Travel Hacks: How to Get to the Front of US Immigration & Customs Lines

Text: Julie Schwietert Collazo
Photo: Yogma

You don't want to wait in a line like this.
You don't want to wait in a line like this.

US Customs and Border Protection officials have been pushing the Global Entry Trusted Traveler program hard this past year, trying to convince frequent travelers that the $100 annual fee for this “fast track” service is worth the investment.

I was initially reluctant to plunk down such a large sum, but a fellow travel writer, Sarah Munoz, convinced me that Global Entry was worth every penny, so I sent in my application, paid my $100, and waited for an interview to see if I’d been approved.

The Global Entry card speeds up your Immigration and Customs processes upon returning to the United States if you are a US citizen or permanent resident. When you land, you proceed to Immigration, scan your passport at a Global Entry kiosk (no wait and no agent!), scan your fingerprints, and make a Customs declaration on screen. The machine will issue a ticket that you present to Customs official in lieu of the traditional blue and white Customs declaration form.

If you land at an airport without a kiosk (and you should check that list here), then you can still fast track through Immigration and Customs, moving to the front of the line by showing your passport, which will have a “CBP” sticker affixed inside the back cover.

If you’re a frequent traveler crossing the Canadian and/or Mexican borders by land, then you will be given a driver’s license sized card that you can use to speed through border checkpoints. Be aware, though, if that your fellow passengers aren’t Global Entry members, you’ll be slowed down, as they’ll be subjected to the traditional Immigration procedures.

So what’s the verdict… is the investment worthwhile? Yes, but with a few caveats. First, the Global Entry program probably isn’t for you if you’re not a frequent flyer.

Second, the time you save at Immigration and Customs isn’t worth anything at all if you come out the other side and still have to wait 40 minutes for your luggage. I sped through Immigration at JFK in under two minutes after returning from the Catalonian Pyrenees earlier this month, but I then had to wait for my checked bag for 40 minutes… along with everyone else who’d done their time in the Immigration line. The Global Entry pass isn’t really worth the investment unless you’re able to travel solely with carry-ons. (I learned my lesson and pack lighter now. Last night I was in and out of JFK in under two minutes).

Finally, once you pay your $100 application fee, it’s deposited into the coffers of the US government, regardless of whether you are approved as a Global Entry member. The approval process can take a couple months; once you submit your application, you sit around and wait for an interview appointment. Once you’ve scheduled the appointment, though, a decision is made the same day and your passport is stickered (and, if applicable, your ID card is processed; it will be sent to you about 7-14 days later). The card is valid for five years.

Questions? Feel free to ask more about the Global Entry program in the comments.