On our recent flight from San Juan, Puerto Rico to Atlanta, we were automatically given TSA Pre-Check status when we checked in with Delta. Of course we didn’t notice the little checkmark that graced our boarding passes until we approached the regular security line. Fortunately for us, an attendant checked our boarding passes and directed us to the Pre-Check line. So we walked an additional 50 yards or so and stood in the Pre-Check line. We very likely spent just as much time following this serendipitous process as we would have just getting in the plebe’s security line. But at least we didn’t have to take off our shoes and belts.
When it comes to the immigration lines, with previous returns to the US of A there has been no doubt that the queue for the Global Entry self-service kiosks required more time than the regular line. But at least it meant you could skip the awkward mini-interview with the immigration officer.
Officer inspects our passports, holds them up and compares our photos to the real us.
“I’ve lost a lot of weight since then,” I say cheerily. It’s true: I weighed at least fifty pounds more when my passport photo was taken, a fact that I’m sort of proud of.
The officer ignores my comment and flips through our passports inspecting our stamps. “Why did you go to France?” he might ask.
We shrug. “Vacation.” It’s a whole lot easier to say than, “Well, we travel all the time—have been since June, 2014—we even have a blog. You can check it out at www.chuckandlori.com if you’re interested. And, you know, when you can go to France, why wouldn’t you?”
He looks at us sternly. Perhaps he is one of those guys who believes we should call them “freedom fries”. It’s the kind of look intended to make us feel guilty for not vacationing right here in America, the land of the free and brave and buffaloes roaming on the fruited plains.
But just as we are about to explain that we have indeed visited all but 3 of the states and even a few of our territories, quite likely much more of the USA than he himself has seen, he picks up his ultra-high-tech self-inking stamp mechanism, and with an unnerving thunk he permits our re-entry to the amber-grained Homeland. “Welcome home,” he invariably says.
From the intro above, you might think we’re suspect of the value of these programs. Actually we think they’re great programs, and we think that reliance on them for efficient travel security screening will be increasing in the coming years. You might also think that we—semi-professional travelers that we are—signed up years ago. It’s one of the more common questions we get, but the truth is we’ve never enrolled in one of these programs. Until recently, that is.
So for anyone wondering what these programs are and whether they should participate, here is the blog you’ve been waiting for. Let’s start with what these various programs are.
Global Entry – a program that allows international travelers to pass through border protection, aka immigration, lines more quickly. https://www.cbp.gov/travel/trusted-traveler-programs/global-entry
TSA Pre-Check – a program that allows domestic travelers to pass through airport security more quickly. https://www.tsa.gov/precheck
NEXUS – a program similar to Global Entry that specifically makes crossing the US-Canada border, for both Americans and Canadians, quicker and includes both airports and land border crossings. https://www.cbp.gov/travel/trusted-traveler-programs/nexus
SENTRI – a program similar to NEXUS but for America’s “Southern land border”, but not reciprocal with Mexican citizens and limited only to land-based border crossings. https://www.cbp.gov/travel/trusted-traveler-programs/sentri
Unless you’re a truck driver with a border-crossing route into Canada or Mexico, your interest is going to be limited to the former two programs. And in a nutshell, if you’re a frequent domestic traveler, TSA Pre-Check is going to be more valuable than Global Entry, but know that Global Entry includes TSA Pre-Check.
All of these US Customs and Border Protection programs rely on prior vetting of travelers. This means you have to apply to them and that the government will run a criminal background check on you and conduct an in-person interview with you before you’ll be permitted to participate in the program of your choice. Going through this process means you become a known traveler, and you will be assigned a Known Traveler Number, or KTN. The KTN is your golden Wonka ticket to red carpet immigration and TSA treatment when traveling.
There are, of course, costs to participate in these programs. TSA Pre-Check will set you back $85 for a 5-year enrollment. Global Entry will set you back $100 for a 5-year enrollment. If you have a premium credit card with travel benefits, such as a Platinum American Express, you might automatically get this reimbursed making the program free—and also offsetting the seemingly steep expenses of those cards.
Global Entry, by the way, is aptly named. While TSA Pre-Check is limited to US citizens and permanent residents, Global Entry is available to US citizens and permanent residents as well as citizens of a few other countries, including the UK, Germany, the Netherlands, and Mexico. Those participating countries also reciprocate the process, such that British citizens traveling to Mexico could (theoretically) benefit from quick passage through immigration lines. Hopefully the program will expand to many more countries.
But does the program actually work? Is it really quicker than the regular lines? According to the US Customs and Border Protection’s director, average wait times in Global Entry queues are generally 70% less than those for the plebes.
So, with Platinum Amex in hand, we recently signed up for Global Entry. We’ll get reimbursed the costs and will be able to keep our shoes and belts on in security lines and we’ll zip through immigration lines. Hopefully. We can’t wait to find out if the kiosks are programmed to warmly welcome us home. And give us foot massages.