The last thing anyone wants to do after stumbling off a 16-hour flight is to stand in an hour-long line at U.S. Immigration, with hundreds of travelers ahead of you and only a handful of immigration officers to process passports.
Implemented after 9/11, U.S. Customs and Border Protection offers several Trusted Traveler programs for frequent international travelers, allowing you to avoid immigration lines completely and proceed directly to a designated kiosk or entry line at land crossings. If at the airport, you'll then be able to collect any luggage at the baggage claim and quickly pass through customs.
CBP offers three programs: Global Entry (www.globalentry.gov) for international air travel when arriving in the U.S. from any country, NEXUS (www.nexus.gov) for Canadian border crossings, and SENTRI (www.sentri.gov) for Mexican border crossings.
In addition to obvious time-saving benefits for approved travelers, these programs also allow CBP to focus resources on higher-risk individuals, minimizing the time required to process low-risk travelers.
Global Entry: How to Expedite International Air Travel
As the most versatile program for international air travelers, enrollment in the Global Entry program is available to U.S. citizens who are able to pass an extensive background check. The program carries a $100 fee, and membership is valid for 5 years. Unlike the NEXUS and SENTRI programs, Global Entry uses your passport as your identification document, instead of an additional program-specific ID card.
During the enrollment interview, which can be completed at airports that offer Global Entry kiosks (which include 20 major international gateways, such as New York City and Los Angeles), a CBP officer captures a headshot and scans your fingerprints -- both are verified at the kiosk upon entry, so you can't simply scan an enrolled passport and be on your way.
Enrollment is conducted in two stages. The first stage is completed online, where you enter vital details and pay your enrollment fee. If you pass the background check, you'll be able to schedule an interview with a CBP officer. During the interview, the CBP officer will ask you a variety of questions, primarily focusing on your travel history and occupation (the majority of applicants travel on business).
I completed my interview last week, and the entire process (including fingerprint enrollment) takes about five minutes. It's important to note that while you'll be able to bypass immigration officers once accepted into the program, your travel companions will still need to wait in line, unless they're also Global Entry members, of course.
Global Entry members can also apply for membership to FLUX (www.flux-alliance.eu) -- a similar program used for entry into the Netherlands. FLUX carries a membership fee of €240, in addition to the $100 Global Entry application fee. Because FLUX (Fast Low Risk Universal Crossing) entry also requires an iris scan, the program carries a unique requirement: enrollees must be at least 4 feet 11 inches tall -- the height of the iris scanner.
NEXUS: How to Expedite Border Crossings to and From Canada
While immigration lines at border crossings between the U.S. and Canada are typically shorter than those returning from Mexico, I've occasionally waited over three hours to re-enter the U.S. and have enviously watched NEXUS cardholders fly by in the express lane.
Expect to pay a nonrefundable $50 application fee to join the NEXUS program. Program members use NEXUS cards in designated lanes to enter Canada or the United States, and like the Global Entry program, everyone traveling with you must be a member. If a passenger in your vehicle is not a member, then you will need to wait in the standard entry line.
SENTRI: How to Expedite Border Crossings to and From Mexico
Similar to what NEXUS does for Canadian travel, SENTRI (Secure Electronic Network for Travelers Rapid Inspection) allows travelers to cross borders to and from Mexico through designated border crossing lanes. NEXUS and SENTRI membership requirements are similar to those for Global Entry, and members have expedited crossing privileges at air, land, and marine ports of entry.
The SENTRI application fee costs $122.45 per person.
The Benefits of Joining a Trusted Traveler Program
Once approved for NEXUS or SENTRI, cardholders can apply for Global Entry without paying an enrollment fee. If your passport and fingerprints are already on file, you will be automatically approved; otherwise, you will need to visit an enrollment center to complete the application process.
In addition to expedited processing, all three programs provide one major additional benefit to frequent border crossers: because your passport won't be processed at immigration, you won't be required to receive a U.S. entry stamp, potentially adding years of use to your passport and eliminating the need to add additional visa pages.
Land-and sea-based border crossers can also apply for Enhanced Driver's Licenses from the states of Michigan, New York, Vermont and Washington -- these documents can be used in lieu of a passport, except when traveling by air, but must be used in standard immigration lines.
Have you used Global Entry, NEXUS, or SENTRI programs? Share your experience below, along with any tips for getting the most out of these Trusted Traveler programs.
Having visited nearly 30 countries on 5 continents in the last decade, Zach Honig's fascination with travel has clearly become an obsession. Follow Zach on Twitter (@zachhonig), or check out his blog, Tech, Travel and Tuna, to keep up to date on his latest adventures.