Jumping the line still requires getting in a line. Will it be worth the wait?
I'd had enough. Enough of the getting up at 3 a.m. to make it to the airport by 4 a.m. to try to catch a 6 a.m. flight. Enough of not knowing how long my airport's security line would actually be: 90 minutes? 20 minutes? Enough of seeing other airports' TSA checkpoints fully staffed while half the counters at mine were empty at morning peak times. Enough of flying *just enough* to experience all the hassles but *not enough* to receive any perks.
I'd experienced some of the random Pre-Check upgrades in 2014 and 2015, and I have to say, they were awesome. But now the US Government has said, "no more." And even though my home airport, Minneapolis/St. Paul, spent millions of dollars in Winter 2016 to build a big new checkpoint that the TSA promised would streamline security for everyone, when they opened it up just before Spring Break, our wait times tripled. No random line shuffling to get more people through Pre-Check to relieve the load; the Rules Are The Rules. No wonder that the chairman of American Airlines testified to Congress that tens of thousands of their customers had missed flights because they were still stuck in screening lines.
I had had enough. I gave in and confessed I would pay whatever price to get a consistently shorter screening line.
Choosing a program
Having admitted I would pay for it, the question then became, which program to sign up for?
CLEAR is a privately-run program that gathers your biometric information and security profile and works like a valet between your flight reservation and the TSA. At airports where CLEAR is operating, travelers go to the CLEAR kiosk, scan in, and are then escorted past the regular security line to the head of the Precheck line. There are about a dozen airports with these kiosks, and the company plans to add another 20-30 in the near future. Pricing is $179 per year, but if you're a Delta elite they'll get you a discount. The program does not have any benefit for entry back into the USA from overseas.
Well, I'm not Delta elite, and even though I said I'd pay the price I don't want to pay THAT high a price. Plus, not all the airports I'd expect to use are covered in the CLEAR network. So, on to consider the two government-run programs, Precheck (run by the Transportation Security Administration) and Global Entry (run by US Customs & Border Patrol.) [Click on logos below to jump to the respective programs' websites...]
Precheck costs $85 for a five-year pass, while Global Entry costs $100 for a five-year pass. Global Entry gives expedited entry at border crossings and passport lines at international airports, but Precheck does not. Both programs will put you into the fast lane for domestic security, where you don't have to take your shoes off, and can keep liquids and a laptop computer in your carry-on.
While kids 12 years and younger, traveling with you on the same itinerary, can go "under your wing" for security screening, they would still need to be enrolled under their own names to get the Global Entry expedited border arrival benefits. Kids over 12 will have to enroll in one of these programs to also qualify for priority security screening when traveling with you.
Since I do plan on taking a few international trips in the next few years, the extra $15 is small change, so I've decided to go with Global Entry.
Both Precheck and Global Entry use an online application as a first step, followed up by an in-person interview, identity document verification, and fingerprinting. Precheck and Global Entry use different offices for the interview, however, with Precheck having many more locations (most domestic airports and even some off-airport centers.) Global Entry's interview offices are located only at international airports/seaports, and ports of entry in border towns.
The Global Entry online application is run through Customs' GOES portal:
The first step in the process is to create your own GOES profile. This is a clunky process that takes 10-20 minutes that at the end gets you a username and password, but the process is necessary to verify your identity and establish you as a known user of the portal. You can safely assume that Customs is a frequent target of online infiltration schemes and attacks, so they need to have a multi-step process to let you inside, just as they would in the real world if you wanted to go inside one of their buildings...
You'll need your passport and driver's license, and possibly your birth certificate, to complete your profile.
The next step is to fill out the online application. You'll be asked for the last 5 years of your residential history, your employment history, criminal history, and a log of any foreign trips you've taken (other than Mexico and Canada.) This step will take 15-30 minutes to complete, and you'll need to refer to your passport and driver's license information here too. At the end, you'll pay the $100 fee by credit card - be sure to print a copy of the verification screen for your records.
Over the next week to 10 days, Customs will review your application, and at the end of that time, email you with notification of your approval. At that moment, the clock will start ticking - you'll have 30 days to *schedule* an interview at one of the Global Entry centers. (Not complete it, just get it on a calendar.)
The scheduling part is where the Global Entry process seems to break down - each office only has so many 15-minute interview slots per day, and so in the busier cities the appointment book fills up too quickly. In my case, I was provisionally approved in mid-April 2016, but the first available slot wasn't until August 2nd!
I've heard of people in Minneapolis choosing to drive the 7 hours to the town of Grand Marais, up on Lake Superior at the Canadian border, just to get an earlier interview slot. In contrast, I haven't heard anyone needing more than a couple weeks to get interviewed at a Precheck office (and often heard it getting done same-day), but they do have a lot more offices to spread the workload around.
<< UPDATE: Summer 2017 - Customs & Border Control has begun a pilot program at San Francisco, Vancouver, Austin, and both Houston airports where approved travelers can complete their interview at Customs when returning to the USA. This probably makes more sense for frequent international travelers who don't want to wait for a "standard" interview; less so for family travelers. No information either about if this process will reduce the availability of interview slots even further. >>
After waiting through the summer, my interview time finally came and I presented myself at the interview office at MSP Airport:
The seating area outside the office was full, and there was a small table with a clipboard just outside the door to sign in on. A uniformed Customs officer appeared at the door, called my name, and escorted me into the cramped office, where there were several high-wall cubicle-type stations where interviews were taking place. The officer reviewed my documents (the approval letter, my current passport and drivers' license) and asked a few basic questions to verify my address and identity. Because my passport had expired in between the time of my application and the interview, I thought it would be handy to bring that along too, and that was a good idea because the officer leafed through my old book to cross-check my foreign travel history against my application.
The questions only took five minutes. The officer then scanned my fingerprints with an optical reader (same kind that are at the Customs entry kiosks), gave me an information booklet and quick-reference card for using the Global Entry system, and showed me how to enter my Known Traveler number in my airline frequent-flyer profiles:
Total time in and out of the office was inside ten minutes, my GOES profile status had already been updated by the time I made it home from the airport, and I edited my frequent flyer profiles over the weekend.
While the process was clunky - USCIS needs to add more centers and staff outside of ports-of-entry if they want to seriously increase the number of travelers signed up - I am looking forward to enjoying the benefits on my next trip!