Speeding Through Airport Customs Lines

IMG_0785by Nancy Bestor

Bob and I first became aware of the US Customs Department’s Global Entry Program in early 2013.  The Program offers expedited re-entry into the United States and expedited TSA screening for approved travelers at a growing number of domestic airports. Since we fly both domestically and internationally several times a year, we decided it might be worth $100 each to apply for the Global Entry program.

I’m sure it will come as no surprise to our readers to learn that the program’s application process is not the easiest to execute. Here’s how it went down for us.

First a few details. A Global Entry Pass costs $100, and is good for five years. With the pass, approved US citizens can skip customs lines and customs agents and instead go directly to an automated Global Entry kiosk, where with one swipe of your passport, an electronic fingerprinting and a photo, you are quickly approved for re-entry into the US. The same application also gains travelers access to the TSA Pre-Check program, where at participating airports approved travelers can go through faster, more efficient screening. Sounds awesome right? It is, but the application process does not work quite as efficiently.

You apply for the program online, and immediately pay the $100 fee. That part is easy. The tricky part comes in scheduling an in-person interview at one of the 38 Global Entry Enrollment Centers at airports in the United States. When we applied, the only west coast centers were in Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles (the Portland International Airport has since opened an office). An interview appointment must be scheduled within 30 days of completion of the online application, and after your interview, you’ll know if you have been approved within two weeks, and you can immediately begin enjoying the benefits.

Soon after applying we attempted to schedule an appointment in San Francisco, but there were no available dates on their calendar, not one. I called the San Francisco Global Entry office (and spoke to a live person!), and was told there was a “glitch” in the system, and to try back in a few days. And the clock started ticking. A few days later: nothing. A week later: nothing. I called again, and was told they almost had it figured out, and not to worry as it would certainly be up and running before our 30-day deadline was up. Finally, with three days to spare, the San Francisco calendar at last showed availability, but only for three or four days within a three-month period. Living 350 miles from their San Francisco Airport office, we really wanted to schedule our appointment when we’d be there anyway – say, during a layover. But according to their online calendar that was impossible. So I called again. And on this third call the Customs and Border Protection officer gave me the scoop. He advised me to take any appointment and then reschedule whenever dates opened up that fit into my schedule. Who knew?!

So I did just that, but it took months of regular online checking to find a date that fit. We even dropped in to the Global Entry office at the SF airport once, when we had time to kill during a layover. But without an appointment, the officers would not even consider conducting our interview. We finally managed to make an appointment for October, during our layover en route to Shanghai, seven months after we applied to the program.

IMG_0788It took several tries to locate the Global Entry office at SFO. We asked several TSA employees, who you’d think ought to know about the Global Entry program right? Alas, two of the three employees had no idea what we were talking about. The third knew all about the program but sent us in the opposite direction of the office. We finally found it, checked in and waited for our names to be called. While waiting, I spoke with a woman up from Los Angeles who told me that the Global Entry interview calendar at LAX was booked out until the fall of 2014, hence the reason she came to San Francisco for hers.

Our interviews began promptly and consisted of a series of questions asked by a serious and unsmiling Customs and Border Protection officer. Why I had traveled to Turkey in 2008? What do I do on my annual trips to Mexico with my girlfriends? And what I was doing for 11 days in the Dominican Republic six years ago, were a few of the questions. Once I answered those, I was fingerprinted, photographed and sent on my way. Bob had a similar experience, although they had a longer list of questions for him. Six days later, while in Shanghai, we were notified by email that we had been approved effective immediately and we would be able use our Global Entry status for our re-entry into the US from China. Hooray for us!

We were not required to fill out the customs form on the airplane. And we were all set to waltz past the huge customs lines we were certain to encounter at SFO. Sadly, there were virtually no lines at customs. While we did speed more quickly through the kiosk than we would have with a customs agent, we had truly hoped for a long, snaking and slow moving line so we could give ourselves a pat on the back and feel like it was money well spent. Not this time though. Oh well, we’ve got a full five years and we’ll be ready for the back pat when that line comes.