After a long international flight, most travelers crave a shower and a doughnut or a jog, depending on their disposition. No one wants creeping lines, a puffy face-to-face with a government official, and a chat about their foreign whereabouts and shopping habits. To hop over the obstacles delaying my reunion with my rainforest showerhead (and glazed apple maple), I recently joined the Global Entry club — proud member since April 18.
Overseas travel is surging, which means more incoming passengers at U.S. airports. According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, 122 million international travelers entered the country by air in 2015, a bump of 5 million over the previous year. On a typical day between October 2014 and September 2015, the officers might process more than 300,000 passengers and crew members.
The wait to reenter the United States has significantly shortened since the agency initiated several technology-based programs. For example, it introduced Automated Passport Control self-service kiosks in 2013. At more than 40 airports, U.S. citizens (plus other approved nationalities) can use the machines for the administration portion of the process: scanning passports, confirming flight numbers and answering such questions as whether you are carrying snails. Out pops a receipt, which the passenger hands to an agent for a brief verbal exchange. Sample query: Did you visit any countries in West Africa?
“It is much faster than the regular process,” said Ken Sava, director of Trusted Traveler Programs. “More than half of passengers use it.”
The agency has also jumped on the app train with its Mobile Passport Control. The free app, which was introduced in 2014, allows Americans to plug the required information into their phones and present a code to an agent for scanning. A dozen airports accept information in this format.
“As we move forward, more and more travelers are going to use some form of technology to clear CBP,” Sava said. “Ultimately, within the next year or two, we won’t have that paper.” (That paper he refers to is the customs declaration card distributed in-flight.)
The cheetah of CBP is Global Entry, an expedited Trusted Traveler program offered at nearly 50 domestic airports and 13 foreign facilities with pre-clearance capabilities, such as Vancouver, Dublin and Nassau, in the Bahamas. The service, which first appeared as a pilot program in 2008 and boasts more than 3 million participants, eliminates the queue and meet-and-greet with the agent in the booth. Sava says the average wait time in a standard line is 15 to 30 minutes: Global Entry accomplishes the job in one speedy minute. Even passengers who receive an X on their receipt and must consult with an officer receive priority treatment — and their own lane.
Unlike other options, individuals must enroll in Global Entry. The transaction involves time, money and the key to your personal life for a background check.
Since I have no secrets, I am happy to share my experience.
I applied online April 5. I set up a Global Online Enrollment System account and answered a series of questions, such as my home address, employer and foreign travel history over the past five years. I paid a nonrefundable $100 fee, which also covers PreCheck, the Transportation Security Administration's expedited screening service, which normally costs $85. (Both programs are active for five years and are renewable.) On April 11, I received an e-mail informing me that I had advanced to the next step, the interview. Three days later, an e-mail reminded me to schedule an appointment. I signed up for an early-afternoon slot for the following Monday.
“We try to have availability within 60 days,” Sava later told me. He added that a recent surge in applications had forced some of the busier enrollment centers to book four months out.
At the CBP office inside the Ronald Reagan Building, one of three facilities in the Washington area, two couples, including one with a screaming child, were ahead of me. I passed the time perusing a display case filled with vessels that smugglers had used to (poorly) hide drugs. (Have you no shame? A Hindu statue!)
When my turn came, I handed over my documents (passport, driver’s license, copy of the approval letter), grin-grimaced for the camera and pressed my fingerprints on the glass square. The friendly agent behind the counter asked about my occupation, which prompted a lively conversation about the best places to visit in Colombia. After our travelogue session, he said that I would receive the official card within two weeks but that he would activate my account immediately. I stepped into the sunshine as a member of Global Entry.
I tested out my new status during my around-the-world trip in April. At John F. Kennedy International Airport, in New York, I challenged my traveling companion to a race. We set our stop watches and went our separate ways. He queued up behind other nonmembers; I skedaddled for the row of kiosks by the wall, where I had my pick of available machines. I scanned my passport, placed my digits on the pad and answered the customs questions, declaring a sealed pack of vanilla from Madagascar. The machine spit out a confirmation. Then I made a rookie mistake: I waited in line to see an officer. An agent in the Global Entry line shouted over the head of another traveler to go ahead. I mentioned my spice in passing; he was unconcerned.
My friend arrived in baggage claim after eight minutes. Despite my blunder, I still beat him by five minutes. Next time, I’m aiming for 60 seconds.