Friday, April 23, 2010

The Trusted Traveler



Global Entry

The Trusted Traveler

It all started innocently enough, I mean it seemed a good idea in the beginning....but allow me to step back and bring you along with me on my journey as a "Trusted Traveler."

A few trips back, Lisa and I arrived in Atlanta having travelled for over 24 hours already on our way back home. We had a reasonable connection time for our flight to Kansas City, but not much in the way of slack time. So, when we entered the huge assembly hall for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection and found it overflowing with people waiting to clear immigration, it was a downer to say the least. We really wondered if it would be possible to make our connecting flight, so long were the lines snaking back and forth, not to mention that the thought of having to stand for a long time in our tired state, was not appealing.

As I stepped into line, I noticed out of the corner of my eye a gentleman who had been seated behind me on our flight, simply walk past the lines and go to the side of the hall where several "ATM" like machines were located. I could read the sign over the machine and it said "Global Entry." He stood in front of the machine and swiped his passport, and then seemed to enter some information on the touch screen, and before you could blink your eyes, the machine spits out a receipt of some kind. Whereupon, our fellow traveler walks through immigration, grabs his luggage and exits the hall all the while holding up his "receipt." I thought at the time that he must be some official or bigwig - lucky sort.

When I got home, I really meant to look up that Global Entry thing, but as luck and old age would have it, I could not remember the name --- so, I simply forgot about the entire incident; that is until our last trip. As Lisa and I were dragging our carryons in a mad rush across the terminal, I spotted a brochure stand which had flyers which said "Apply Now!"and across the top of the brochure were those magic words "Global Entry." I grabbed a flyer and threw it into my carryon and forgot about it until I got home. At home I looked it over and it looked on the surface to be very interesting. Here in a nutshell is how the program works.

"Global Entry is a new Trusted Traveler Program managed by U.S. Customs and Border Protection which allows pre-approved, low-risk travelers expedited clearance upon arrival into the United States. Participants will enter the US by utilizing automated kiosks. The process will require participants to present their machine-readable U.S. Passport, submit their fingerprints and make a customs declaration at the kiosk's touch-screen. Upon successful completion of the process at the kiosk, the traveler will be issued a transaction receipt and directed to baggage claim and the exit. Global Entry allows the United States border agencies to concentrate their efforts on potentially higher-risk travelers, which helps to insure the security and integrity of our airports and borders." Below all this in big bold print it says "APPLY ONLINE NOW!"

This all sounded pretty good to Lisa and me, and recalling some of the huge lines in which we had had to endure, we thought to ourselves that we should give it a try. The flyer said that the program was open to anyone 14 years or older who are U.S. citizens and who do not have a criminal record. There is a required $100 fee per person for a five year permit, and once conditionally accepted, we would have to visit a customs office for an interview, be photographed and fingerprinted.

Well, anyone who thinks that something so simple could not be royally messed up is about to learn a lesson.

When I had a moment, I went to the link contained in the flyer, That link DID NOT take me to the Global Entry program, but instead directed me to the GEOS portal. It seems that before I could even get to the Global Entry web page Lisa and I first had to become registered as users on the GEOS site. I am just guessing here, but I would bet that process took me about an hour before I finally got a user ID and password for both of us.

Charged up now and ready to go, I entered GEOS and directed my browser to the Global Entry program. It would allow me to complete my application online, but first it suggested that I print out the instructions, and so I hit the print button. K-thump, k-thump, k-thump - my little printer chugged away until running out of paper, to which I attended. Then back to printing, k-thump, k-thump ....... until all sixty-six pages of instructions had printed! I should have jolly well stopped right there, but there was something about this whole things that had my ire up, and I was determined not to let the system beat me. If Lisa and I aren't trusted travelers, then who in the world would be! So I started in on completing the online application. I won't even try to go into detail about the process, other than to say it was excruciating, and that it took me well over 3 hours just to complete my application. It was crazy little things, for example, what month and year did we move into our residence. I had to go look that one up, it was after all 25 years ago. They wanted to know if my driver's license was an "EDL.?" Well, I don't know about you, but I did not have a clue. So back to Google to see what that meant. (for the record an EDL is an enhanced drivers license that can be used to legally cross the borders from Canada and Mexico.) The real killer question for us was to list every country we had visited in the last five years. That took some research on our parts, but even with the list in front of me, completing their form was at times almost impossible. Just one example: we have visited Tahiti, but Tahiti was not listed. Back to Google to learn that it is part of French Polynesia.

Finally the moment arrives when I am at the very last page of the application. It is almost two pages of small print with a button at the bottom that says "Certify." It states that until you "certify" your application it is not completed. And so I hit the "Certify" button and my screen goes blank!!!!@!@! I cannot believe it - a blank screen; what happened to all my hard work? I finally went back into GEOS and signed in once again, then transferred to the Global Entry site and thank goodness there was my partially completed application sitting in a pending state. However, to once again get to the last page, I had to hit "next" sixty-six times to scroll through the entire form, checking along the way to find a few places where my answers were not saved. Now, here I am again at the Certify page and my dilemma. If I hit that button again, I bet it will do the blank screen again. So, I wonder what the trick is to finish this process. I start reading the fine print and buried in the middle of the two pages is a small box that requires checking. I check that, hit Certify and lo and behold my application is now submitted; well almost. I have to re-enter and go to the screen where I can charge my $100 fee, but finally it is DONE. Before I forgot everything I had just learned, I turned back to the computer and went to work on the application for Lisa, and having learned the little tricks of the system, that process only took me about an hour.

Now we wait. Our final confirmation states as follows "Your application is now pending review. Please remember to check back on this site for your application status updates. You will be notified of approvals and appointment scheduling through your online GEOS account. CBP recommends that you check this site every few days for updates." Gee, you'd think for $200 they could at least let us know what is happening....And so, we waited.

Actually, to my surprise, our wait was very short. I submitted our applications on a Friday, and by Tuesday noon I saw that the status of our applications had been changed to "Conditionally Approved." We were advised that the next required step in the process was to schedule an interview at a Global Entry Enrollment Center within 31 days, and when going to the appointment to bring our approval letter which I had printed from the website, and also bring our passports. Seemed simple enough - right? Wrong!

I clicked on the link which would allow me to schedule our appointments and I stare in disbelief at the locations where we are expected to present ourselves. Would you believe we had to go to one of the following locations; New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Dallas, Houston, Atlanta, Boston, Honolulu, Las Vegas, Detroit, Miami, Newark, Orlando, Seattle and San Juan, PR. Do you find Kansas City anywhere on that list? Well, it is not there. Nowhere in that nice flyer that "hooked" me to start all this did it mention that there were only a few locations where the interviews could be conducted. I thought to myself that this was nuts. Surely they did not expect me to get on a plane and fly to Dallas for example, just to enroll in this stupid program. I found a phone number for the office in Houston and I asked the person who answered just that question, to which she replied "yes," you have 31 days to present yourself or your $100 fee will be forfeited.

We should have walked away at that point and written off the entire experience as a bad dream, but something about me did not want to let them get the better of us. I know this was not the smart thing to do, but I felt like Don Quixote on a Quest, and I'll be darned if I would give up. After talking with Lisa, we agreed to hang in there, and so we scheduled an early morning flight to Chicago O'Hare, which is where one of the processing centers is located. Then later that day we would fly home, and hopefully this would be the last of it.

Our day of adventure finally arrived, and Lisa and I were off to Chicago for the "big interview." We arrived at 10am, had our appointments scheduled at 11am, and our return flight was set for 1:15pm. We had no idea how long this process would take or what to expect. The first order of business was to find the Global Entry processing center. It was not too difficult, but it did require that we exit the secure airport area and travel on the airport metro to the international terminal. Appropriately enough we found the office on the ground floor of the building right next to McDonald's. I must admit we were both a little apprehensive, Lisa in particular was nervous. She had even dressed up for the interview to make a good impression. We entered the waiting area and gave our names, and were then directed to be seated. The room felt as if we were in a prison holding area. The walls were so well padded that no sound could be heard. Between us and the receptionist was a bullet proof glass, above which a camera monitored our every move. Lisa was called back in just a few minutes and I was called a few minutes later.

Now get this - this big darn interview and procedure for which we had to spend all day flying to Chicago to complete, took all of TEN MINUTES! We were photographed, fingerprinted, had our fingerprints sent to the FBI and their results returned in just minutes, got a sticker on our passports and we were done. So why in the world did we need to go to Chicago in the first place!

Now however Lisa and I are known as "Trusted Travelers." On the other hand we will never in a 100 years recoup the time and money it took just to save a few minutes when we come back to the US. As I said in the beginning, we should have just walked away long before the trip to Chicago.

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