Everything You Need to Know About Global Entry and TSA Pre-check

If you fly more than once a year, you need this.

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I initially resisted the idea of Global Entry—I wasn’t entirely sure what I’d be paying $100 for, and I’d already resigned myself to long lines at my home airport, JFK, for the rest of my life.

But as a travel editor, I was spurred to dig deeper. What exactly did the process entail? What were some not-so-evident benefits? Fast forward: I was approved for Global Entry last October, and I’ve never been happier with a purchase. Here’s what I learned.

First things first: Why Do I Need It?

Imagine a dream world in which you can skip the majority of the airport security line, keep your shoes and belt on, your liquids and laptop in your bag, and breeze right through. This is called TSA PreCheck, and you are automatically eligible when you pay $100 for Global Entry (if for some reason you only want TSA PreCheck, it’s available for $85). While I don’t recommend this for all travelers, I’ve consistently started arriving to the airport 20 minutes later when I’m flying an airline that participates in this program (more on this later), with absolutely no stress. Aside from this already great perk, you can expedite customs on your way back into the U.S. when flying internationally. Most major airports are equipped with Global Entry kiosks (and even during the holidays, at JFK, I’ve never had to wait more than five minutes for a kiosk). And you no longer have to fill out those blue customs forms. (Am I the only one that dreads contorting myself in my airplane seat to pull out my passport every time I have to fill one out on the plane?)

How Do I Apply?

The main criteria: first, you’ll need a U.S. passport or a permanent resident card, and second, you cannot have previously violated any customs or immigration laws. (Here’s a full list of eligibility requirements.) The application process itself is easy—you answer a series of straightforward questions online, including employment history—but have your passport ready, because it does ask for a list of every country you’ve visited in the last five years. There’s a $100 application fee (which you have to pay every five years when you renew)—you won’t get the money back if you’re denied Global Entry.

I’ve Submitted. Now What?

The response time is pretty quick—I heard back within a few days, via email, that I was eligible to schedule an interview at the location of my choice. Most international airports have a Global Entry office, and there are a few non-airport locations as well. And there are usually 15-minute appointment availabilities within the next week or so, if stopping by the airport isn’t a major hassle. I try to avoid JFK traffic whenever humanly possible, so I scheduled my appointment a few months ahead of time, when I knew I had a long layover at SFO. (Even though the appointment only takes 15 minutes, leave yourself a wide berth—it’s not atypical for them to be running 20 minutes late, plus you’ll have to go through security after the interview.) Another option is to go to the airport early before you have a flight, but note that most offices keep regular hours, so this might not work for a morning flight.

What Happens in the Interview?

Make sure to bring your passport or resident card, one other form of ID, and a printout of your approval email. Most of the questions I was asked were to confirm the information I’d answered on the online form, and they checked my driving record to make sure there weren’t any outstanding violations. They’ll take your fingerprints (this allows you to use the kiosks in the future), and a photo. I received my physical card in the mail two weeks later.

What Do I Do With the Card?

Nothing, actually, unless you’re entering the country by land (via car or train) or sea. It’s not required while you’re flying, and won’t work at the Global Entry kiosks. Instead, it’s the Known Traveler number, on the upper-lefthand corner of the back of the card, that’s important. To take advantage of TSA PreCheck, you’ll want to input this into your traveler profile whenever you fly on participating airlines: AeroMexico, Air Canada, Alaska Airlines, American, Delta, Etihad, Hawaiian, Jet Blue, Southwest, Sun Country, United, Virgin America, and WestJet. Without this number on your boarding pass, you’ll have to line up as usual, which really defeats the purpose (no, you cannot wave your card at a TSA agent). There are plans to get international airlines on board as well, but it’s currently a work in progress. There is one other bonus of the physical card: it works as another form of government-issued ID.

How Do I Use Global Entry?

When you land at a major aiport after an international flight, head directly toward signs for Global Entry kiosks (they have been well-marked at every airport I’ve been to). At the kiosk, scan your passport, which typically brings up your flight details to confirm. You’ll answer the customs form electronically (hint: there’s a useful "No to All" check box). The kiosk will then take your photo—stand way back if you’re short like me, or they will only get your forehead—and scan your fingerprints, and spit out a tiny receipt that you hand to the customs agent on your way out.

What Else Do I Need to Know?

The last time I flew internationally into JFK, I went from my airplane seat to the back of a taxi in less than 25 minutes. (And yes, I was flying coach, so the majority of that time was deplaning.) Do I really need to say anything more?

More good reads from T+L:
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Travel Prep 101: Your Preflight Checklist
Everything You Need to Know About This Summer's Insane TSA Lines

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