I’m going to paint a picture for you:
You’ve just landed at your home airport after a long international flight. You had an amazing trip, but you cannot wait to get home into your cozy apartment, house, or broom closet (if you live in New York City).
You step off the plane, your legs sore from the hours of stasis.
The exhaustion hits you. You yawn.
You arrive at customs and immigration, the final step between you and sweet, sweet freedom.
But then you see it… a line longer than any line in history. “This is going to take hours,” you think to yourself.
You wait. Two hours go by. Then four. Then ten.
Soon enough, you die of starvation, all because you had to wait in that darn customs and immigration line.
This is a story we can all relate to, and one that is not exaggerated in the slightest. But today, I’m going to tell you about how you can avoid this unfortunate scenario altogether.
I’m talking about Trusted Traveler Programs.
I’m going to explain what these programs are, who should be interested in them, and most importantly, how to get them for free.
There are three main Trusted Traveler programs, and each of these programs has some unique features. However, they also overlap in some cases.
What are the Three Main Trusted Traveler Programs?
Let’s start with TSA PreCheck. This perk is used before you go through security and can save you a lot of time at the airport.
First, you get to enter security screening through a dedicated TSA PreCheck line. Once you’re at the scanners, you can send your bag through without removing any of the following items (in most cases):
It feels weird the first time you do it, mainly because of how simple and fast the process is. According to TSA data, 92% of TSA PreCheck passengers waited less than 5 minutes to get through security last month…
How to enroll in TSA PreCheck
Oh, and you need to pay the $78 fee. Did I forget to mention that?
Probably because you actually don’t need to pay for it. Many credit cards offer reimbursement for TSA PreCheck and the other Trusted Traveler programs I’m about to tell you about.
One great option is the Capital One Venture Card, which only costs $95 per year, but covers up to $100 of reimbursement for all three Trusted Traveler programs (e.g. TSA PreCheck, Global Entry, or Nexus).
$100 back from a $95 card? All I can say is…
Next on the Trusted Traveler list is Global Entry, which is used on the opposite end of your trip — when arriving at the border.
Global Entry is run by the federal government and allows you to use a dedicated line to complete an expedited immigration screening when arriving in the U.S. from abroad.
Enrolling in Global Entry is a bit more tedious than TSA PreCheck and requires a few additional steps:
Fill out the online application
Wait for conditional approval (background check)
Complete an in-person interview
Interviews can be completed at an enrollment center (here is a full list of them) or at an airport when you arrive from abroad, known as Enrollment on Arrival or EoA (here is full list of those locations).
The best part about this particular Trusted Traveler program is that it includes TSA PreCheck, but only costs $22 more ($100 total). So it’s really a bargain if you think about it, especially because you won’t have to pay anything for it…
As I said, many credit cards come with reimbursements for all of these programs.
If you’re using Global Entry as your dedicated Trusted Traveler program, you’re probably traveling internationally. Actually, you’re definitely traveling internationally, because that’s the only way you can use it.
A great card for international travel is the Capital One Venture X Card, the big sister of the last card we mentioned.
This card offers amazing perks like lounge access all around the world, no foreign transaction fees, strong travel insurance perks, and really high earning rates.
You might be scared by the high annual fee, but if you check out its perks and benefits (☝️), it quite literally “pays” to keep this card in your wallet…
Finally, we have Nexus.
This is the Trusted Traveler program I personally chose to sign up for, and the one that I completed last week after a year and a half of waiting. You Canadians are going to want to listen up here.
Nexus is a joint program between the U.S. and Canadian governments and is a great travel hack for Canadians in general, or Americans who frequently travel to or transit through Canada.
Nexus is pretty much like Global Entry but also works when entering Canada. You apply the same way you do for Global Entry, through the U.S. government’s dedicated website.
Once you’ve been conditionally approved, you must visit a Nexus enrollment center located at various U.S./Canada borders.
The main difference from other Trusted Traveler programs’ interview processes is that both Canadian and American immigration officials must be present for the interview, hence the enrollment centers being at border crossings.
Once you get approved, however, you’ll have all of the perks of Nexus, along with Global Entry and TSA PreCheck, also included with Nexus.
The strange part about this is that it costs $50, which is less than either of the other two programs, even though it includes the perks of the other Trusted Traveler programs…
My guess is that the Canadian government subsidizes much of the cost (yay socialism!).
Rather than recommend another specific card that offers a reimbursement credit, I’ll just tell you that many of the cards on our Top Cards List, including cards 2, 3, 5, 8, 11, and 12, come with a $100 annual credit to use toward any of these programs.
That means that you could sign up for a $95 card, apply for Nexus for yourself and a buddy (for $50 each), and get reimbursed the full $100, effectively canceling out that annual fee. It’s awesome.
The best part is that these Trusted Traveler programs are valid for five years before your membership needs to be renewed.
Here is a simple chart that shows each program, enrollment fees, and processing times.
What to Know When Enrolling in a Trusted Traveler Program
Two final points that I want you to be aware of:
Appointments for Global Entry and Nexus are scarce these days, especially in the bigger cities.
Be careful which enrollment center you decide to visit.
Let me explain that last point…
As I mentioned, I recently flew to Detroit to complete my interview for Nexus, despite the fact that there are five or six enrollment centers located closer to me.
Detroit was the closest place I could get an appointment in the next six months, so I went pretty far out of my way. In my mind, it was worth the effort, given how often I travel.
What I didn’t realize is how painful the process would be…
Not only was my Uber driver freaked out that he was going to accidentally drive into Canada, but the Detroit border is very congested and complicated, and finding my way there was confusing and stressful.
If I could do it again, I would choose an enrollment center located in a smaller town. For example, Sault St. Marie (Michigan/Ontario border) has lots of appointments open.
The area is pretty small and the border is much easier to navigate. There are similar small towns dotted around the country where you can simply walk on foot to the enrollment center and not have to worry about navigating busy border crossings. So, yeah. You’ve been warned.
Final Thoughts on Trusted Traveler Programs
Enrolling in one of these Trusted Traveler programs obviously has many benefits for the avid traveler. If you fly domestically the majority of the time, TSA PreCheck is going to be your best buddy.
Flying internationally? Global Entry is a solid option. But if you’re also crossing into Canada often, why not go for Nexus and get the additional perks? Thanks, Canada!
Plus, and perhaps best of all, you can enroll in any of these programs for free if you simply have a credit card that offers a credit to do so.
I hope this helps to clarify some of the terms and programs you’ve maybe heard about but haven’t delved into.
Which program will you choose??