Here’s How to Skip Airport Customs and Security Lines

Fred Perrotta

On my way home from TBEX, I arrived early at the Toronto airport with plenty of time before my flight back to San Francisco. As usual, most of that time was spent standing in line.

But Erica, who arrived at the airport with me, just skipped the immigration line.

Skipped it!

What sorcery is this? She must be a witch. Or an international spy.

Nope. Expert traveler Erica was just a member of Global Entry. Skipping a line? At the airport? That’s all I needed to know. Before I knew what Global Entry was, I wanted in.

What is Global Entry?

Global Entry is a program run by the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) that “allows expedited clearance for pre-approved, low-risk travelers upon arrival in the United States,” at select airports.

Global Entry kiosks

Once accepted, you can use a Global Entry kiosk instead of standing in the customs and immigration line when re-entering the country. At the kiosk, you will scan your passport and provide your fingerprints to confirm your identity. The kiosk then prints a receipt in place of the form that you would usually fill out.

That’s it. No line. No paperwork. No being grilled by CBP officers.

According to John Wagner of the CBP, the agency is working on agreements that would allow US citizens to apply to foreign equivalents of Global Entry.

In the future, you may be eligible for the same expedited entry into other countries where you travel frequently.

This program would be especially helpful for business travelers who visit the same international offices regularly and for leisure travelers who often travel to the same countries, for example to see family living abroad.

But Wait, There’s More… TSA PreCheck

TSA PreCheck program logo

Expedited re-entry into the US isn’t the only benefit of a Trusted Traveler program like Global Entry. Once approved, you will also be eligible for TSA PreCheck. Participants of PreCheck get “screening benefits which include leaving on shoes, light outerwear and belts, as well as leaving laptops and 3-1-1 compliant liquids in carry-on bags.”

PreCheck allows you to skip the most onerous parts of the security screening process.

Wear whatever shoes and jacket you want. You don’t have to plan around getting them off and back on quickly. You don’t even have to unpack your laptop or toiletry bag. Go through security and walk straight to your gate. No more stopping to get dressed.

Yes, your next trip through security might not be totally horrible.

At first, PreCheck was limited to Trusted Travelers and frequent flyers chosen by airlines. However, you can now apply directly for PreCheck membership. PreCheck is currently available at over 160 airports across the US.

The following airlines offer TSA Pre?®:

  • Aeromexico
  • Air Canada
  • Alaska Airlines
  • Allegiant Airlines
  • American Airlines
  • Cape Air
  • Delta Air Lines
  • Etihad Airways
  • Hawaiian Airlines
  • JetBlue Airways
  • Seaborne Airlines
  • Southwest Airlines
  • Sun Country
  • United Airlines
  • Virgin America
  • WestJet

Are you sold yet? Good. Let’s move on to logistics.

Global Entry Application

Global Entry costs $100 and a membership is good for 5 years. That’s just $20/year. Not bad.

You can apply for Global Entry at GlobalEntry.gov. The application includes basic contact information, address history, and employment history.

Note that your $100 non-refundable application fee is due when you apply, not when you’re accepted. If you’re rejected for any reason, you won’t get your money back.

After the CBP reviews your application and conducts a background check, you will receive a notification to schedule an in-person interview. Your interview will probably be at your nearest airport. Mine was at SFO. Here is the full list of interview locations.

The first available interview spot was over two months from when I applied. The program is becoming more popular, so you may face a similar wait.

The in-person interview is to confirm the information in your application, ask you about your travel habits, and scan your fingerprints.

I was greeted rather gruffly when I showed up for my appointment, but the agents warmed up when I mentioned running a backpack company. The interview only took about 20 minutes and was surprisingly painless.

TSA PreCheck Application

Applying to PreCheck is very similar to applying to Global Entry. You fill out an online application then visit an enrollment center to verify your identity and provide your fingerprints.

PreCheck costs $85 for a five-year membership, $15 less than Global Entry. If you might travel abroad in the next five years, Global Entry is a better value.

You get the same expedited security screening benefits as a PreCheck member plus you can skip the customs line when re-entering the US. Even if you only travel abroad once in those five years, skipping that line is totally worth $15.

How Great is Global Entry?

After two years of using Global Entry, I’m still grateful for every customs line that I skip. Both Global Entry and TSA PreCheck are worth every penny.

Global Entry is so great that we made it a perk of working at Tortuga. We pay for each of our teammates’ memberships in the Global Entry and TSA PreCheck programs or their local equivalents. Now when a US-based team member returns from a company retreat abroad, she gets to skip customs. This program is so good, we pay for other people’s memberships.

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