Trusted Traveler Programs

by Protima Daryanani


Taking my shoes off at airport security is one of my biggest pet peeves (apart from waiting in long lines). While it’s certainly understandable that in a post-9/11 world, security must be tight, for frequent travelers waiting in long security lines and dealing with restrictions on carry-on items are some of the least pleasant aspects of flying (and that’s including airline food). And the restrictions keep coming. Most recently, the Trump administration barred passengers on foreign airlines headed to the US from ten airports in eight majority-Muslim countries from carrying “personal electronic devices (PEDs) larger than a cell phone or smart phone,” and US officials have even discussed expanding the ban to include flights to the US from Europe. Who knows what might come next.

In recent years, the Department of Homeland Security and TSA have thankfully introduced options to speed up not only the security checkpoint process but also customs and immigration by implementing “Trusted Traveler” programs. These include TSA Pre✓, Clear (a private program approved by TSA), Global Entry, NEXUS (Northern Exchange with the US), and SENTRI (Secure Electronic Network for Travelers Rapid Inspection). We thought we’d take a look at each program and advantages and disadvantages (spoiler alert: I love Global Entry!).

TSA Pre✓

TSA Pre✓ is available to US citizens and US lawful permanent residents for expedited processing at TSA security checkpoints at participating airports and with participating airlines. With a five-year membership for $85, travelers can go into a separate security line and do not need to remove shoes, laptops, liquids, belts, and light jackets. As many as twelve million are enrolled in TSA Pre✓ and currently 180+ airports and thirty-seven airlines provide access to TSA Pre✓. Applicants pre-enroll online and must visit an enrollment center for a ten-minute interview where they provide fingerprints, verify identification, and undergo a background check.

Unlike standard security lines, TSA Pre✓ lines do not use the body scanners with X-ray technology that emit low levels of radiation (the risk from which the Food and Drug Administration says is "extremely small."). Instead, TSA Pre✓ uses standard metal detectors. Note, however, that the TSA Pre✓ line doesn't guarantee travelers will avoid a pat-down altogether, as TSA agents have the right to pull TSA Pre✓ members aside to perform random security checks.

Importantly (frustratingly for me) not only must the airport offer TSA Pre✓ but the airline must be participating as well. So if an airport has a TSA Pre✓ line but you are flying an international airline, you may not be able to use the TSA Pre✓ facility. Moreover, at times the TSA Pre✓ line may be closed or not available. TSA Pre✓ is probably best for those who fly domestically looking to expedite security screenings. In May 2017, for example, ninety-seven percent of TSA Pre✓ passengers waited less than five minutes at the security checkpoint. While it certainly can speed up processing through security checkpoints, it does not confer any advantages to being processed through immigration and customs after international flights back to the US, which is why it’s a good choice for domestic fliers. 

Another possible drawback: simply because travelers have been approved for TSA Pre✓ does not mean that they will always experience expedited TSA processing since there are random selection times when travelers will be forced to go on the regular line. Additionally, some airlines offer TSA Pre✓ at random to people who have not applied for TSA Pre✓, meaning some in the TSA Pre✓ got the same benefit for free. It’s okay, you can glare at those people.

Clear

Clear is a private program approved by the TSA. The program offers a very specific service: instead of waiting for a TSA officer to review the ID and boarding pass, members go to Clear’s lane to have their identity verified by fingerprint or iris scan, then move directly to the TSA security checkpoint. In other words, after identity verification, this program “guides” members to the front of the security line. Those without TSA Pre✓ will still have to remove shoes, take out laptops and liquids, and go through the regular TSA security, while those enrolled in TSA Pre✓ can get in that line.  Clear has lanes at only twenty airports, including in Seattle, Miami, and at JFK in New York, but it is reportedly moving to more airports soon. Clear is also used at baseball stadiums, including New York’s Citi Field and Yankee Stadium, to help fans move more quickly through security lines.

The cost is a steep $179 a year but the sign-up process is by far the simplest of all the Trusted Traveler programs. The process, which involves digitally authenticating the applicant’s driver’s license or passport and confirming identity and creating a biometric account, reportedly takes just five minutes and can be completed at the airport without making an appointment ahead of time. Some 800,000 travelers have signed up so far. Right now, this program only make sense for frequent travelers flying often from an airport with this service, but even then, TSA Pre✓ or Global Entry (discussed below) seem a much better and certainly more affordable investment overall.

Global Entry

You know how great it feels to be able to skip to the front of a never-ending line? That’s how it feels using Global Entry, a program from US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) that allows certain low-risk travelers disembarking from international flights quick passage through immigration inspections and customs. The program is open to US citizens, lawful permanent residents (i.e., Green Card holders), and citizens of Colombia, United Kingdom, Germany, Panama, Singapore, South Korea, Switzerland, and Mexico. Canadian citizens and residents may enjoy Global Entry benefits through membership in the NEXUS program (discussed below). Global Entry membership also includes membership to TSA’s Pre✓, so for just $15 more (for a total of $100 for a five-year Global Entry membership) travelers can have the best of both worlds. 

To apply, eligible travelers submit their application online and pay the $100 fee. All Global Entry applicants undergo a rigorous background check, and those who have been convicted of any criminal offense or have pending criminal charges or outstanding warrants (including driving under the influence) or other immigration or customs violations may be ineligible to apply. Depending on country of citizenship, there may be additional requirements. After submitting their online application, applicants receive an email with information to schedule an interview at one of the approximately fifty Global Entry Enrollment Centers, where they must attend an in-person interview.

Once approved, Global Entry is easy to use. When travelers get off their plane, they head to one of the Global Entry kiosks and place their passport onto the scanner. The computer pulls up the flight information and travelers use the fingerprints scanner and pose for a picture (I look delightful after a long flight!). Once the correct flight arrival information is verified and additional questions answered, the machine spits out a piece of paper with the picture on it. This is an indication the passenger has been cleared. (If a traveler is not cleared, the machine will provide a receipt with a big “X” on it, indicating the passenger requires additional inspection.) Global Entry travelers can again jump the line at customs after picking up their baggage as there is a special line for Global Entry travelers.  

There are over fifty airports with Global Entry kiosks, with more being added. US citizens who use Global Entry may also use the Smartgate system when entering Australia. In addition, with the payment of an additional fee, US citizens may apply for the Dutch Privium program, the Korean SES program, or the Mexican Viajero Confiable program for expedited entry into those countries. US nationals are also now eligible for the British Registered Traveller program for expedited entry into the United Kingdom. 

I can personally vouch for the convenience and speed of Global Entry, and other reports have been positive. (ABC News, Smarter TRAVEL, Airfare Watchdog, and Thrillist all have positive reviews.) But once in a while this excellent system has a few glitches, like the revocation of a traveler’s Global Entry membership or the machine being unable to read a traveler’s fingerprints. Additionally, some applicants have found that even with what they thought were minor brushes with law enforcement they have received Global Entry denials (which means they have lost the nonrefundable $100 application fee). Some Green Card holders affected by President Trump’s travel ban had their Global Entry membership revoked, a harsh reminder that one can lose the privilege of membership at any point, and there is often very little recourse.

Another drawback is that these days, Global Entry applicants are currently experiencing long waits to obtain appointments at some enrollment centers. That said, overall, the pros far outweigh the cons, and I have no reservation in recommending this program to all who are eligible. 

NEXUS (Northern Exchange with the US)

For international travel to Canada, NEXUS is the program of choice. This program allows pre-screened travelers expedited processing when entering the US and Canada. NEXUS is available to US Citizens, US lawful permanent residents, Canadian citizens, and lawful permanent residents of Canada for $50 for a five-year membership. Mexican nationals who have membership in Mexico’s trusted traveler program, Viajero Confiable, are also eligible to apply for NEXUS. Similar to the other programs, the application process involves pre-enrolling online and then visiting an enrollment center for an interview and fingerprinting.

Members use dedicated processing lanes at participating northern border ports of entry, NEXUS kiosks when entering Canada by air, and Global Entry kiosks when entering the US via Canadian Preclearance airports. (TSA Pre✓ benefits for US citizens, US lawful permanent residents, and Canadian citizens are also included.) NEXUS members also receive expedited processing at marine reporting locations, which again, is only applicable for a limited number of travelers. This is a great deal for those who travel frequently between the US and Canada, but doesn’t make sense unless travelers are close to a NEXUS enrollment center. In New York, for example, the enrollment centers are in Champlain, New York (near the Canadian border), and Niagara Falls, which is great if you are going or coming from Canada. 

SENTRI (Secure Electronic Network for Travelers Rapid Inspection)

SENTRI is another CBP program that allows expedited clearance for pre-approved, low-risk travelers upon arrival in the United States. SENTRI members may enter the US by using dedicated primary lanes into the US at southern land border entry crossings and use NEXUS when entering the US from Canada by land. SENTRI members who are US citizens or US lawful permanent residents also receive Global Entry and TSA Pre✓ benefits.

As with the other programs, travelers must be pre-approved for the SENTRI program. While there are no citizenship requirements for entry into this program, all applicants must undergo a rigorous background check and in-person interview before enrollment. SENTRI costs $122.50 for the five-year membership. Enrollment centers for this program are extremely limited with locations only in Arizona, California, and Texas, making it advantageous for only a select group of travelers crossing the southern land border. 

Mobile Passport Control

While not technically a Trusted Traveler program, Mobile Passport Control (MPC) gets an honorable mention since it expedites processing through immigration inspection and customs. Mobile Passport Control is the first CBP-authorized app for smartphones and tablets to be used by US citizens and Canadian nationals to enter the US. Travelers create a profile via the app with their passport information and enter their name, gender, date of birth, and country of citizenship. Upon landing in the US, travelers complete the “New Trip” section by selecting their arrival airport and airline, taking a self-photo, and answering a series of custom declaration questions.

After the traveler submits their customs declaration form through the app, the traveler will receive an electronic receipt on their phone with an Encrypted Quick Response (QR) code, which expires four hours after being issued. Travelers then bring their passport and smartphone or tablet with this time-sensitive digital bar-coded receipt to a CBP officer to finalize their inspection for entry into the US. At JFK airport, there is a separate and typically much shorter immigration line for Mobile Passport Control users, as well as a separate line when exiting the baggage claim area through customs. 

There are quite a few options for making time at the airport a little more pleasant by expediting the process through TSA security or immigration and customs inspections. Now, if we could only do something about the airport traffic!