How to get Global Entry for 50% off (and zip through customs and security lines)


Going through customs can be a drag. You are accosted by a bored-yet-potentially-malevolent customs officer, who volleys questions at you. These questions seem innocuous, but are can be phrased so as to imply subtle accusation (“Why did you leave the U.S.?“). You know that if you answer with just a hint of hesitation, that there is a small-but-nonzero chance that you will be sent home, sent to the Blue Rubber Glove Room, or worse, forced to work as a customs officer.

Clearly this is a situation that I would like to avoid.

Enter the Globe

I’ve been always curious about certain signs at airports labeled Global Entry. Global Entry is an expedited clearance program run by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection that lets eligible people speed through customs without being subject to the accusatory gaze of a customs officer. Instead you check in with a kiosk.

You don’t need to be a frequent traveler or a CEO to apply. You just need to conform to the U.S.’s definition of a “low-risk” traveler, by which I gather that you can’t have had any major legal infractions, that you are an upstanding, God-fearing citizen, and that you never “smoked those reefers.” Actually, I don’t really know what it means.

The cost for Global Entry is $100, and this status is good for five years. Doable, sure, but is it worth it, especially if you don’t fly internationally very often?

Keep your shoes on

Some of you have heard of TSA Pre-check (stylized with almost Prince-level difficulty as TSA Pre✓™), which is a program that grants you the ability to go through the quick line at airports in the US. It also exempts you from the vaguely dehumanizing shoe-and-belt-removal.

An early version of the Pre-check logo (scrapped)
An early version of the TSA Pre-check logo (scrapped)

You can’t opt-in to this program; they have to select you. I tried once, and received this interesting reply:

TSA sets the qualifications … Your account did not meet the thresholds they have defined. We are not at liberty to say what the qualification threshold is, but your account did not meet this criteria.

Yikes! What could it have been? Do I slouch when I go through security? Am I not cute enough?

Anyway, I bring this up because I learned that Global Entry gives you access to Pre-check lanes, regardless of my looks or slouching. This vastly improves the value of Global Entry, from use during the occasional international trip to pretty much every domestic flight I take.

But $100 is still a bit of an ask. Luckily, I found a way to do this cheaper. And for this, we can thank Canada.

Slip into something a bit more Canadian

Canada has its own “trusted traveler program” for expedited border crossing between it and the U.S. It’s called NEXUS, and it functions almost identically to Global Entry. You get a quick lane at land crossings and the same special kiosks at airports.

And the best part: having NEXUS gives you access to Global Entry! And even better, NEXUS is only $50 for five years, half the price of Global Entry. With that, I was in.

So why doesn’t everyone sign up for NEXUS?

Because it’s in Canada

One of the requirements for both programs is that after you submit your application (my personal essay was entitled “My Feet Get Cold, and Other Reasons Why I Want To Keep My Shoes On“) you have to have an in-person interview with Homeland Security, or whatever the Canadian equivalent is.

These interviews need to happen at an enrollment center, which is usually a Canadian airport or a border crossing. So that might explain why most U.S. folks won’t bother with NEXUS. If you live in Texas, a trip to Canada, while salutary, will rather offset the cost savings.

But here in Portland, the border is only a short trip away.

Privacy concerns

I admit that one of the reasons why I hesitated joining this program was that I was a bit uncomfortable at voluntarily giving my fingerprints and an iris scan (!) to a government agency. Despite having both a public blog and a business, privacy is very important to me, and I am wary of dolling out information that could be used to track me any more than I already do.

But when I voiced my concerns to friends, they pointed out that in all likelihood, government agencies probably already had my fingerprints. And when I thought about it, hell, even my gym has my index fingerprints. At least if I’m going to have my biometric information stored, let me get something out of it.

So one side-reason for me to sign up is to explore my discomfort with this kind of personally-identifying information. Will there be larger ramifications? Will I come to regret it? Will I learn something? We shall see.

To be continued

And so I convinced a few frequently-traveling friends to sign up with me, and we’re going to make it into a weekend. We’ll go to Vancouver, eat some good food, wander around town, and get grilled by Canadian Homeland Security. It sounds like a perfect weekend!

And if all goes well, we’ll be able to zip through customs and security lines soon enough. Assuming we get approved, of course. Stay tuned, as I suspect the story may not be so simple.

But enough about me. Have you ever signed up for Global Entry or NEXUS? Do/did you have reservations about doing so?

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