My husband and I travel out of the country a few times each year. Going through customs when returning is never easy. There are three cities we like to avoid when re-entering the U.S.
Miami because the agents, who are probably looking for drugs, ask a ton of questions and usually end up searching our bags (who knew we looked like drug smugglers?).
Next is Atlanta. Not necessarily because going through customs is so bad but in Atlanta - at least until they open their new international terminal on May 16 - passengers returning to Atlanta as their final destination, are forced to pick up their bags, go through customs, check their bags again, go through airport security again and eventually pick up their checked bags at the main terminal.
And finally JFK. I won't even get into what a nightmare that airport is. But like Miami, the customs agents there are suspicious of everyone. And with so many international flights arriving, the lines through customs back up a very long way.
Unfortunately for us, most of our international flights depart and return to Atlanta. Which is why we chose to apply for a Global Entry pass, one of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency's "trusted traveler" programs. By applying online, paying $100 and submitting to a background check, a personal interview and fingerprinting at one of the twenty-something airports that now accept the pass, your passport is marked with a sticker that allows expedited clearance for pre-approved travelers to enter the U.S. by using automated kiosks located at select airports. (The $100 fee covers you for five years.) Global Entry passes work for U.S. customs when returning from all foreign destinations except Mexico and Canada which use a different pass system.
The Global Entry application (available at www.globalentry.gov
) takes about 15 minutes to complete and submit for preliminary approval. Applicants are usually notified within 10-15 days of acceptance or rejection based on a background check. At that time, travelers can make an appointment online for the personal interview with a TSA agent. Depending on the time of the year and airport, one of the half-hour appointment slots may not be available for two-to-three weeks. So plan on at least one month from start to finish on the process.
Our in-person interview was pretty benign. We were asked if we had ever been convicted of a crime (they already know the answer - if it was "yes" you wouldn't be sitting there) and to verify the answers we made on our applications. Then the officer scaned our passpports, electronically took the fingerprints of both hands, put a bar code label on our passports and spent the rest of the 20 - 30 minutes demonstrating how to use the kiosk when going through customs.
Simple enough. You bypass the long lines, go to a special kiosk, scan your passport and your fingerprints and voila! - the kiosk kicks out a piece of paper that says you're good to go. Once in hand, you go to the front of the nearest passport line and wave your passport and the paper to the agent who will let you go right through. My only problem with this scenario is that I've got to butt in front of a long line of passengers who are eager to get through. I sure hope they don't start boo-ing me.
The Global Entry pass also allows holders to participate in the PreCheck program at about 30 major airports, where departing passengers go through a special security lane and don't have to remove their shoes, laptops or quart-size bags of liquids. Although it's not guaranteed, it certainly was a significant reason we chose to go Global. However, during a recent trip from Boston, which supposedly is part of the PreCheck program, no one at the airline or TSA could direct me to the expedited line. As a matter of fact, neither of the two TSA officers I spoke with knew anything about the program.
So is it worth it? Based on the Boston experience, not yet. But we'll know better when we travel to Europe this month. Hopefully, at least in Atlanta, they've heard of the program. And it works.
To learn more about the Global Entry pass, visit www.globalentry.gov