Colombia for a client.

“The stepson murdered his father, and you can’t kill someone and walk through a commercial terminal. There’s too much scrutiny at the border,” they recalled. “He wasn’t on a No Fly list yet when the operator accepted the trip, but when he landed he was arrested. There are loopholes you can use like that, and people know and understand: if you fly private, you get different treatment.”

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