By Jim Ferri
About six weeks ago I applied for acceptance into the U.S. Global Entry Program in order to provide an unbiased view of it for this article. I went through the exact same procedures that every traveler must, starting with the initial application and finishing with my enrollment yesterday. And I’ll tell you right up-front, I was very pleasantly surprised.
This “trusted-traveler” pilot program, now two-years old, is overseen by U.S. Customs and Border Protection and it’s meant to speed up the process of re-entering the U.S. by identifying travelers whom the government deems to be low-risk. These vetted travelers can bypass the normal customs and immigration lines and check themselves through immigration via a kiosk, similar to those you use to get your boarding pass when you arrive at the airport.
Here’s how the system works. If you’re a U.S. citizen or permanent resident you merely fill out a detailed questionnaire online. Once you’re notified you’ve been accepted into the program you then schedule a meeting at a Global Entry office at one of 20 U.S. airports where the program is in effect. The fee is $100, and is paid at the time you make the application.
The worst part of the program is filling out the somewhat tedious application online. It took me more than an hour to wade through the application and answer the numerous questions regarding everything from other names used, to my present and past employment and my travel history.
For example, you’re required to name the countries (other than the U.S., Canada and Mexico) that you’ve traveled to within the past five years. If you travel a lot like I do, that was a bit of a problem since sometimes passports (I was using mine to jog my memory) don’t always get stamped in other countries. Interestingly, though, during my face-to-face interview, I was asked by the Customs agent if I had ever traveled to Canada and Mexico, which I had several times, as she perused my information on her computer screen. It was done, I assume, to ensure that I was being honest.
After you submit the questionnaire online you’re then advised the ensuing background check can take up to two months. You’re also advised to come back to the site regularly to check on the status of your application. I checked several times and always found my application pending.
Then, two days ago, I was surprised to receive an email saying there was information for me online (it appears the government needs to rewrite some of its on-screen info). I logged in and was advised that my application had been approved.
The email also advised that I needed to schedule my interview within 30 days. I went online and was able to schedule it for the next morning (there were plenty of time slots open). The printout regarding the interview, however, stated that I needed to bring my passport and “a copy of your Conditional Approval Notification” with me. For some reason the system wouldn’t allow me to go back to the approval page so I just printed my original application, which I then saw had an “Approved” note inserted at the top.
Although I had not been instructed to bring my driver’s license to the interview, at the onset of it I was asked for it along with my passport. If you don’t have license you’ll need to produce some other form of official identification to prove who you are.
If you’ve ever been arrested you cannot apply for the program until ten years after the date of your arrest. (The poor guy next to me had gotten into trouble and been arrested nine years and 364 days earlier; although the two Customs agents tried every which way to help him, he was finally told he had to come back the next day.) Those who’ve been arrested more than once are ineligible for the program.
The entire interview took less then 10 minutes, during which I had my photo taken and was digitally fingerprinted. When you use the kiosk at Customs it matches your fingerprints and photo. Your fingerprints are also rerun regularly by Homeland Security and the FBI to ensure that you’re behaving yourself.
Although I haven’t yet tried Global Entry yet, I’ve heard and read nothing but good things about it. It’s said to take only about 40 seconds to clear you through and, what makes it even better, when you use it you don’t even have to fill out the customs form that’s given to you on the plane. You merely scan your passport and fingerprints and answer four questions on the touch screen, which also includes your customs declaration. The kiosk then prints out a receipt that you hand to an officer as you’re leaving.
If you have something to declare, or if there’s a snafu at the kiosk, it puts a black X across the receipt, flagging you to go through a regular inspection with an agent. Customs says they also randomly pull travelers in the program to go through the traditional inspection.
Other countries are also developing “trusted-traveler” programs. The Netherlands, Canada and Mexico, for example, have similar programs and participants in their programs can apply for Global Entry, with each government accepting the background checks and vetting of travelers by the other. The U.S. government is currently in discussion with the UK, Japan and Germany to expand the program with them.
Once accepted into the program your enrollment is valid for five years, after which you must reapply.
Unfortunately, TSA does not have a similar “trusted-traveler” program for when you arrive at the airport so you must still go through the sometimes-onerous screening prior to boarding. But if Global Entry works well perhaps TSA can launch a “Global-Exit” program. There are certainly plenty of travel organizations, legislators and airlines that are calling for it.
(Editor’s note: since this article was first published TSA has instituted “Pre-Check,” a program that allows select frequent flyers of participating airlines and members of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Trusted Traveler programs who are flying on participating airlines, to receive expedited screening benefits. Eligible participants use dedicated screening lanes for screening benefits which include leaving on shoes, light outerwear and belts, as well as leaving laptops and 3-1-1 compliant liquids in carry-on bags. For information on the program go to http://www.tsa.gov/tsa-precheck).
About 85,000 travelers are now enrolled and U.S. Customs is planning to make it permanent by the end of this year if, as my interviewer said, “someone doesn’t mess it up.”
To apply for Global Entry go to www.globalentry.gov and fill out the application.