Don’t necessarily expect shorter waits in applying for Global Entry and other ‘trusted traveler’ programs
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Due to closures of varying degrees throughout the pandemic, applicants for “trusted traveler” programs, in addition to passport renewals, have reported experiencing inconsistent wait times.
Just four days ago, TPG confirmed that although wait times for passport renewals have improved from 2021, the average wait time for standard renewals is between eight and 11 weeks, which is more than my seven-week saga in June 2021. Both of these are compared to the six-to-eight-week time frame for renewals before COVID-19.
Despite being two of the lesser-known programs, many Nexus and Sentri centers have remained closed for most of the pandemic due to their locations at the northern and southern borders, respectively, further constrained by the health protocols of Canada and Mexico.
Earlier this week, U.S. Customs and Border Protection provided an update on the current status of these three programs and tips for readers on applying.
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Enrollment increased during the pandemic
Despite the disrupted travel during 2020-2021, membership in trusted traveler programs as a whole grew to 9.9 million members, with enrollment expected to reach 10 million by the end of this month, according to a press briefing on March 23.
In fact, CBP processed 3.5 million total applications for fiscal year 2021, the most it’s ever received in one year, according to Michael Millich, director of the trusted traveler programs.
Of the roughly 10 million members overall, a majority of those, nearly 8 million, are Global Entry members. Global Entry helps expedite U.S. entry after traveling abroad, and is currently available for use in 16 domestic airports and 15 international locations.
Outside of American enrollment, Global Entry is also available for U.S. residents and citizens of 13 countries offering reciprocal benefits, including Argentina, the United Kingdom, Panama, Switzerland and South Korea, with an additional four countries currently participating in pilot programs.
Nexus is a program that helps Americans and Canadians cross the U.S.-Canada border via Nexus-only lanes at the northern border and when entering Canada by air. It also includes access to Global Entry kiosks when arriving via certain Canadian Preclearance airports. The program currently has 1.6 million users across 12 land borders and eight Canadian airports.
Sentri, which you can think of as the Mexican counterpart to Nexus, affords travelers expedited passage into the U.S. from Canada and Mexico via Sentri-specific lanes. It also grants access to TSA PreCheck lanes at airports within the U.S. and overseas territories at 13 land borders.
Overall, “enrollment centers were closed for approximately five months,” according to Millich, who noted that Nexus centers have remained closed for most of the past two years due to Candian entry protocols that were only recently loosened.
CBP expects Nexus enrollment centers to reopen in April.
Despite closures, CBP began conducting remote interviews via Zoom, more than 40,000 thus far. Remote interview capability is only expected to increase as the agency invests in training new officers to potentially work through existing renewal applications.
Technological response to the backlog
CBP says it continues to invest in “enhancing the member experience by deploying innovative facial comparison capabilities across the country through both existing technology upgrades and cutting-edge technology pilots,” for Global Entry. This includes upgrading existing facial kiosks and touchless kiosks with facial comparison capabilities.
Although the current facial kiosks have an 85% faster processing time compared to legacy kiosks, touchless facial kiosks aim to be 94% faster for users. This could lead to an experience time totaling just 3.5 seconds for users, down from the current 9-second processing time for travelers to reenter the country from abroad.
The agency aims to update 100% of its legacy kiosks by the end of 2022, while also piloting a receiptless processing system and further deploying touchless portals following a pilot at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX).
Tips for applicants
Although you may be able to secure an in-person interview at trusted traveler enrollment centers, CBP still recommends travelers interview remotely if possible to satisfy the interview portion of the application process, which is generally required with some exceptions for conditionally approved applicants.
A second option for Global Entry applicants specifically is to partake in “Enrollment on Arrival.” This means you can complete your interview as part of the immigration and customs process when traveling abroad at 66 airports, where they’ve conducted 635,000 interviews in total.
“This is an alternative for international travelers, conditionally approved, as they enter the U.S. from international locations,” said Millich. “Good option for foreign nationals of partner countries, too.”
Although the agency plans to “continue to expand interview capabilities to address some of our backlogs,” Millich said he strongly recommends applicants consider doing a remote interview or enrolling on arrival.
“It does help to check the TTP website daily as we do get cancellations, and can sometimes add appointments,” he said.
“We are constantly looking at how we can better allocate our resources for those interviews, and looking at how we can expand large-scale enrollment events,” according to Millich.
Currently, applications as a whole are taking an average of 16 days to be conditionally approved, followed by another 90 days to facilitate scheduling an interview. So, be sure to factor that in for planning purposes.
While delays in travel are inevitably frustrating as the travel surge continues, bear in mind that CBP has heard travelers’ complaints and is attempting to improve the user experience.
Featured image of a Global Entry kiosk by Katherine Frey/The Washington Post/Getty Images.
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