Toward the end of August I found myself browsing through the websites of various credit cards I own (you know, as one does). To my surprise, I happened to stumble upon a page advertising that my Capital One Venture credit card reimburses cardholders for up to $100 in Global Entry/TSA PreCheck credit (TSA PreCheck costs $85/five year membership and Global Entry costs $100/five year membership). Having owned this credit card for several travel-intensive years, my penny-pinching heart cried in agony since I had never taken advantage of this free benefit.
During non-pandemic times, I tend to fly domestically several times a year and internationally about once a year. In the past I had briefly considered paying for TSA PreCheck, but ultimately decided against it because 1) I usually (and sometimes incorrectly) value money over time and 2) I often fly with my partner or friends and don’t want to leave them behind while I sail through airport security, scarf flapping behind me in the HVAC-induced wind… although it’s sometimes tempting. However, I do fly solo often enough to make good use of this perk.
When I thought about the number of customs lines in which I had stood while having to pee after an 8-hour international flight, or the number of times I had balanced precariously on one foot while lifting the other to take off my shoes to go through airport security I realized it was a no-brainer: I needed to apply.
But should I really apply for a travel benefit during the pandemic? I searched high and low on the internet and came across much information stating that I could probably attain TSA PreCheck status fairly quickly, but Global Entry would be another beast with which to reckon. For those of you are unfamiliar, Global Entry is essentially the international version of TSA PreCheck and speeds up entry procedures and wait times upon returning to the United States. Per the internet, Global Entry interviews were not being granted until at least September 8. This September 8 date was the latest in a slew of timelines offered by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) as the date to restart Global Entry in-person interviews during the pandemic – interviews were originally postponed from March until May 1, then to June 1, July 6, and August 10. It seemed September 8 could just be another tentative date that would later be retracted until several weeks to months down the line. While I recognize that I have no flight plans for the future so there’s no rush per se, it would be nice to have all of my documentation up and running for when I begin to fly again.
To add further concern and confusion to the situation I had read that Global Entry interview appointments were already backlogged a good deal since the government shutdown that ended January 2019; it seemed COVID-19 shut-downs were simply adding to the backlog of in-person interview cases. Was it worth it to apply for something that could drag out into a half-a-year process?
After mulling over my options I eventually decided to apply for Global Entry instead of TSA PreCheck since the former encompasses the latter and I had faith that, based on some decrease in COVID-19 cases, the September 8 date would be the final opening date (luckily for me, I guessed correctly). The application itself was a bit tedious, as it asked for all of my work history and residence history in the past five years, and I have had at least four jobs in the past year, which complicated my job history a bit. I used my Capital One Venture card to pay for the $100 fee and was happy to receive an email from Capital One almost immediately stating they would be covering the application fee within my next two billing cycles; in fact, I saw my reimbursement automatically appear on my online account a few days later without any further work on my part.
After slogging through the application several times (the system didn’t save my answers the first time) I submitted my application one Thursday night and was surprised to wake up to an email on Saturday morning stating I had been conditionally approved for Global Entry.
Conditionally approved meant they thought I met all of their criteria, but had to see me in-person to know for sure. I should add a quick caveat here that everyone’s experiences with the speed of this process are different. I cannot deny that my application process would have likely been more difficult had I not been a U.S.-born U.S. citizen without a criminal record. Another factor that may have sped up the review process was the fact that I have previously worked for the military and, as such an employee, had to complete an extensive background check. While I am no longer employed by the military I would imagine that having such a background check within my lifetime could only help, and not hinder, the process.
Receiving conditional approval meant the next step would be the Global Entry interview. At this point I still had about two weeks until Enrollment Centers (where the in-person interview portion of the application is held) across the country opened up, so I put this task on hold. The evening of September 4 I logged onto the Trusted Traveler Program website to find a number of interviews at my local DC Enrollment Center available for as soon as September 16 – some September dates even had as many as 70 interviews available per day! I lucked out and happened to have one weekday free from work, so I booked myself for one of three available slots that day.
When my interview date rolled around I arrived to the Enrollment Center about 30 minutes early. I had read about what was required as part of the interview and brought with me my passport, driver’s license with current address, a copy of my apartment lease, most recent utility bill, a printed confirmation of my interview, and first-born child. Okay, just kidding on the first-born child, but suffice it to say that I was overly prepared. When I arrived there were two U.S. CBP officers in the small office and one person completing her interview. The officers were masked and sitting behind plastic shields, and due to the six-feet distance rule they had me wait until the other person had completed her interview before entering.
My CPB officer was friendly but very cordial and asked me for my passport and driver’s license when I stepped up to her desk. I had read that the interview was the time to correct any mistakes made on the application, so I informed her of some minor mistakes (I had entered the incorrect area code for the Human Resources phone number for a previous job). She asked me a few basic questions such as whether I typically travel for business or pleasure, and then asked me to briefly remove my mask to take my picture [I knew this was coming so I came prepared to have my photo taken and the government ID photo gods still shat on my photo].
After that, she handed me a small booklet with my known traveler number handwritten and informed me I would need to enter this number when I booked flights from now on. She alerted me I would receive my physical card via mail in the coming days but I would only need that for land crossings to Canada and Mexico. She never stated I was approved so I’m pretty sure at some point I asked her “That’s it? I’m approved?” Incredulously, the whole process took 5-10 minutes, so I left the Enrollment Center before my timed interview slot. A week later I received my official Global Entry ID in the mail and activated it online. The whole process from start to finish took less than 45 days, which, to be frank, seems pretty efficient during a pandemic.
Even though it looks like I won’t be flying until 2021 or 2022, I’ve already mapped out a list of my priority travel destinations. Puerto Rico, Greece, Spain, and several U.S. National Parks mark the top of an ever-growing compilation of must-visit locations. Where are you planning to fly post-pandemic?