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My trusty passport in my trusted traveler's hands. (AE/NGS)

Trusted Traveler

I think I might have set a new world’s record: I cleared customs AND immigration in just 54 seconds.

Mind you, it was a weekday afternoon in Canada’s largest airport and the line of travelers entering the United States wasn’t that long—but the point is, I got to skip the line.

As a rather frequent traveler, I had long considered joining the Global Entry program, established by the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol in 2009 to expedite the clearance of “trusted travelers.” As someone who once carried live lobsters on a plane, who enjoys the thrill of hitchhiking across land borders (and who might be persona non grata in more than one post-Soviet republic), I was not entirely confident that I would be deemed a trusted traveler. I felt as if I should at least audition for the part.

On average, I reenter the United States about 40 times per year. Depending on how many other planes have just dumped their passengers into the international arrivals hall, I can spend at least an hour shuffling back and forth until I get grilled by an agent, then another 20 minutes waiting at customs before handing out those annoying blue sheets that you’re not supposed to fold in half but I always do.

It was those blue sheets that really got to me. I was sick of filling them out and sick of trying to remember how much I paid for those T-shirts three countries ago. And so when U.S. Customs advertised its new elite program with special access and perks such as NOT filling out the blue form and then skipping the line at customs, I said yes, please.

I applied online and found it all only somewhat governmental and bureaucratic, slightly more difficult than changing your Facebook profile pic but much easier than filing your taxes or going to the DMV. Using a credit card I paid the $100 fee, which is equivalent to the round-trip cab ride from my house to the airport. Then I waited patiently until I received notice by e-mail that I had been conditionally approved.

The condition is that you have to be interviewed in person, at one of the designated sites. In my case, that was down a lonely hallway in Dulles Airport and behind a door that looked like a janitor’s closet. At my designated appointment time, I knocked twice and a uniformed customs officer answered. He sat me down in a room and played me a DVD that repeated over and over again that even if I am a trusted traveler, I still have to obey the law and should I dare smuggle in parrots from Brazil or sneak in a suitcase of boiled chicken heads from China, they WILL catch me and then things would get nasty for me, such as (but not limited to) lost privileges, big fines, and/or jail.

The officer asked if I had any questions.

“May I import unpasteurized cheeses from foreign countries?” I asked very seriously, because cheese is quite important to me and my travels.

“No,” he shook his head. “The rule is any hard cheeses are fine—anything harder than a cheddar is OK.” (Note to self: Eat the younger Camemberts on the plane before landing).

“Any more questions?”

No, I did not have any more questions, and so I signed on the dotted line and I got my picture taken. Then I scanned all my fingerprints onto a glowing red glass plate that felt science-fiction-esque. I was no longer just an American citizen with a paper passport. I was now a trusted traveler with an electronic personality, a digital face and digital handprints, and a special little sticker inside my passport showing that I was “in.”

I immediately felt conflicted about my new status. As an American, I like to believe that my country is all about equality and fairness and that we’re all just middle class. Yet I had just joined the ranks of the U.S. Customs country club of travelers that’s all about the perks and all about leaving the rank and file in the dust. The whole process was to confirm my American-ness and my understanding and dedication to American law, and yet the final result seemed so un-American. Isn’t it?

If it is, I got over it pretty fast. I didn’t have to wait long before trying out my new status at the Toronto Pearson airport, where a barking U.S. Customs officer tried to funnel me into a tedious line. I smiled and shrugged and said two words: “Global Entry.” The American customs officer smiled back and gave an audible cheer—she raised both her hands in the air and said, “Hurray!” and pointed me toward the machine at the far wall. I walked over to it, scanned my passport, scanned my fingertips, and checked off the answers to questions. The kiosk spat out a tiny slip of paper that I handed to the customs officer. Shazam—I was done.

54 seconds. I timed the entire process on my phone. A new record for me. No line, no interrogation, no blue sheet.

I looked back at the long line, unmoving. For about ten seconds, I watched all the agents carefully questioning each passenger. Then I went off to find lunch.

I still like to believe that America is all about equality and fairness. But then again, maybe sometimes America is all about skipping the line.