If you travel internationally more than once every five years, then yes, Global Entry is worth it. And if you are having trouble getting the interview scheduled, I've got a "skip the line" tip for, you so read on!
Janet and I travel a lot. Big surprise, right? Most of our travel is international…I’ve passed through so many Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) immigration checkpoints the agents have to flip through a dozen pages in my passport book before they find a page they can stamp. And my passport is only two years old. Yet until recently, I never took the time to apply for Global Entry. I’m not sure why I put off applying, other than the cost...there is a $100 processing fee. The folks at CBP have gotten so good at processing boat and plane loads of returning U.S. citizens I didn’t think I’d get $100 worth of convenience out of the program. In recent years I’ve rarely had to wait more than 15 minutes to get my passport stamped, and no matter how long it takes, I still get to the baggage claim carousel before my luggage.
Every now and then we come in on a flight that arrives at the same time as several other international arrivals, and that always seems to happen when half the CBP agents stamping passports decide to go on a prolonged break. Those are the times that made Global Entry attractive to me, and back in February as Janet and I planned out our travel for the rest of this year, I decided the time was right to apply. The law of averages told me at least one of our upcoming trips would involve an hour long wait to get our passports stamped, and if I could avoid even one of those long waits, Global Entry would be worth it.
So, what is Global Entry and how does it work? Global Entry is a CBP program that expedites your reentry processing into the U.S. following international travel. You enter basic traveler information through a one-time online application form, CBP verifies the information along with your identity during an in-person interview with a CBP Agent at a processing facility, and then they create a record in the CBP immigration system with the information they’ve collected on you. That CBP record includes biometric information such as scans of your fingerprints and a facial-recognition quality mug shot, both of which are captured during your in-person interview.
If you have privacy concerns, the federal government already has everything you provide to Global Entry in some database somewhere, most of it from your passport application. So why do you have to provide the same information and biometric data again? Passports are processed by the State Department, Global Entry is a DHS/CBP program. Did you expect the federal government to be efficient?
I do have to note one important caveat. If you have a criminal record, an outstanding warrant, or any pending criminal charges, to include DUI, you may not be eligible for the Global Entry program. Those aren't automatic disqualifiers, but if any of that applies to you check with CBP before putting up the $100 application fee...the fee is non-refundable even if you aren't approved.
Once you are in the Global Entry system, passing through immigration processing anytime you reenter the U.S. after international travel is a breeze. While the rest of the travelers wait in line to get their passports stamped, you get a “skip the line” pass to go straight to baggage claim and customs. At least…that’s how it is supposed to work. But is it really that simple? After my recent experience with Global Entry I can say yeah, it really is that simple. Here’s what I went through from the beginning of my application through my first Global Entry facilitated pass through the CBP immigration checkpoint at Dulles after our recent European river cruise.
Pro Tip#1: If you do a google search on Global Entry you'll be directed to one of many services that charge an additional fee to process your application. That isn't necessary. Be sure to go directly to the CBP Global Entry website to fill out your application...it's easy, and their directions are straightforward.
The application process was simple. Applying for the Global Entry program is a three-step process, and I found the first two steps to be only slightly more invasive than applying for a credit card. You go to the CBP Global Entry website, create a Trusted Traveler account (I already had one from my TSA Pre-check application), log into that account, and then fill out a Global Entry Application form. The application form calls for basic identity and employment information, place of residence, your passport information, travel history for the past five years, and any criminal records you might have. It took me all of fifteen minutes to log into my Trusted Traveler account and fill out the application. Once you submit your application, you pay the processing fee by credit or debit card and that’s it. Well…almost. Your application gets a cursory review to make sure you aren’t on any FBI, DHS or DoD watch list, and if not, you get a conditional approval. They tell you it can take several months to get the conditional approval…mine came back in just a few days.
That’s the easy part. But you can’t use the conditional approval to get back into the country, you can only use it to proceed to the final step in the process…the interview. Once your Global Entry application has been conditionally approved you have to go through an in-person interview with a CBP agent at a processing facility. At the interview you are required to present documentation of your identity, citizenship and residence, get your picture and fingerprints taken, answer a few questions in front of a CBP agent where they verify everything you’ve submitted and then answer a few more random questions about the nature of your travels…the same random questions I get every time I pass through the immigration checkpoint at an airport.
The painful part of the interview is getting it scheduled. After receiving conditional approval of my Global Entry application, I went to the CBP website to schedule my interview at the closest CBP facility which is in Baltimore. The earliest interview I could find was eight months away. I checked at other facilities and found that I could get an interview scheduled in three month’s time at the Newark, NJ CBP facility. I grabbed the Newark slot and put it on my calendar.
Pro Tip#2: Use the CBP's Interview on Arrival Option.
Janet of course applied the same time as I did, and her experience was similar to mine. As I stewed over how long I would have to wait for the Global Entry interview, and the hassle of driving to and from Newark, Janet found out they have a program that allows you to go through the interview without an appointment. It’s like a skip the line pass to get the skip the line pass, and it’s called Global Entry Interview on Arrival. Once you have conditional approval of your application, at select international airports CBP offers a dedicated line at the immigration checkpoint where you can go through the usual immigration check and complete the Global Entry interview at the same time. And Dulles is one of the participating airports. We had a trip to Barbados planned for April with flights in and out of Dulles, and with May being the earliest we could get interviews in Newark, we decided to skip the line and go for the Interview on Arrival option.
When we arrived at Dulles after our Barbados trip, we followed the signs for the Global Entry Interview on Arrival line. It was in the same area as the rest of the arriving passengers getting their passports stamped, it was clearly marked, and there was a CBP agent dedicated to the interview on arrival line. There were only a few people ahead of us in line, so I was optimistic we wouldn’t have long to wait. I was wrong. Turns out most people can’t follow simple directions. They stepped up for their interview without the necessary documentation or the conditional approval of their application. Rather than turning anyone away, which is what I would have done, the CBP agent did his best to take care of everyone in line. That meant a longer wait for us, but at least by the time we got through the interview our luggage was waiting for us. And I didn't have to drive all the way to Newark.
The interview itself was straightforward. I had the conditional approval letter on my cellphone, I had my passport, and I had my driver’s license which was all I needed by way of documentation. After presenting all that to the CBP agent, I stood for the facial recognition quality mugshot, put my fingers on their scanner so my fingerprints could be entered into their biometric database, answered a few random questions about my past travels, and that was it. I had final approval. The interview process itself only took about ten minutes, most of which was spent getting my fingerprints scanned. For some reason the scanner had a hard time reading my fingers.
Our Global Entry ID cards came in the mail about a week after the interview, but you can start using Global Entry as soon as your interview is complete. As long as you are approved at the interview you'll get a Global Entry ID number, and that's all you need. The Global Entry ID card is only used at land borders, not airports.
The first international trip where we were able to use our newly minted Global Entry status was when we returned from our European river cruise last month. This was one of those flights where I questioned the value of Global Entry. All of the CBP stations in the airport immigration area were staffed, and our flight was the only arrival at the time. But I had a skip the line pass and I was determined to use it. As the rest of our fellow travelers queued up in the usual immigration checkpoint lines, I walked right up to a Global Entry kiosk, put my passport in the scanner and my fingers in the fingerprint scanner, stood for the few seconds it took for the facial recognition system to scan my face and give me the green light, and that was it. The entire process took less than a minute.
Ideally with Global Entry once you get the green light from the kiosk you can go straight to baggage claim, but not every airport works the same. For some reason at Dulles we still had to go to a CBP agent, but that was a line dedicated to Global Entry, it was short, and it moved fast. I barely broke stride between the time I left the Global Entry kiosk, got in line, and walked up to the CBP agent who just waived me through.
I still had to wait for my luggage of course, and by the time it arrived everyone else from my flight had cleared through immigration. So Global Entry didn't really gain me anything...this time. I'm sure at some point it will, but I’ve decided even when it doesn't, if I have to wait for anything, I would much rather it be for my luggage than to get my passport stamped.
One of the side benefits of Global Entry is that you also get entered into the TSA’s Pre-check program, so your $100 gets expedited screening at departure, and expedited processing upon your return. Once approved, both Global Entry and TSA Pre-check are good for five years, and you can renew online up to a year prior to your expiration date. Once you submit the renewal application your status in the program is automatically extended for 24 months, which is important if you have to go through another interview. Not all renewals require another interview but if yours does you can use the Interview on Arrival approach and save yourself some trouble.
Global Entry is a good program if you travel internationally, even if only once every couple of years. It is worth the fee and the little bit of time it takes to apply and go through the interview. Though I was doubtful before, I am a fan of the program now, and I’m sure I’ll be an even bigger fan the first time I get to skip a really long line at immigration. Even if I do still have to wait for my luggage.