By Michael Kaminer
Tuesday, December 1, 2009; 12:20 PM
I can thank my sister's baby for persuading me to enroll in a government-run "trusted traveler" program.
Although I travel to Montreal for family visits at least once a month, the frequency increased when my sister Barbara and her partner, Ines, had a son in 2007. Determined to get to know Alex, I flew to Montreal about every other weekend that summer.
After one miserable, hours-late August flight, I bolted off the jetway with my carry-on bags, sprinted down Trudeau Airport's endless, glassed-in arrivals corridor and took the escalator down to passport control -- only to be greeted by a writhing, Ellis Island-like human mass snaking around dozens of posts. After two sweaty hours, as I cursed my way to the rental-car counter, I made myself a promise to investigate a program whose signs I'd always ignored in my rush for the exits.
Two years later, NEXUS membership has changed my life.
Here's my new arrivals procedure at Trudeau Airport: disembark. Walk the hallways to Canada Customs. Descend the escalator and turn right to the L-shaped bank of red NEXUS kiosks. Peer into a viewfinder to get my irises scanned. Answer three yes-or-no questions. Take my ticket. Walk up a dedicated lane, past the row of Customs officers and down the ramp to freedom. Total time elapsed: seven minutes.
Whenever health-care reform opponents sound the refrain that government can't run anything right, I feel like forcing them to join NEXUS. Launched in 2002 by U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the Canada Border Services Agency, the program has roots in the 1995 Shared Border Accord that aimed to loosen some customs clearance procedures after the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Since then, NEXUS has become a hit with frequent cross-border travelers tired of long waits behind neophytes or extended multinational clans with complicated histories who always seem to gum up the lines.
"People want seamless travel," says Eva Leonard, editor of Business Traveler magazine. "They'll travel regardless, but they'll pay extra for seamless travel."
Through a system of background checks and database scans, trusted traveler programs such as NEXUS basically provide permanent pre-clearance for certain passengers so that customs and border patrol agents can focus on people who might require more scrutiny.
These government-run programs are different from CLEAR, a privately owned registered-traveler program that established its own security-screening lines at 18 U.S. airports in 2005. For a $200 annual fee, CLEAR members basically got white-glove service from dedicated screening staff. Though CLEAR abruptly tanked last summer after its parent company ran out of money, a group of investors plans to revive the service in 2010.
Trusted-traveler programs have gone in the opposite direction. In the United States, according to Department of Homeland Security statistics, more than 352,000 people now belong to NEXUS. The program has "seen incredible growth over the last two years," said John Wagner, director of trusted traveler programs at DHS, said in a phone interview. He claimed that his department is seeing about 10,000 to 12,000 applications per month just for NEXUS, and close to 4,000 per month for SENTRI, a similar program regulating U.S.-Mexico crossings that has attracted more than 203,000 members since its 1995 launch.
Even faster-growing is a new initiative called Global Entry, which fast-tracks vetted U.S. travelers arriving from almost anywhere in the world through checkpoints at 20 U.S. airports, including Dulles. Kiosks scan the member's passport and fingerprints; after the machine spits out a ticket, Global Entry members head to the front of the passport-control line. Begun as a pilot program with little fanfare last June, Global Entry is now receiving more than 1,000 applications each week, Wagner said. Last month, DHS announced that Global Entry will become permanent, with more airports expected to add kiosks in coming years.
NEXUS has become a massive hit with Canadians; as the Canadian dollar has surged against the greenback, a recent Toronto Star story even advised using NEXUS to streamline cross-border shopping sprees. A spokesperson for the Canada Border Services Agency said more than 348,000 Canadian members have been approved. When you compare populations -- 33 million up north to more than 300 million in the United States -- that number is eye-popping.
Despite the programs' explosive growth, Wagner said that turnaround time for applications -- processed through a central facility in Williston, Vt. -- hasn't slowed. "We continue to turn those around in two or three days," he said.
Here's the process, which has become even simpler in the two years since I enrolled in NEXUS by filling out a form I downloaded from the Internet and then e-mailed back to DHS.
Go to DHS's Global Online Enrollment System home page , to register. After answering a lengthy suite of benign questions about your personal history and paying a non-refundable $50 processing fee, you hear back with conditional approval or unconditional rejection within about 72 hours.
"It's a two-step process," Wagner said. Every application is screened against several law-enforcement and intelligence databases for previous customs or immigration violations, a criminal record or a terrorist watchlist record. "If we find derogatory information in any of those systems, we generally will deny that applicant," he said.
If you pass, you get invited to an in-person interview at one of 22 ports of entry. Because I'm a Canadian citizen, mine took place in a windowless, fluorescent-lit room at Montreal's Trudeau Airport. After a few frustrating phone calls with the NEXUS office in Montreal -- fair warning: the voice-mail box filled up fast, and getting through to a human could take hours -- I scheduled my appointment to coincide with one of my trips home. The interview turned out to be less intimidating than the star-chamberlike inquisition I'd imagined. A maternal CBP agent casually asked me questions about my professional life, my travel history and my frequent trips to Montreal. Everything must have checked out, because within 30 minutes I was photographed, fingerprinted, tutored on how to use a NEXUS kiosk and sent on my way, glittery new NEXUS card in hand.
And if judgments from some of the toughest critics in the country -- the jaded million-miler types who populate the FlyerTalk Web site -- offer any barometer, trusted traveler programs are one of the few bright spots in an increasingly bleak picture for frequent travelers.
"Before Global Entry, some airports were just a disaster for me," Anthony DeFalco, a Houston-based liaison officer for a medical-evaluation company who often travels to visit his wife's family in Italy, said. "Every time I'd have to come through, there were lines and chaos. The beauty of Global Entry is that if I'm coming home, the whole process can take just 20 minutes."
"It's fantastic," agreed Global Entry member Steve Phillips, a Miami-based managing director at Nasdaq who travels constantly to oversee the stock exchange's Latin American and Caribbean affairs. "It's hard to believe the government is delivering it. It's a quality product. It's worked."
Global Entry is about to get one more member -- me. NEXUS members, according to Wagner, get fast-tracked for Global Entry approval -- and we don't have to pay the $100 registration fee. As soon as I hung up from my conversation with Wagner, I registered on GOES, completed the appropriate questionnaire and pushed the "submit" button. By dinnertime, I had a note in my GOES inbox informing me of conditional approval for the program. As soon as I get fingerprinted and interviewed again -- assuming my digits haven't changed -- I'll be in.
I might even plan a trip somewhere exotic just for the slightly naughty thrill of skipping the customs line when I get back.
Kaminer is a freelance writer based in New York.