Renewing TSA PreCheck and Global Entry

Nancy and I recently renewed our five-year memberships in the TSA PreCheck and Global Entry programs, because I think we can all agree that navigating airports is a challenge to just about anyone’s serenity. It all adds up to a stressful experience: arranging transportation, arriving early enough (but not too early!), making sure your liquids are properly sized and stored, and having your ID and boarding pass at the ready. Then you immediately begin the scramble of removing said liquids, laptops, phones, belts, shoes, and everything else in your pockets for a precious few moments, only to gather them all up, get them all back where they belong, and move along so the next poor soul can do the same. Even as a frequent traveler, who feels organized and prepared for the security skirmish, I always end up more than just a bit disheveled and disoriented. Truth is, I often start that way, but you get my drift.

So I’m interested in anything that eases that process. Unfortunately the world of private jets, and their nearly non-existent security processes, are far beyond our means. As a fairly frequent flyer, I really like the Global Entry program. For $100 and little bit of your time, Global Entry helps you speed through immigration and customs when re-entering the USA, and includes TSA PreCheck, which helps you speed through TSA security lines at participating US airports.

Initially I found it a bit confusing, but they are in fact two separate but related programs. TSA PreCheck is $85 for five years. But for $100 (an extra $15), you can also get Global Entry. Therefore the only reason to limit yourself to PreCheck is if you are 100% certain you will not leave the country for the five-year duration of your membership. Seems to me that the extra $15 is worth it just in case.

Five years ago, Nancy and I signed up for both programs to see how they worked. With TSA PreCheck, we go to a separate and always much shorter line, and are not required to remove shoes, laptops, liquids, belts or jackets. And for us that makes a big difference. More than 200 US airports and 73 airlines offer PreCheck and only once that I can remember was PreCheck unavailable. And with Global Entry, many, many times we have sped past long customs lines full of tired and understandably irritated fellow travelers to the automated Global Entry kiosks. Turns out we liked both programs a lot. It was an easy decision to renew for another five years.

Like the original application process, renewal was straightforward. Fill out an online questionnaire and schedule an in-person interview. Both times it was the interview scheduling that posed the greatest logistical hurdle, mostly because our little airport in Medford, Oregon does not do the interviews.

Although there are nearly 400 enrollment centers where TSA interviews take place, sometimes booking a time slot can be a little tough. For me, there were no available times on the west coast that met my travel schedule. Eventually, I was able to arrange a time several months out during a long layover we had coming up at New York’s JFK airport. A customer recently told us that she had to schedule her interview in Portland one year ahead of time. She also noted that she has received a few emails from the TSA encouraging her to “drop in” to a participating airport’s enrollment center for an interview. Nancy and I tried to do just that at SFO five years ago on our first go ‘round, and we were practically laughed out of the office. But perhaps things have changed in the interim.

The renewal process did pose a curious question, as I was required to interview again but Nancy was not. She was issued her Trusted Traveler Global Entry ID renewal straight away after applying online, while I was required to interview to complete the process. Who knows why? Other than my 2015 trip to India, we’d visited all the same countries during our five years in the program. However, upon review, Nancy believes it is possible she omitted Jordan from the “countries visited” on her renewal form. Nevertheless, after all that, my interview occurred almost exactly at the scheduled hour and lasted less than five minutes. A few weeks later, I received my renewed Trusted Traveler Global Entry ID in the mail and I was good to go for another five years.

For us, the $100 Global Entry/TSA PreCheck fee is worth it. We average about five round trip flights a year. Over five years that’s 25 trips, and because you go through security both ways, that’s 50 times through security. That’s $2 per TSA encounter. It’s pretty much an official bribe – kind of like slipping someone a couple of bucks to skip to the front of the line. And that’s before factoring in time saved at immigration and customs. I’ll take it.

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.