Global Entry, Customs, TSA PreCheck — Worth It?
I’m not a fan of waiting in lines (or as my fellow Long Island natives would say, “on lines”). I’ve never been known for my patience and my ability to sit still. Airports test my limits on all of these levels and often for no logical reason. Thankfully, there are now programs out there that help frequent travelers avoid the hassles and nuisances typical of US airports. Enter Global Entry and TSA PreCheck.
Global Entry is a relatively new government program where, in short, fliers returning to the US can bypass the long passport control and customs lines. By agreeing to a background check and by filling out a disclosure form, as well as sitting for a brief interview with a CBP agent, the passenger entitles himself to a fast access lane through customs when arriving into the US from a foreign airport. If you have ever waited on a 1 hour-plus line after an 8 hour flight home from Europe, you understand the inconveniences and frustrations. Being able to scan my fingerprints and not fill out that stupid blue form on the plane means I can be off the plane and through customs in less than 5 minutes. This is all well and good when the airport has Global Entry because not every airport in the US has it although more are adding the GE kiosks. Sometimes the kiosks don’t work properly, and you still will need to see an actual CBP agent to stamp your passport, but at that point you have bypassed all the lines anyway. Once you’ve scanned your fingerprints and answered some simple questions on the kiosk, you get your picture taken and receive an exit receipt. Take that receipt with your luggage to the customs line, and you also get to bypass the lines of people there waiting to leave the airport. Sold yet?
Why wouldn’t everyone join Global Entry? Well it costs $100. When you account for the time wasted in US customs halls and waiting to have your passport stamped, I think this is $100 VERY well spent. The other good aspect? Your Global Entry membership lasts 5 years, so in essence you are paying $20/year. Now if you never travel internationally, or if you value your time at <$0.01/hour, then this isn’t a smart expense for you. Another reason that some people will avoid Global Entry is that they refuse to subject themselves to a background check, or they may even be rejected based on the background check. In short, I think this is an amazing program, and it’s also a great way of saving taxpayer money by limiting staffing needs at airports.
Some international airports, specifically those with high numbers of US travelers (Caribbean, Canada), offer the opportunity to clear customs in the foreign airport, thus allowing passengers to land at a domestic US terminal. This means all you need to do is collect your bags and walk out of the airport, just as if you landed in Chicago from JFK. This program sounds awesome. It is awesome…unless you have Global Entry and have paid for the privilege of NOT having to go through customs.
An example of where preclearance is a waste of time…my recent trip home from Aruba. After going through Aruban passport control (where they don’t even put an exit stamp on your passport), you get rewarded with pre-clearance into the US. When I first experienced this in Ireland, I was very excited. I wasn’t a Global Entry member at the time, and the prospect of waiting on a huge Customs line at JFK was not getting me fired up. The Dublin facility was well-staffed and efficient, and the process seemed to be quicker than what I would expect at JFK. Now with pre-clearance at many Caribbean airports, the US has essentially just moved the long lines from the US airports to their Caribbean counterparts. There is no time savings, and in fact, the facilities are often hot, humid, and overcrowded. What really annoyed me about this though was that these facilities don’t have Global Entry. Not only was this customs line ridiculously long and arduously slow moving, but I had no way around it. If the US is going to move more clearance facilities into international airports, then it should also move Global Entry there as well. Spending over an hour waiting in a line that I spent $100 to avoid really pissed me off. CBP claims that Global Entry is available at preclearance airports (http://cbp.gov/archived/xp/cgov/newsroom/news_releases/archives/2011_news_archive/07262011.xml.html), but there was no Global Entry available in Aruba. I’ve also been told that there are no GE kiosks at the Vancouver airport in Canada either. Homeland Security needs to figure this out because spending 1-2 hours waiting in line in a hot Caribbean airport isn’t my idea of convenience.
There is the mental aspect of being able to land at your home airport and actually just go home instead of waiting in a Customs facility, but it still has its quirks and needs to be modified to fit all airports.
Again, I’ve made it clear that I believe most airport security to be bogus and solely there to provide the illusion of security to placate anxious passengers (and also to give politicians the chance to show they are doing something about national security). JFK is my home airport, and it’s never been an airport famous for its aesthetics or luxuries. The architecture is mostly awful (save for the new T4, T5, and parts of T8), and airport staff aren’t known for their customer service. Security checkpoints tend to bottleneck, and TSA agents do their best impression of angry, rude, obnoxious teenagers while yelling at passengers to abide by their capricious regulations. As mentioned in my previous post, TSA agents are inconsistent in their enforcement of the rules and overbearing in their treatment of clear non threat passengers. Having a way of not dealing with these subhuman components of our Homeland Security department is music to a traveler’s ears. This is why I LOVE TSA PreCheck.
What is PreCheck? In short, it’s an expedited security line that allows passengers through security with minimal disruption and dehumanization: no need to take laptops out of bags, no need to take off your belt/shoes, leave your watch on, etc. Bags still go through the X-ray machine, and passengers still go through the magnetometers, but you can avoid the nude-o-scopes and the annoyance of getting dressed/undressed just to clear security. The TSA agent scans your boarding pass, and as long as they hear 3 beeps, then you get access to the PreCheck line. To maintain randomness and the integrity of security, PreCheck eligible passengers don’t always get the 3 beeps, and then you have to go through a standard security line albeit a quicker line because you’ve bypassed the masses. Although random, my experience has been TSA PreCheck success about 90% of the time, and recently they enabled passengers traveling on international tickets to also use PreCheck. Looking back at the security lines full of hundreds of annoyed, frustrated passengers really makes you appreciate this program.
How to gain access to PreCheck? Membership in Global Entry, NEXUS, and SENTRI automatically gain you a Known Traveler # that you can input on your reservation. Like these programs, TSA PreCheck eligibility is good for 5 years, and after that one needs to reapply. If you are an elite member of an airline’s frequent flier program, you may also join TSA PreCheck ($85 fee), but keep in mind that some airlines do not yet participate (JetBlue, Southwest, AirTran, Spirit…yes, more reasons to avoid these airlines). I’m not sure why someone would pay $85 to get PreCheck when you can pay $100 to get Global Entry AND PreCheck access, but then again half of the US doesn’t even have a passport, so some people may find Global Entry unnecessary.
More info on Global Entry can be found at www.GlobalEntry.gov (this link often crashes…what a surprise since it’s run by our federal government) or at https://goes-app.cbp.dhs.gov/main/goes
How to Apply for Global Entry: http://globalentry.gov/howtoapply.html
For more info on TSA PreCheck, check out http://www.tsa.gov/tsa-precheck