In November 2021, I applied for Global Entry because it was reimbursed by my new American Express Platinum Card. The process took longer than I would’ve liked, which I’ll explain in another post, but I eventually got conditionally approved in March 2022 and completed enrollment on arrival later that month. (I’ll explain what that process looks like in another post.)
I took a brief trip to vacation in Toronto and the Niagara region in late June 2022. To save money and avoid the immigration issues that were occurring at Toronto Pearson, I flew to Buffalo, NY and rented a car in the United States. From Buffalo, I would stop by Niagara Falls and then continue driving to Toronto. The drive is only about an hour and a half each way. By flying domestically to nearby Buffalo, I saved several hundred dollars overall, as I could avoid the comparatively high taxes that Canada imposes on air travel and car rental. This also meant I would be crossing the U.S.–Canada border by land rather than at Toronto Pearson, and if I timed it right, I could avoid the long lines plauging Pearson.
When crossing the border by land, it’s still possible for Global Entry members to make use of their benefits when re-entering the United States, despite the program being primarily for air travelers. Coming from Canada, Global Entry users can make use of the expedited trusted traveler lanes. The main trusted traveler program for U.S.–Canada land border crossings is called NEXUS, and it allows fast entry both ways (into the U.S. and into Canada). This is the only program Canada has for non-commercial trusted travelers1. The U.S. has more than just NEXUS—Global Entry being one of them—and it turns out if you’re approved for one trusted traveler program, you’re able to enjoy the benefits of CBP’s other trusted traveler programs with minimal additional requirements.
Going to Canada without special trusted traveler privileges
My plane landed around 11:30pm local time, and my hotel was in St. Catharines across the border. I reached the Canadian border around 12:45am. I don’t have NEXUS, which is the U.S.-Canada joint expedited border clearance program for trusted travelers, so I didn’t have any expedited entry privileges going into Canada. (Not that it mattered, as the NEXUS lane was closed at this time of night anyway.) Thankfully, there was only one person in front of me, so I basically waited no time at all. The interview questions were pretty standard: what’s the purpose of my visit (vacation), how long am I visiting for (1 week), and why am I going to St. Catharines (to sleep in my hotel room!). After that I was admitted to Canada. This took about 30 seconds.
Using Global Entry when heading back
How to use the NEXUS lanes
The NEXUS lanes work differently from the normal lanes. They require everyone in the vehicle to have the proper ID cards; even if one person is missing theirs, the NEXUS lanes can’t be used. There are two steps to crossing the border using NEXUS.
First, you must pull up to the area right before the booth. This area has cameras that will take pictures of your car, to make sure it’s not in their watchlist databases. There is also a big white rectangle-shaped proximity card reader on the driver side window, where you’re supposed to scan the RFID card(s) of everyone in the vehicle for about one or two seconds. By scanning this, you won’t have to hand your passport to the border agent, which saves both you and them time. Unfortunately, there is no visual indication to the driver whether the scanning worked or not, but it seems that as long as you hold up the cards perpendicular to the scanner, stretching your arms as far out from the window as they’ll go, it’ll work totally fine. There’s no need to hold the card(s) there for more than 3 seconds. While you’re doing this, the car in front of you is being visually inspected at the booth.
Next, you wait for the car at the booth to depart. Once they go, pull up to the booth. The border agent will immediately begin to ask you questions, but they are designed to get business done rather than assess your security risk. Usually, they ask one question, which is “do you have anything to declare?”
When I was heading back to the United States, it was around 6pm. I drove via the Peace Bridge because that’s the only crossing between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie where Global Entry users can use the NEXUS lanes2. U.S. CBP allows Global Entry members to use the NEXUS lanes as long as they bring their activated Global Entry RFID identity cards, which I activated in March and always carry with me in my wallet. I was nervous because I had never used my Global Entry privileges before, and there was no sign saying Global Entry members could use the NEXUS lane. Driving in the NEXUS lane without NEXUS felt very wrong to me. But the CBP website said it was fine, and I read elsewhere that people had done it without any issues.
In order to take advantage of the NEXUS lane, though, I had to learn how to get into the correct lane! I took a look at the Peace Bridge’s website to see their guidance on where the NEXUS lane was.
They say keep to the very left, so I did that when driving across the Peace Bridge. The NEXUS lane appeared as you approached the U.S. inspection booths.
There was only one car in front of me in the NEXUS lane, but I could see about 6 cars waiting to cross the 1 regular inspection lane that was open. Thankfully I wasn’t them! (And thankfully for them, that wasn’t 60 cars waiting, as it often can be during the vacation season!)
Going up to the NEXUS booth for the very first time was nervewracking, because at Global Entry enrollment, they never told us about how exactly to use our cards or go through a NEXUS land crossing. I followed these steps:
- Upon approaching the NEXUS booth, I took out my Global Entry RFID card.
- I pulled up to the spot right before the agent’s booth, which I’ll call the “staging area” (not the official term for it), where cameras will take pictures of your car’s license plates and run it through CBP’s systems, and where you’ll need to scan your RFID card to the RFID scanner. There’s a big white scanner you put it up to. Unfortunately, it doesn’t tell you if the scanning worked or not, so you basically hold it up in front of the scanner for 3 seconds and hope everything worked. It did work for me though!
- After the car in front of me was waved through, I went up for what they call a “visual inspection” (official term). Since I already waved my RFID card at the scanner, I didn’t pull out my passport because the CBP agent already had all my info pulled up. He used this opportunity to confirm I am indeed the person on their screen. This is also, of course, when they ask other questions. Can you guess what questions this agent asked me? The correct answer is: none! Literally right after pulling up, he took a look at his screen, looked at me, and looked back at his screen for about 5 seconds. Then he told me 3 words: “you’re all set!” (Yep, that’s his exact words!)
I said “thanks!” and took off immediately, stunned that I didn’t have to go through the traditional torture ritual of being asked things like:
- Why were you outside of the U.S.?
- For how long were you outside of the U.S.?
- Where did you go when you were outside of the U.S.?
- What are you bringing back with you? Anything to declare?
I did expect them to ask me if I had anything to declare. I even had a list of things ready to say, but he didn’t even give me a chance to declare them! (Not that I had anything to surrender; I made extra sure that what I was bringing with me was legally allowed.) But nope, just “you’re all set.” Wow!
The whole process, from pulling up to the lane to leaving the inspection station, took less than 30 seconds. That is not an exaggeration. Meanwhile, I have waited over 1 hour trying to cross into Canada and back into the U.S. when I visited Vancouver from Seattle on weekends.
This is such a sweet, satisfying reward you get when you spend all that time trying to apply for Global Entry and going through that enrollment interview. It’s really makes a night and day difference when going through customs, in terms of both the speed of processing and the questions they ask!
1. While FAST and CANPASS do exist, those are irrelevant for non-commercial passengers arriving to Canada by land and air. For all intents and purposes, NEXUS is the only program the Canadian government operates for non-commercial travelers.
2. Apparently, the Whirlpool Bridge can’t be used by Global Entry members, according to the Niagara Bridge Commission?