Even if you’ve managed to snag cheap flights to your destination and planned meticulously, customs and immigration security can still ruin your trip. Maybe you just arrived back to the United States from Paris, only to discover that you’ve missed your connecting flight because you got stuck in an endless customs line. Perhaps you just hate being involved in business trips due to an irrepressible fear of security lines. Or you might be sick and tired of having to remove what seems like all your clothing just to get your trip started. Luckily for you, we have come up with an easy to follow guide that will help you survive through airport security and customs.
For starters, joining what is frequently referred to as a “trusted traveler program” can make air and land travel much faster and easier. But there are actually quite a few different programs with a lot of different features. And if you’re confused about which security program membership is right for you, you’re not alone. It can be tough to decide, but if you choose the right one you greatly reduce your risk of missing a flight due to a long security line or waiting for hours to cross the border.
Here’s a break down of each program, listing out their pros and cons to make the decision all the easier.
This U.S. government-sponsored program offers passengers expedited screening on domestic flights in the US. By having TSA PreCheck, you don’t have to take off your shoes, belts, and light jackets. You also don’t even have to remove liquids and laptops from your bag. To obtain TSA PreCheck, you submit an application online, pay the processing fee, and then you must interview at an enrollment center. The interview usually lasts around 10 minutes. Once you are approved, you’ll see TSA PreCheck printed on your boarding pass in most cases and you’ll head for TSA PreCheck security lines instead of the regular TSA line.
Pros: You don’t have to remove all of your clothing along with laptops and liquids to make your flight. It is also cost-effective at $85 for five years. Some credit cards will even waive the application fee or allow you to pay for it with rewards. Family members under 12 can join you at PreCheck.
Cons: TSA PreCheck only buys you expedited security at 200 participating U.S. airports and across 37 airlines currently. If most of your travel is international, TSA PreCheck won’t really help you. Also, you have to be a U.S. citizen, U.S. national or U.S. permanent resident to join.
The U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s security program Global Entry allows you to get through customs when entering the U.S. in an expedited manner. You bypass the main line at customs and immigration upon entering the U.S. and head for Global Entry kiosks. You then check in at those kiosks with your Trusted Known Traveler number, fingerprint scan, and filled out a customs form. You then head right for baggage claim to pick up your luggage and be on your way. To obtain Global Entry, you must create an account online with the Global Online Enrollment System, complete an application and pay the $100 fee. If you are conditionally approved, you then go for a 15-minute interview at a Global Entry Enrollment Center.
Pros: The membership, which lasts for 5 years, also includes TSA PreCheck, making it the most cost-effective security program if you travel both domestically and internationally. You’ll also most likely never miss a connecting flight due to a long customs line.
Cons: Global Entry is only available to U.S. citizens, U.S. permanent residents, and citizens of a select group of countries including India, Colombia, United Kingdom, Germany, Panama, Singapore, South Korea, Switzerland and Mexican nationals. It can be limiting too if your arriving airport doesn’t have Global Entry available. Also, your membership does not extend to family members.
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While not a U.S. government security program, CLEAR can expedite your airport security. CLEAR is featured across some major U.S. airports and even stadiums and ballparks. You apply online, visit a CLEAR location, and pay an annual fee to join. Once approved, you can use dedicated CLEAR security lines at participating airports and venues. The Clear lines use your fingerprint and scan of your eye to determine your identity.
Pros: You not only bypass long TSA lines, but CLEAR also places you at the front of the TSA PreCheck line. CLEAR is also good for sports fans as it is available at some stadiums and ballparks. Kids under 18 are given a free membership.
Cons: With a $179 annual price tag, CLEAR is an expensive security program. It is also not as prevalent across the country as it is limited to a select number of airports and stadiums.
The NEXUS security program lends travelers expedited processing when entering the U.S. and Canada. Travelers create a Global Online Enrollment System account, complete an application, pay a $50 fee, and interview at a NEXUS Enrollment Center. Approved travelers will then be able to travel through dedicated processing lanes at northern borders, NEXUS kiosks at airports when entering Canada and Global Entry kiosks when entering the U.S. from Canadian Preclearance airports.
Pros: NEXUS makes sense if you fly between the U.S. and Canada with great frequency.
Cons: NEXUS is only available at limited airports and it is not as convenient as Global Entry as it can only be used on travel between the U.S. and Canada. The program is also only available for U.S. citizens, U.S. lawful permanent residents, Canadian citizens, Canadian lawful permanent residents, and Mexican nationals who are members of Mexico’s trusted traveler program.
SENTRI, or Secure Electronic Network for Travelers Rapid Inspections, is similar to NEXUS but more for travel between the U.S. and Mexico. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection Program allows you to travel in dedicated lanes into the U.S. at Southern land borders. In addition to land travel, a SENTRI membership also allows you to use NEXUS lanes when entering the U.S. from Canada and Global Entry kiosks when entering the U.S. You have to undergo a background check and interview and pay $122.25.
Pros: SENTRI speeds up border crossings between the U.S. and Mexico, which makes it easier for travelers who come and go between the two countries with great frequency.
Cons: SENTRI really only makes sense if you are traveling between the U.S. and Mexico all the time.
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