NEXUS is inconsistently awesome: a report on flying to Canada


I’ve written before about NEXUS and how much of a good deal it is for most people who fly on any regular basis. To recap: $50 and an interview (and your eyeballs scanned) will get you expedited security and no-need to opt-out for five years.

In addition, one of the huge benefits (and indeed, its original intent) was expedited customs screening. Instead of having to talk to a surly agent, you go to a kiosk. A few minutes and you’re done.

Recently, I was able to take the NEXUS card out for a spin and see how it helped or, sometimes, didn’t help.

My itinerary was PDX-YYJ (Victoria, British Columbia) with a stopover in Seattle.

PDX-SEA-YYJ, from Great Circle Mapper
PDX-SEA-YYJ, from Great Circle Mapper

Outbound: From Portland

I was told during my interview that the NEXUS card was “as valid as a passport” for travel between the US and Canada. I didn’t quite trust this, so I brought my passport along anyway, but I still wanted to see what would happen when I presented my shiny new card to the check-in counter.

Well, the answer was: lots of consternation and consultation with supervisors. It’s not that they didn’t recognize the card, but it was one of those the-computer-won’t-accept-it situations. This took about fifteen minutes at the counter to unravel, but it was all in the name of journalistic investigation. You’re welcome.

Finally, the staff were able to press the right combination of keystrokes, and I was allowed to pass.

Security was a snap, as NEXUS gets me TSA Pre-check. Three minutes later and I was through, without having to take off my shoes, belt, or anything like that.

Outbound: To Victoria

Arriving in Canada, I was very excited to test out my new credentials.

Unfortunately, despite being the capital of the 3rd largest province in Canada by population, the Victoria airport does not actually have NEXUS facilities. So no expedited line, so zipping through customs, no eyeball scanning. My NEXUS card was as useless here as my library card.

But luckily the line was short, and aside from an interesting new battery of questions involving whether I had recently traveled to West Africa, I was through in a few minutes.

Inbound: From Victoria

Arriving back at Victoria Airport on my way home, I approached the counter and presented my NEXUS card as identification. The woman behind the counter, clearly used to giving bad news, said, “I’m sorry, that’s not a valid form of identification.

As an aside, one of the greatest lessons I was ever taught is to never assume that there is a 100% chance that you are correct about anything. Even if you’re overwhelmingly confident, there may be something you don’t know. So never push back with blind certainty.

Not that I exhibited this in that moment. I wouldn’t say I pushed back with blind certainty, but I certainly pushed back. I wanted to pull up the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative and read it to her, but instead, I unhappily fished out my passport.

And I’m glad I didn’t read her anything, as it turns out that the NEXUS card is valid for travel only when departing from a NEXUS-equipped location. Which, as previous evidenced, Victoria was not.

(And lesson to you: Always bring your passport, even if you think you won’t need it!)

I don’t know if I get expedited security or anything in other Canadian airports, but it was irrelevant here because I was, no joke, the only person going through security at that moment. And I didn’t need to opt-out of anything, because the nude-o-scopes were not in use here.

Inbound: To Seattle

At Seattle, the flight attendant informed us that we no longer needed to fill out any customs forms, as they used kiosks now. But while everyone used kiosks, standard travelers still had to get interviewed by a human, whereas I did not.

A flight from London had just arrived, so there was a line for the kiosks. Ours was much shorter than the standard line, but I can’t say that I just sauntered up to a kiosk.

Blurry photos = me trying to be discreet
Blurry photos = me trying to be discreet

This was my big moment: the Global Entry kiosk! I felt that sense of excitement and heightened awareness that comes with stepping up to an unfamiliar-but-important machine. It was like how I feel when I vote.

My first step was to insert my passport so it could be scanned. I summarily failed at this seemingly-menial task. I pushed it in: nothing. I slid it in: nothing. I swiped it repeatedly like a credit card machine: nothing. I blew on it like a Nintendo cartridge: nothing.

This did absolutely nothing.
This did absolutely nothing.

I got that same kind of anxiety that befalls me whenever I use the self-checkout at a grocery store, the worry that someone will come over and show me something witheringly simple that I was missing. But I pressed on anyway, desperate not to attract attention to myself.

Thankfully, there was a way to look up my information via the touch screen, so I didn’t actually need my passport. I did need my right hand, though, as the machine scanned my fingerprints.

This done, the machine printed out a receipt with my picture on it, and let me proceed. I walked past a guard who was checking other people’s receipts in the standard line, glanced at my receipt and waived me on.

World's least fun photo booth
World’s least fun photo booth

From there, I had to pick up my luggage and (pointlessly) check it again, stop at another customs agent, and go through security again, but it was really just more of the same. I do note that this particular security point had no Pre-check lane, so we were all stuck in the same line.


So let’s see the results. Assigning one point for every place where having a NEXUS card saved me time and/or hassle:

  • Checking in at PDX: 0
  • Security at PDX: 1 (10 minutes saved)
  • Entry into YYJ: 0
  • Checking in at YYJ: 0
  • Security at YYJ: 0
  • Immigration at SEA: 1 (20 minutes saved)
  • Customs at SEA: 1 (10 minutes saved)
  • Security at SEA: 0

So my trip gets a score of 3 points out of a possible 8. I’d also say that I saved about 40 minutes on this trip, a respectable amount of time. I’d suspect that if I were flying into a larger Canadian airport or out of a larger American airport, these numbers would be higher.

Still, the takeaway is that as long as you are okay with the inconsistent application of benefits, NEXUS remains a great choice if you fly on any regular basis.

But enough about me. Have you used NEXUS or Global Entry?

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