I recently had a mild passport related shock while on a trip outside the US; my Global Entry membership had expired on my birthday. GASP! What was I to do when reentering the country? It had been five years since I signed up for the program and I had grown soft to all the options.
Here now are the four main paths for air travelers upon landing at most commercial US airports.
Good Old Standard Passport and Customs Form
Nothing new here, it’s the same as it’s been for decades, but with maybe some extra questions on the Customs form. You walk from your plane to the corral and queue up. Look for the signs for US Citizens and not Guests or Foreign Citizens.
Automated Passport Control (APC)
Now we are getting futuristic! APC is what it sounds like; the process is mostly automated. At least for data entry.
There is no need to fill out a Customs Form while on the plane and even Canadian Citizens can use this method.
The process is easy; after alighting from your plane, boogie down toward Immigration and Customs and look for little kiosks that look like this:
There are usually signs that say APC to help guide you. You will need to insert your passport in the passport reader and answer a few questions from the Customs form. It’ll also take your photo and put that photo on a receipt for you to keep. Members of your family can be processed together.
In most airports with APC, there is a separate lane to quicken the process of getting through Immigration. Keep your receipt handy until you leave Customs (they take the receipt at that point).
This method is usually faster than not using APC. No pre-approval is needed and the service is free.
A list of airports that use APC can be found here.
Mobile Passport App
Download the app before you leave and setup a profile. You can create up to 12 profiles for family members and it only requires basic information.
Upon landing, start a “New Trip” within the app, add in family members traveling with you, take a selfie (yes, for real, there is a legitimate time to take a selfie) of each member and submit. If all goes well you will receive back a QR code the Customs & Border Protection agent will scan. This can all be done as you taxi to your gate.
You’ll still need to present your passport, but you can answer all the regular questions for reentry on the app. No more asking to borrow a pen! Canadian residents can use this service as well.
My wife and I used this service upon returning from our last trip when I wasn’t eligible for Global Entry (I tried….the kiosk was pretty adamant that I “shall not pass!”). She gave up a much quicker entry with her own Global Entry (described next) membership to stick with me. She’s fantastic that way.
The line was shorter, much shorter, than APC. It was a little slow because in Miami they used this line for the people who got rejected from Global Entry. But still, it was a shorter line and faster service.
A list of airports that use Mobile Passport can be found here. The service is free.
Short of being a member of a flight crew or some fancy government official, this is the best most of us can hope for when coming home.
It takes more effort, though. And money.
I just renewed my membership and it was $100. One side benefit is it also enrolls you in TSA-PreCheck which can get you through security lines faster in the US.
To apply you need to fill out forms on the CBP Trusted Traveler webpage here. You will pay the fee when you apply, whether you are accepted or not.
Then you wait for what seems like forever sometimes. My renewal took four weeks to be reviewed and for me to be conditionally approved. They state 4-6 weeks to process, so if you need to renew, start this process three months before your birthday.
Why three months? Because if you are conditionally approved, you need to make an appointment at your local CBP Global Entry Enrollment Center and sometimes that wait can be weeks before there is an opening. It all matters on staffing. I had to pick a date a month in the future at LAX.
First time applications have the same timeline as renewals. The only difference is the interview is shorter for renewals.
If it’s your first time and you are conditionally approved, your last step is to have an interview in person. You need to bring your passport and driver’s license (and if your current address is not on your driver’s license, you need to bring something establishing your address, like a mortgage, rental agreement, power bill, etc…). Oh! And dress nice as they’ll be taking your photo. And your fingerprints.
Boom! That’s it! If accepted you will have a fancy number you can enter in all those online booking sites (even for domestic flights) and if the airline participates in TSA Pre-Check, you can use those lanes now.
Coming back into the country is a lot like APC, but the Global Entry Immigration lines are way shorter and you sometimes just pass by a CBP officer, briefly showing them your receipt from the kiosk. Same from Customs.
They send you a card but you never have to keep it with you (unless you arrive by land or sea, then it can be helpful).
What’s Right For You?
The first three methods on this page are free and of them, I think the Mobile Passport is the way to go for most families. Especially with large families. The main reason is because that $100 Global Entry fee applies to each person. All your kids have to get Global Entry (and be interviewed and fingerprinted) to be able to use the system and travel with you. That can be spendy.
Currently Global Entry is only $20 more than signing up for TSA Pre-Check by itself and I feel those extra $20 are worth it even if you only use it twice.