If you’ve been thinking about applying for any of the US government’s expedited screening programs for frequent fliers—Global Entry, TSA PreCheck, and the like—don’t put it off any longer. The process is easier than you might imagine, and the benefits are as good as people say. We’ll take you through all the information you need.
Which program is right for me?
Global Entry: It’s the most expensive program, at $100 for five years, but comes with the best benefits: You can skip the lines at passport control and customs when entering the United States and also enjoy TSA PreCheck, Nexus, and Sentri (explained below). The process of applying for Global Entry, which is administered by US Customs and Border Protection, also tends to be faster than the other programs.
Who’s eligible: US citizens and permanent residents, and citizens of Germany, the Netherlands, Panama, South Korea, and Mexico. But only Americans can get the PreCheck benefits.
TSA PreCheck: TSA stands for the Transportation Security Administration, the people who screen you and your carry-on baggage. PreCheck gives you access to a special TSA security line in most US airports on flights operated by most US carriers. That line is generally faster, and you don’t have to remove your shoes or take anything out of your bag. It costs $85 for five years, slightly less than Global Entry but without the other benefits. Applying for PreCheck also tends to take longer. Unless you really value the $15 savings, choose Global Entry.
Who’s eligible: US citizens and permanent residents.
Nexus: Choose this option if you want to save money and aren’t in a rush. It costs just $50 for five years and comes with all the same benefits as Global Entry and PreCheck. But the application process tends to take several months and can only be completed in a few cities near the US-Canada border. Nexus is designed to expedite crossing onto either side, with special lanes for cars and special kiosks at passport control in US and Canadian airports. (Note that Global Entry only gets you “Nexus” for crossing into the US; the full Nexus program also includes faster security screening in Canadian airports.)
Who’s eligible: US and Canadian citizens and permanent residents.
Sentri: This program expedites crossing from Mexico into the US. It’s similar to Nexus, including the Global Entry, PreCheck, and Nexus benefits, but costs more (roughy $122.25 for five years). You should get GlobalEntry, instead.
Who’s eligible: US citizens and permanent residents.
So you’re saying I should apply for Global Entry?
What is the application process like?
It’s called the Global Online Enrollment System. If you haven’t created a GOES account before—and you probably haven’t—then that’s the first thing to do. Once you have an account, log in.
Inside, you’ll be able to apply for several of the programs listed above. Make sure to select “Global Entry” when filling out your application. The form is lengthy and should take you about a half hour to complete. Most of the questions are straightforward, if you have your passport and driver’s license on hand and a decent memory. The trickiest part requires you to detail your employment and residency history for the past five years.
How do I pay for Global Entry?
At the end of the online application, you will be asked for credit card or bank account information to pay $100. There is no refund if you’re rejected. But the fee covers you for five years, if you are approved.
Note that some credit cards, generally those designed for frequent fliers and corporate travelers, will refund your Global Entry or PreCheck fee.
What could get me rejected?
The US government says it will reject anyone who has been convicted of a crime, has violated customs or immigration regulations, or is under investigation by law enforcement. You will also be rejected if you provide false information on your application, so spend some time getting that right. Of course, customs and border control agents also have discretion to reject anyone they declare isn’t a “low risk.”
What happens after submitting the application?
The time it take for your application to be reviewed can generally be measured in days and not weeks. It took six business days for my application to be reviewed; other people report shorter, but generally not longer, waits. You will receive an email when your application is reviewed and have to log back into GOES to read the message. If everything went well, it will say that you have been conditionally approved, pending an in-person interview.
How do I schedule an interview?
You do that with GOES. The first step is to select where you want to be interviewed. There are lots of options, but you will generally have an easier time finding an enrollment center if you live near a major US city.
Wait times vary widely by location, so any flexibility you have is useful. In New York City, the lower Manhattan enrollment center will likely show a months-long wait for an appointment, but traveling to John F. Kennedy International Airport in Queens will often get you in the door the next day. Of course, if you are planning to pass through an airport with an enrollment center soon, that may be your most convenient option.
Some locations will accept walk-ins from people who were conditionally approved online. To save yourself a needless trip, try searching online for people’s experience with that specific enrollment center. Often people will mention if walk-in appointments are allowed. Yelp, Foursquare, and message boards for fliers can be helpful with this.
What is the interview like?
It’s easy. You may be asked a few basic questions about how you travel, your employment status, etc. But you wouldn’t have gotten this far in the process if you weren’t already destined for a rubber stamp.
At the end of the interview, if you’re approved, the officer will take your fingerprints. There’s no getting around this requirement. If you aren’t comfortable giving the US government your fingerprints, you can’t enroll. At that point, you are automatically enrolled in Global Entry and can also immediately enjoy the benefits of PreCheck.
How do I use Global Entry and PreCheck?
You will get a “known traveler number” at your interview; it’s also available through GOES. This number is what gets you PreCheck.
Make sure to include it when booking your flights and add it to your frequent flier programs. Then, at participating airports, your boarding pass should indicate that you can use the PreCheck lane. The program’s logo features a cute little checkmark, TSA Pre✓, so don’t be confused if that’s what you see.
For Global Entry, you just need your passport. At most international airports in the US, there are signs at passport control pointing you to the Global Entry kiosk. You can go up to one, swipe your passport, scan your fingerprints, answer a few questions, take a receipt for customs, and be on your way. You can declare any goods then, as well.
Note that if the kiosks aren’t working, you also have the right to skip the lines to speak with a real-life border patrol agent.
What about my kids?
They need to apply separately for Global Entry in order to use it when entering the US, so make sure to enroll the entire family unless you want to leave the kids behind. Children under age 18 need a guardian’s permission to apply.
However, for PreCheck, it’s usually not necessary that kids are enrolled in any expedited screening program. If the adults they are traveling with have PreCheck on their boarding passes, TSA will let the whole group use the line.
How do I keep Global Entry?
Eligibility lasts for five years, and you can renew it online for another $100 through GOES. Also, if you get a new passport, make sure to update GOES, or you’ll be rejected at passport control. If you change your name, you will have to show up in person again at an enrollment center to keep your eligibility.