Global Entry: What is it and is it Worth it for Travelers?
If you’ve traveled internationally in recent years, you may have noticed signs for Global Entry as you made your way to the long line for customs and immigration when arriving back in the States. Furthermore, if you’re anything like me, you may have assumed that this Global Entry offering was something exclusive to those with some sort of status — either the airline loyalty kind or the more generic social kind. As it turns out, the privilege of having Global Entry is far more attainable than you might expect and comes with some additional perks that some may not realize. Still, one can’t help but ask: is it worth it?
Let’s take a look at what you need to know about Global Entry to see if it’s right for you.
What is Global Entry and How Do You Obtain It?
Understanding Global Entry
Global Entry is a program offered by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) that gives you expedited re-entry at select airports (as well as some ports and land border crossings). This is achieved through the use of dedicated kiosks at major airports that allow you to bypass the main processing queue. Contrary to what the name might imply to some, the program will only help you out when returning to the United States from traveling abroad and comes with no special benefits for bypassing customs or immigration checkpoints in other countries.
The benefits of Global Entry
In addition to making the re-entry process easier for international travelers, another major perk of Global Entry can benefit domestic travelers as well. As part of your Global Entry status, you’ll also be eligible for TSA Pre✓. To be clear, this means that TSA Pre✓ is included in the cost of Global Entry, allowing you to take advantage of both programs.
If you’re not familiar, TSA Pre✓ allows pre-screened, low-risk individuals to utilize a different security screening process at participating airports. Not only does TSA Pre✓ occasionally have its own queue but also observes a different set of procedures than the regular TSA line. For example, TSA Pre✓ passengers are able to keep laptops, “3-1-1” liquids, and other items in their luggage instead of having to pull them out. Additionally, your shoes can remain on during the screening and you’ll most likely pass through a simple metal detector instead of a full body scanner (pro tip: just make sure to completely empty your pockets before passing through).
I should note that, while TSA Pre✓ is still a godsend overall, the procedures at different airports, different terminals at the same airport, and even different times of day at the same airports can vary greatly. As I mentioned, there is usually a designated Pre✓, but not always. If there’s not, you may be handed a pass that will allow you to keep your shoes on, but might need to remove your liquids and laptops (or not — it’s hard to say). This uncertainty can be a bit annoying but, overall, it’s still a great program that’s well worth it, in my opinion.
The cost of Global Entry
Currently, Global Entry status is available at a price of $100 for five years. Meanwhile, TSA Pre✓ on its own goes for $85 for the same five-year membership, making Global Entry a potentially stronger value. The one catch is that this $100 cost comes in the form of a non-refundable fee you’ll pay when submitting your application (more on that in a moment). While I have yet to read of someone being denied and being out a C-Note, it would seem that this is an actual possibility — so be sure to read up on all of the eligibility requirements before deciding to apply.
The Global Entry application process
Obtaining Global Entry will require two basic steps: completing an online application and (if approved) attending an in-person interview. As for the online part, you’ll need to provide various background information such as your passport info, past addresses you’ve lived at, employment history, etc. However, before you can get that far, you’ll first need to set up a Trusted Traveler Program (TTP) account. The good news here is that, once you do this, you’ll be able to save your application and return to it later if need be. You’ll also want to keep your login info handy as you’ll need it to check on your application status, obtain your Known Traveler Number and more.
As I mentioned, before you can submit your application, you’ll need to pay that $100 fee. Once that’s taken care of, you can continue to check up on your application status. In my experience, it took a few weeks to hear back about my application. Meanwhile a friend of mine had the bad fortune of applying just before the federal government shutdown, leading his application to be delayed for months. Since then, I’ve also seen several headlines that the program is still severely backed up on applications and renewals (although I haven’t seen any recent updates).In any case, don’t start to panic if your application isn’t completed so quickly.
After the online application has been reviewed, you’ll receive what they call “conditional approval.” This just means that you still need to complete your in-person interview before you’ll officially obtain Global Entry status. You can view a list of enrollment centers where these interviews are offered in order to schedule yours. Something to keep in mind is that Global Entry interviews are only conducted at select international airports. For us, this meant that our best option was driving up to Kansas City (they’ve since opened an office at our local airport, thankfully) while my friends in Central Florida are lucky enough to have interview locations in Orlando, Sanford, and Tampa. Lastly, if there are no interview times available before your travels, some locations offer “Enrollment on Arrival,” allowing you to complete your Global Entry interview on the spot — just make sure you have a long enough layover to accommodate this process.
Using your Known Traveler Number
So you’ve made it through the application process and interview — what’s next? While it may take a few days for your Global Entry card (which is unnecessary when re-entering at airports) to arrive in the mail, your Known Traveler Number will be ready to use much sooner. This number is important as it will be associated with your TSA Pre✓ and Global Entry accounts. Because of this, you’ll want to make sure you enter it when making travel reservations and add it to any airline loyalty profiles you may have. Unfortunately, if your boarding pass doesn’t say TSA Pre✓ on it, security agents won’t allow you to use the Pre✓ queue. That’s why it’s a good idea to double check that the airline has your Known Traveler info ahead of time.
Our Experience with Global Entry
TSA Pre✓ = Stress-free
I’ll be honest and admit that, for a long time, I didn’t see much of a benefit to TSA Pre✓. Heck, on some occasions, it seemed that the Pre✓ line was only nominally shorter than that main queue. Add in the fact that I’ve never seen my beloved Springfield airport with more than a ten-minute security line and you can start to see the reasons for my skepticism.
However, my feelings about TSA Pre✓ changed greatly after I got to experience the difference firsthand. On a trip back from Los Angeles, we were randomly directed to a different security line that happened to double as the Pre✓ line. Let me tell you: taking out your laptop and liquids and removing your shoes might not seem like a big thing when you’re used to doing it every time, but not having to worry about it proved to be such a weight off of my shoulders. When we encountered similar treatment after passing customs in Atlanta, my love for the stress-free TSA Pre✓ lifestyle was cemented.
I will also say that, despite what my ill-informed observations suggested, there can be significant time savings with TSA Pre✓. This is perhaps no more evident than at airports like Orlando International (MCO) — a destination with a reputation for long security lines, likely due to the high number of families heading back home from the theme park mecca. Of course, my Pre✓ status won’t stop me from arriving my customary two hours early for my flights, but I honestly could cut back if I wanted.
At the same time, there are a couple of things to know about the TSA Pre✓ benefit. As I mentioned, not only is it possible that a particular airport may not offer Pre✓ but also possible that, even at airports that otherwise support it, certain checkpoints might not. Similarly, as we encountered in Atlanta, TSA Pre✓ benefits may only be offered during certain hours of the day. These situations are frustrating but, luckily, they’re not the standard — they’re just a few things to be aware of ahead of time.
Global Entry = No wait during re-entry
My wife was actually the first one of us to give Global Entry a shot following a trip she took to Paris. From what she reported back to me, she experienced literally no line when re-entering the U.S. in Miami. All she had to do was visit one of the special kiosks, scan her passport and her fingers, answer a few on-screen questions, and she was off. She estimates that this managed to save her at least half an hour compared to those who had to wait in the regular line. It also saved her the trouble of filling out a customs form as these are unnecessary for Global Entry users. Given all of this, she was pretty psyched about her experience.
My first experience with Global Entry was arriving at SeaTac from Seoul. I encountered a similar scene — although, from what my wife tells me, the time savings were far more significant than with her first experience. When we disembarked from the plane, we soon found that the line for immigration and customs formed just beyond the jetbridge. Thankfully, within seconds of finding this scene, we heard an employee call for any Global Entry members to come forward to the front. After doing so, we were escorted past the stanchions, down the stairs, and over to the Global Entry area where we were greeted by open kiosks. From there, we also had a dedicated line to have our forms reviewed and continue on.
Considering that we arrived at our next gate only about 15 minutes before boarding began, I shudder to think what could have happened had we not had Global Entry for this particular trip. Needless to say, I was quite pleased not to have to find out.
You can save time returning to the U.S. by car as well
One of the lesser-known benefits of Global Entry is that it also allows you faster re-entry when returning to the U.S. from Canada by land. Although you won’t encounter any kiosks on your drive, using the card that’s given to you when you complete your Global Entry process, you can use a special lane at select border crossings. In my experience, this saved us a ton of time.
Coming back from a recent trip to Toronto, my wife and I made sure to bring our Global Entry cards as I had read we could use them in a priority lane on the way home. Even armed with that knowledge, I was not prepared for just how effective this would be.
After paying the toll to cross back into Michigan from Ontario, we noticed that the regular line for autos was backed up all the way across the bridge. Meanwhile, the NEXUS lane was completely clear — so clear in fact that I panicked and continued Googling as we crossed just to confirm once again that we could indeed use that lane.
Sure enough, as we reached the NEXUS lane, we waited behind literally one car before making our way to the CBP agent. He checked our Global Entry cards, glanced at our passports, asked a couple of standard questions (where are you coming from? Where are you headed to? Anything to declare?), and said, “See ya.” After we merged back onto the freeway, the ETA on our GPS dropped by 50 minutes! We really couldn’t believe it.
Some important things to note there: first, as I stated earlier, you can only use your Global Entry in the NEXUS lane when returning to the U.S., not when heading into Canada. Second, while I partially expected the sign to say “NEXUS/Global Entry” or something to that effect, it does not — just NEXUS, so be prepared for that. Finally, remember that you will need your Global Entry card for this in addition to your passport
The application process was both long and short
As I mentioned earlier, it took weeks for my online application to be processed and for me to receive conditional approval. Part of me wonders if this perceived delay was at all related to my self-employment, but it’s entirely possible that this length of time was completely normal and I’m making something out of nothing. In any case, the second half of the application process was incredibly simple.
Although the face-to-face interview that comes with obtaining Global Entry status may seem intimidating to some, it was actually a piece of cake. My assigned officer asked only a handful of questions — mostly just confirming the info in my application. The only other thing they asked was if I had any other questions about the program or how to use it. After that, it was time to scan my fingers (which is required since that’s how you’ll prove your identity when using the Global Entry kiosks) and, just like that, I was official. Within a day or two of that, my Known Traveler Number was live and ready to use.
Look for staff members to direct you to Global Entry kiosks
When reentering the U.S., things can get a bit confusing as you step off the plane and make your way to immigration. In the hubbub, you may not be able to see a Global Entry kiosk since you’re so far back in the line. If you’re like me and don’t want to look like an entitled jerk by trying to bypass this line without actually knowing where you’re going, it’s definitely helpful to look for an airport staff member. In fact, in our experience, you may actually hear them yelling “Global Entry, this way” before seeing them.
This is something we recently experienced in Chicago. I’ll admit we were a bit taken aback to see that there was seemingly a single line that was comprised of all passport types. Just as we realized that the line was actually far longer than we had previously thought, we finally encountered a team member who was directing people to the Global Entry kiosks. Needless to say, we were extremely relieved — especially since this was our first time using Global Entry on a direct flight to our final destination, so the time saved in line meant an earlier arrival home! The moral of the story is that you should keep an eye out for these helpful staff members and ask them for assistance if needed.
Global Entry in a pandemic
On a recent trip back from France (our first time being out of the country in two years), we noticed some slight changes to the Global Entry process. My wife was very surprised when, after taking a photo at the machine, it spit out her receipt and told her to proceed to the exit — without having to scan her passport or fingers. I, meanwhile, wasn’t able to position myself well enough to take a good photo, so I resorted to the old way of doing things. Presumably, this change was made to reduce touchpoints and I do have to say it would make things a bit easier… if the cameras worked well. It remains to be seen whether this change will be sticking around or not, but it’s worth noting either way.
Final Thoughts on Global Entry
Stick with TSA Pre✓ or go with Global Entry?
In my opinion, if you’re considering TSA Pre✓ and you have any possible plans or traveling internationally within the next five years, I’d definitely spring for Global Entry. After all, at a price of only $15 more, it seems like a no-brainer to add this extra service.
That said, there are some potential downsides to applying for Global Entry compared to just TSA Pre✓. Topping that list for us was the fact that, although there’s a TSA Pre✓ interview location in Springfield, the nearest Global Entry location was three hours away in Kansas City. Since we travel abroad with some frequency, this mini road trip was a small inconvenience for a much larger benefit — but I could see why those who aren’t sure if they’ll actually use Global Entry might be dissuaded by this.
The only other thing I question about Global Entry is whether the time you save during re-entry is actually of much benefit to you. Let me explain: in most cases, I suspect you’ll have a pretty healthy layover when connecting from an international flight to a domestic one. Thus, could the time you “save” really just be wasted waiting at the gate instead? On the other hand, this expedited process could be a huge perk to those arriving at their final destination from overseas as less time in line means getting home that much sooner. Of course, there’s also the chance that this speedier re-entry means making a flight that you wouldn’t have otherwise (see my SeaTac experience above) — or just having extra time to grab a bite before your next departure. In either case, I guess I’d have to count that as a win.
The bottom line
Ultimately, it’s hard to say with any real certainty whether or not Global Entry will benefit individual travelers. This being a personal finance site, I do have to say that it seems unlikely that the program will directly save you any money in the long run. On the other hand, there is definitely something to be said about the stress reduction and time-saving element that comes with the program.
If Global Entry on its own cost $100, I’d be inclined to say “skip it,” but with the inclusion of TSA Pre✓, the offering is a steal as it benefits both international and domestic travelers. The ability to get through security and customs with minimal waits and without having to go through the whole rigamarole that is airport security procedures make this one travel luxury that I’ll get far more benefit out of than most others. That’s why my wife and I are both happy to have Global Entry status and look forward to taking advantage of it many times in the next few years.
Also published on Medium.