Become a Trusted Traveler with NEXUS (and get your eyeballs scanned)

Photo courtesy of US Embassy Canada

 

A few months ago, I wrote about my experience signing up for NEXUS, the joint border clearance program between the US and Canada that allows for expedited travel in, out, and between the two countries.

The process for getting a NEXUS card is fairly simple: you pay a $50 fee and they run a background check on you. Assuming you meet the (unpublished) criteria for eligibility, you will be invited to attend an interview at a processing office. Once there, they will take your picture, and you will receive your card in the mail soon after.

You then get access to Global Entry and TSA Pre-Check. It is this last perk that is most exciting to me, as it means I never need to “opt-out” again, since I won’t need to go through the nude-o-scopes anymore.

NEXUS is half as expensive as Global Entry ($50 versus $100), but you need to head up to Canada for the interview. A sensible person might ask: “Why not just pay the extra $50 and have the interview at your local airport, rather than making a long trip up to the border and paying at least that much extra in gas money?

Because what would be the fun in that?

Friends with (NEXUS) benefits

Two friends applied for NEXUS with me at the same time, which was convenient in all kinds of ways. Plus it allowed us to compare our progress; while two of us were “conditionally approved” within the standard few-weeks processing time, the third took an extra month to find out. Why? No idea; like I said, the criteria for determining eligibility is unpublished.

Once approved, we were invited to schedule an appointment at one of the NEXUS processing centers. Unfortunately, the scheduling proved to be a bit of a pain. Trying to find three contiguous 15-minute slots on the online calendar proved to be difficult, and most of the slots were filled up months in advance. So even though we were approved in the winter, we decided on Labor Day weekend.

Border traffic

The border agency maintains a web site with current wait times for crossing the border by land. According to the site (and to the highway signs we passed) the delay for crossing the border at that moment was 135 minutes.

Over two hours!? Now granted, this was Labor Day weekend, but still, no wonder it was hard to schedule an interview! Everyone who went through that crossing once would surely be signing up.

We weren’t even planning on crossing the border (the office was just on the US side), but the traffic was backed up beyond our exit, prompting a scenic tour of Whatcom County.

The processing center was a hive of large buildings with slanted roofs, bringing to mind airport hangars. (I wanted to have pictures to show, but in my experience, taking photos of border facilities tends to be frowned upon, so we’ll have to do with an aerial shot.)

NEXUS processing center in Blaine, WA. Note the US-bound backup next door.

NEXUS processing center in Blaine, WA, courtesy of Google. Note the US-bound traffic jam next door.

Everyone there was friendly and laid-back, which was a bit unsettling for a government office. We had been late for our appointment, and I half expected a surly guard to tell us that we needed to reschedule for sometime in the new year. But everyone we talked to made it seem like we could just walk in off the street and hang out for a bit.

We were each brought up individually to a table and asked a variety of name/rank/serial number questions. Nothing too big or stressful. Then we were all brought up together so that the guy could give all three of us the whole spiel at once.

Have you got it yet?

I have to admit that there are a lot of moving parts to NEXUS/Global Entry, and it’s all different depending on the mode of travel. For instance:

  • Arriving by air into the US? You need to use a hand print scan. Arriving by air into Canada? You need to use an iris scan.
  • Traveling by land between the two countries? Everyone in the car must have a NEXUS card or you can’t use the quick lane. But when traveling through an airport, you can (usually) take your non-“trusted” party through the expedited lane.
  • The NEXUS card is a valid form of federal identification, and can be used in lieu of a passport. But only when traveling between the US and Canada.

The most telling part of the entire process was when the guard said “I honestly don’t know why everyone in the US doesn’t just do NEXUS instead of Global Entry. It’s half the price and you get the same benefits, plus expedited Canadian entry as well.” We agreed, of course, though I imagine that if your home base is, say, Houston, a zip up to the Canadian border is slightly more challenging.

Regardless, we felt like we had uncovered a “secret government program” like those infomercials at 3AM, except legitimate.

Not a NEXUS commercial.

Not a NEXUS spokesperson.

Less than a week later, I received my card, encased in a nice RFID-protected sleeve.

Get Trusted

Here are some final pro-tips from my experience, should you decide to apply for NEXUS:

  • Even if you schedule your interview on the US side of the border, you’ll need to go to Canada for the iris scan. The iris scan is used when entering Canada from the air from abroad, so might not be totally relevant for you, but as long as you’re going through this process, you might as well complete the job. We got our eyeballs scanned at Vancouver Airport, and we were in and out in less than 30 minutes.
  • The card is marketed as being valid for five years, but this is counted as being the next five birthdays following your approval. So schedule your interview right after your birthday, so you’ll in effect have six years for the price of five. I didn’t realize this, but lucked out.
  • Once you get officially approved, you’ll be issued a “Trusted Traveler Number.” Input this number into all of your airline profiles, otherwise they won’t be aware of your status, and you won’t be eligible for Pre-Check.
  • You’ll need to keep your information up-to-date in their system, even things like your driver license number. In fact, we were told that when we get a new passport, we’ll need to stop by the processing center again to get it re-scanned.
  • Don’t forget to activate your card. Don’t be that person who gets to the airport or border and finds out that the card isn’t valid.

It will be interesting to see if more people take advantage of this program over time. While the idea of paying $50 (or even $100) to recover some of the same traveling experience that we all used to have in the pre-9/11 world might seem egregious to some, I for one think it’s a small price to pay.

I’ve got my first flight coming up where I’ll be able to use my NEXUS superpowers. We’ll see how it goes.

Wheee!

Wheee!

But enough about me. Have you signed up for any Trusted Traveler programs? What has been your experience?

Mike Pumphrey

Mike Pumphrey

I'm the founder and author of Unlikely Radical, a site to help people succeed with money, achieve their goals, and live intentionally.

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Mike Pumphrey
Posted on September 15, 2014