Cockpit Chronicles: How to bypass U.S. Customs with Global Entry

Sometimes it seems like there’s more time spent standing in line than actually flying when you’re traveling. There’s a line at check-in, security, customs and immigration, the gate, and on the other end while deplaning, going through customs and immigration and finally baggage claim. International travelers know that the U.S. immigration line that forms when coming into the United States can be one of the longest lines they’ll experience.

Fortunately for crew members while at work, we’re given either an employee line for security or allowed to move to the front of the line. Customs in many other countries are abbreviated for pilots and flight attendants, but back at home, the crew line can be even slower than the line for passengers.

After flying for many hours to get to the U.S., overseas pilots and flight attendants, experience even longer delays while going through our immigration lines. Each time they come here, which can be as much as five times a month, they have to submit fingerprints and have their photo taken. And for some reason, the computer takes quite a few minutes to process for each crew member. It’s especially irksome for them, since U.S. crews arriving in their country experience little or no customs interrogation at all.

So we cringe anytime we see a 747 that has just arrived before us in Boston, since it often means we’ll be behind the 18 crew members coming from France or Germany. But we’ve discovered a way around these lines that’s available to all U.S. travelers.
The best way to bypass all this hassle is by using the new “Global Entry” program. This almost secretive ‘line-skipping’ club is available to frequent travelers as well. Imagine arriving from your trip, and instead of waiting in line, you simply walk up to an ATM style kiosk and after just 60 seconds, you’re on your way.

But the first step to be registered for Global Entry is to sign up at their website and answer a few questions in preparation for the background check.

The process took me about 15 minutes, mostly because because I had to list all the countries I had visited in the past year. After submitting a fee of $100 to be in the program for the next five years, I was told that I’d be contacted when the checks were complete, after which, I could then schedule an interview with a Customs agent.

I never actually received that notification, but I looked up my status after a few days and discovered that my background check was complete and I could schedule an interview online.

The options were wide open for times and dates, so I picked the soonest available slot. I was anxious to sail through customs after my next trip, while waving at the rest of my coworkers as I passed by.

The interview took place at the airport, not far from where we normally exit the terminal after our screening. After collecting all ten fingerprints and answering a few simple questions, I was good to go. No card was needed-my passport would serve as the key.

At the interview, they took a moment to demonstrate the steps involved when I used the ATM style kiosk next to the customs line. First, I had my passport, a non-RFID chipped older style version, scanned while a camera looked at my face. Then I placed my fingers over a scanner before answering a few questions. In the future, if I’m carrying less than the maximum exemption of goods for crew members, I won’t have to fill out any declarations paperwork, a nice bonus I hadn’t expected.

The kiosk knows which flight you were on and, after confirming the flight information, it prints out a piece of paper that you then take to the customs officer just before leaving the terminal.

I’ve now been using Global Entry for almost a year and I have yet to stand in line for a kiosk in Miami, New York, San Juan or Boston. In the beginning, there was a bit of confusion as to how much was required of someone using Global Entry, but they now just look at the receipt before letting me pass.

It seems to be the best kept secret for frequent international travelers, since I’ve never encountered anyone else in line.

If you fly more than three times a year, I’d recommend taking the time to get registered with Global Entry. I only wish it could be made available for foreign crews and travelers as well.

Cockpit Chronicles takes you along on some of Kent’s trips as an international co-pilot on the Boeing 757 and 767 based in Boston. Have any questions for Kent? Check out Plane Answers or follow him on Twitter @veryjr.