Tara Safavi researcher and writer

Why Trusted Traveler programs are worth it for frequent travelers

08 June 2018
Tags: personal  opinion  travel 

Disclaimer: the thoughts and opinions expressed below are solely my own. I was not paid or otherwise incentivized to express them.

I just came back from a series of travels abroad. Upon entry to the States, I was reminded that travel can actually be convenient and efficient, despite popular belief to the contrary. My membership in a US Department of Homeland Security Trusted Traveler program makes this possible.

Some background: due to a combination of circumstances, I travel frequently. The reason for the majority of my travel is my partner, who works between the States and Europe. Another is that I’m a PhD student: although grad school is by no means easy [1][2], we CS PhDs at least get the unique privilege of attending conferences and workshops in various destinations to have fun advance research on someone else’s dime. The final reason is that my family lives in California, so I go there a few times a year.

Although most Americans who travel have probably heard of TSA PreCheck (the fast airport security screening lines), I think fewer people know about its related programs or how to apply for membership. I didn’t until recently. In fact, until someone told me otherwise, I assumed only “important” people like company executives and airline frequent flyers could get PreCheck. Thus, this post exists to both encourage more convenient, efficient travel and to dispel common misconceptions. An overview is as follows:

  1. I first compare three expedited security programs for low-risk travelers offered by the US government, including:
  2. I then discuss my experience with NEXUS, one such program, including:
    • Signing up, in particular how I accidentally drove to Canada as part of my application process.
    • Using NEXUS, which made the whole Canada-by-accident ordeal worth it.

Program comparison

The three programs I compare are TSA PreCheck, Global Entry, and NEXUS, listed in ascending order of their number and scope of benefits, although NEXUS has the lowest application fee of the three. I don’t discuss SENTRI, a related program that expedites entry from Mexico to the USA through land borders, because I have no personal experience with it.

Program benefits

  1. TSA PreCheck: When you go through security at the airport, you don’t take off your shoes, light jacket, or belt. You also don’t take your laptop or (travel-size) liquids out of your carry-on luggage. Because of these relaxations and the fact that relatively few people have PreCheck, you are almost always guaranteed a fast security screening experience. (That said, although this has never been my experience, I’ve heard a few stories about situations in which the PreCheck line was more crowded than the regular security line.)
  2. Global Entry: You get all the benefits of TSA PreCheck if you’re a US citizen or permanent resident. You also get expedited passport control via dedicated processing kiosks when arriving from abroad to participating airports, most of which are major US airports. Finally, you get expedited entry to the US through land borders from Canada and Mexico.
  3. NEXUS: You get all the benefits of Global Entry. You also get expedited entry to Canada at land and air borders. This means dedicated NEXUS kiosks at airports and dedicated NEXUS car lanes at the US-Canada border, both of which are designed to be faster than standard security procedures.

Applying and membership

All three programs have an online application and a nonrefundable application fee. Should your application go through, you’ll be invited to schedule a short interview, including fingerprinting, at an enrollment center near you. Membership for all three programs lasts five years.

  1. TSA PreCheck: The application fee is $85. Only US citizens and permanent residents are eligible to apply. The online application is quite short, and you can do your interview at any participating enrollment center, of which there are quite a few per state.
  2. Global Entry: The application fee is $100. Only US citizens, permanent residents, and citizens of a select few other countries are eligible to apply. The online application, which requires that you make a US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Trusted Traveler Programs account, is longer because it’s basically a preliminary background check. If your application goes through, you can do your interview at any participating center. Most centers are CBP offices and airports.
  3. NEXUS: The application fee is $50. Only US and Canadian citizens and permanent residents are eligible to apply. For US citizens, the online application is, as far as I’m aware, the same as Global Entry. However, you can only do your interview at centers on the US-Canada border. This is the biggest restriction of NEXUS. That said, if you have access to a Canadian border center, it’s absolutely worth it. You are essentially paying $10 per year to make your traveling experience significantly more pleasant and convenient. Fortunately for me, I live less than an hour away from the Canadian border. (The weather here is as bad as Canadian weather too!)

Usage

  1. TSA PreCheck: You receive a Known Traveler Number (KTN). To make use of your benefits, enter your KTN as part of your passenger information at check-in. You’ll get a “TSA PRE” or similar on your boarding pass. Show your boarding pass to the officers in the separate TSA PreCheck security line, if your airport has it, and you’ll be welcomed into this line. Easy!
  2. Global Entry: In addition to a KTN, you receive a Global Entry card, which can be used at the SENTRI and NEXUS lanes when entering the US (entering only, not leaving) through land borders. At airports you simply go through the designated Global Entry line at passport control, which leads to kiosks where you scan your passport and give your fingerprints. You can’t use a Global Entry card at the airport. You need your passport.
  3. NEXUS: In addition to a KTN, you receive a NEXUS card, which can be used at the NEXUS lanes when entering the US from Canada and leaving the US to Canada. In Canadian airports you use the separate NEXUS kiosks, similar to Global Entry in the States.

A note about “expedited global entry”

One note about Global Entry: only a few non-US airports participate in the program. That means that when you go through passport control in another country, unless it’s Dublin, Abu Dhabi, or a few others, you’ll be in the same lines as everyone else. After recently experiencing a torturously long passport control line in London Heathrow, where I fly not infrequently, I decided to look into similar programs for other countries. It turns out that the UK has a Global Entry counterpart called the Registered Traveller program—more on this another time.

My experience with NEXUS

I first heard about NEXUS through word-of-mouth in November 2017 and applied almost immediately after discovering it. My experience, while not without a few hiccups in the application process, has been smooth since I became a NEXUS member in January 2018. Here I describe what it was like to apply and interview for NEXUS, and how much more convenient traveling is for me now.

Signing up

The NEXUS online application (history of employment, residency, criminal convictions, etc) was easy to complete, but I kept getting server errors when I tried to actually submit it. I contacted CBP and got a reply essentially saying “Try again later”, which delayed my application by a few weeks.

When my application finally went through, I was invited to an in-person interview after only a few days of waiting. I scheduled one for the next week at the enrollment center in Detroit. Let me say that finding the center was by far the worst part of my entire experience. The directions to get to the center from Google Maps are hopelessly broken and the CBP directions were no more helpful. In fact, both sets of directions were so ludicrously bad that I actually ended up in Canada by accident by driving onto Ambassador Bridge, which you can’t get off once you’re on. (In my defense, I thought the enrollment center would show up at some point along the bridge with the other border and gas stations.) Once in Canada, I had to turn around and pay the re-entry fee to the US. No, they would not waive the fee for my 5-minute visit to Canada.

After nearly an hour of increasingly confused driving and several dead ends, a police officer finally drove up to me flashing his lights. I tearfully explained my situation. He had me follow his car, driving up to a barbed wire fence that I literally never would have approached on my own. Of course, this office complex tucked away under Ambassador Bridge behind a creepy hidden fence in the shadows turned out to be my destination. Note: if you are planning to go to the Detroit center, feel free to comment or otherwise contact me for directions because I would not wish the same experience on anyone else.

My experience strictly improved from there. The officers at the center shrugged off my lateness. My interview took a total of less than 15 minutes including waiting. In addition to taking fingerprints, my interviewer asked me a few basic questions, like the countries I had visited and why I was applying for NEXUS. I left with an Known Traveler Number—instant level up!—and an assurance that my NEXUS card would shortly arrive in the mail.

Using NEXUS

My NEXUS card did indeed arrive shortly, although I regret to say I haven’t visited Canada since. That said, while I can’t yet review my Canada-specific Trusted Traveler benefits, I doubt my experiences will be different from those I’ve had in the USA, which have been overwhelmingly awesome:

All in all, my only regret with NEXUS is not becoming a member earlier. I highly recommend signing up for a Trusted Traveler program if you travel often and can afford the time and cost of an application.

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