I’m going to start by qualifying this, I travel a lot, but not even close to as much as a lot of photographers I know. I do travel enough though where I’m looking for every shortcut I can to make my life simpler when it’s time to hit the road or the airport. As a photographer that tends to travel very heavy with lots of lighting equipment dealing with border crossings and airport security can sometime be a major hassle. I’ve had a lot of situations where I’ve been detained to the point where I’ve missed my flight due to US Customs officers not really knowing their jobs, or just being assholes in general. That being said, I have to be a red flag while travelling with 60lbs of camera/computer gear on my back, 40lbs of lighting/computer gear in my carry on roller, and 120-140lbs of lighting/ski gear and clothes in the remaining two bags.
There are a few things you can look at to make your life easier at airport security checkpoints. One of which I’ve covered before with Customs screenings coming back into the USA which is US Customs form 4457. Take a closer look here. Walk into the customs office with your gear and get your gear registered. This way no matter what they say, you are travelling with proof of ownership of your equipment in the case you are caused of buying gear abroad to bring back and sell without paying duties and taxes. It’s happened to me before and it wasn’t fun, and I missed my flight because of it, and had to pay a large change fee to get on another flight after. Going into the CBP (US Customs and Border Patrol) office to do this takes ten minutes (or more depending on how much gear you bring in) and you’ll never have to deal with it again as long as you own that equipment. This is of course a lot more difficult to do if you don’t live near an airport with a CBP office, but if that’s the case, stop by next time you fly through an international airport in the USA.
The second option is NEXUS and Global Entry. These are programs with the CBP and DHS (Department of Homeland Security) that are “trusted traveler” programs that allow you very very quick and easy customs interviews and border crossings by land, sea or air. Global Entry is the airport program that if you’ve flown into any of the major US airports during a busy time you’ve likely seen and have been super jealous of as you’ve stood in a line over an hour waiting to talk to a CBP agent, only to talk to another one about your baggage, and potentially be “interviewed” yet again about the $50k in equipment you may be traveling with. Global Entry allows you to cut every customs line in the airport. You know those forms you fill out with all the check boxes (US CBP Form I-94) and declare the items you’ve brought home with you from a foreign country? Well, with Global Entry you don’t fill that out, you cut every line then go to a kiosk and check a couple of boxes on the screen, scan your passport, the kiosk takes a photo, you take a printout and go get your bags, hand your printout to a CBP agent (again where you cut every line) and walk out the door and leave the airport or hop on your connecting flight. The last time I went through US Customs with Global Entry it saved me an hour and a half, cutting in front of at least 400 people. Add to this that I didn’t have to deal with the hassle of getting the third degree about all my camera equipment. This is pretty well the best thing travel related to me that I’ve found since I started travelling internationally.
So, what do you have to do to get this privilege of easy US Customs entry? You pay a $100 fee that is good for five years, they do a background check on you (no felonies) and you have to go into a CBP office that’s part of the Global Entry Program (basically every major US international airport) to be interviewed and fingerprinted. The interview is more of a formality at that point as it’s mainly for fingerprinting and to verify your identity. The only difficult thing about that is that the interviews are scheduled and when I scheduled my interview, most airports were booked out at least 1-3 months, if not longer. So if you do not live in a city with one of these CBP offices it can be a bit more difficult. However that being said I missed my interview time due to a late flight (I scheduled my interview during a layover in LAX) and when I showed up there was nobody waiting to be interviewed even though there were five more interviews scheduled after the one I was late for. I bring this up because after seeing that, I wouldn’t be guess that after your online application has been approved and you schedule an interview, you could just show up to one of those airports outside of your scheduled interview and just wait for an opening and get that out of the way unscheduled. Don’t quote me on that but from what I saw, I’d bet that it would work. The other part of awesome that Global Entry gets you is TSA Pre. Now while on paper it seems to be pretty meaningless it can be pretty nice. TSA Pre is a third line in airport security that cuts all the lines, even the first class / medallion member line which even that can sometimes be big at major hub airports. The extra part that is pretty minimal is that you don’t have to take your laptop out of your bag, or your shoes or belt off. Pretty minor however I’ve noticed I get a secondary search on my camera bag a lot less. Again most of this is pretty meaningless unless of course you arrive at the airport 30 minutes before your flight to another country. One other note for the Global Entry program, if you are an American Express Delta Reserve, Platinum or American Express Platinum card holder, part of your benefit is you will be credited for the $100 global entry application fee.
The third is one I hadn’t really paid attention to since I haven’t done much travel over the road to Canada recently is the NEXUS program. This program works in the same way as the Global Entry program does at the airport for the most part only it’s been put in place for border crossings to and from Canada and Mexico. The difference with the NEXUS program is that they actually do a more extensive background check where even traffic tickets can get you kicked off the program. I’m sure you’ve been in the same long border crossing lines going to/from Canada before if you shoot skiing or snowboarding and know cutting those lines could save you hours if it delays you to the point where you are say, stuck in Vancouver rush hour traffic on your way to Whistler. Since I’ve also dealt with having my entire car searched and being interrogated about ownership of my car like I was hiding terrorists in my spare tire compartment in my trunk I’d also reccommend it, especially if you cross the border a few times a year, and especially for your filmmakers that are always sketched out about being turned away at the border. If you have neither yet then it would be the best if you signed up for the NEXUS program instead of Global Entry. I say this because the NEXUS program also gives you Global Entry and TSA Pre access, and it’s only $50 instead of the $100 for Global Entry. You still have to do an interview and be fingerprinted but for NEXUS you only have to do this once and you get all of the programs. If you are a Global Entry member, you still have to go in for another interview to be a part of the NEXUS program as well. You can use your Global Entry card to use the NEXUS lines entering the USA from Canada, but not the other way around, to enter Canada, so getting a NEXUS card would be the way to go as you get access to all the programs.
I hope that wasn’t too confusing. If you haven’t checked the links within this post I’ve added them below to get directly to where to read up and apply for these programs.