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Remember: Global Entry membership has no bearing on whether you need an ESTA to enter the United States


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Thanks to the continuing enlargement of the Global Entry program and the US Visa Waiver Program, more people than ever before can now enter the United States relatively easily and without having to stand in the seemingly endless lines that some of our international airports have long been known for (I’m looking at you Miami).

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that because both these programs are run by US Customs and Border Protection (CBP), it’s easy for visitors to get confused and to misunderstand what each program offers.

More specifically, while most visitors eligible for the Visa Waiver Program know that they need to have an ESTA certificate to enter the United States, I’m hearing of more and more foreign Global Entry members making the mistake of thinking that because they hold Global Entry membership, they no longer need to have an ESTA.

Unfortunately, that’s simply not the case.

What is an ESTA?

As the name of the program suggests, citizens of ‘Visa Waiver Program’ countries do not need to have a visa to enter the United States (for trips of 90 days or less), but that doesn’t mean that they don’t need any paperwork at all – they still need to hold something called an ESTA.

An ESTA (which stands for Electronic System for Travel Authorization) is a document that is issued by the CBP which, essentially, takes the place of a visa, and most foreign nationals wishing to enter the United States still need to have a valid visa or a valid ESTA.

Thanks to the relationship between the US and the countries in the Visa Waiver Program, an ESTA application can be done online, can be completed in a matter of minutes, is often processed in a matter of hours (no more than 72 hours) and currently costs $21.

Visa applications take a lot longer to fill out, take a lot longer to be processed, involve an interview, and cost considerably more.

Effectively, an ESTA application is a way for the US government to collect a lot of money for very little work while keeping an eye on the people attempting to enter the country and without subjecting nationals of countries considered ‘friendly’ to the United States to an unnecessarily long and tedious entry application process.

US citizens and legal residents do not need to have an ESTA.

Link to the CBP official ESTA page

What is Global Entry?

Global Entry is a US CBP program that is open to US citizens, legal residents of the US, and citizens of select nations around the world. The program gives members expedited entry into the United States via kiosks stationed at major points of entry and removes the need for passengers to stand in incredibly long and slow-moving immigration lines as they wait to enter the country.

Related: Get free Global Entry & TSA PreCheck with these credit cards

At select airports, members of the Global Entry program proceed to Global Entry kiosks, present their machine-readable passport or U.S. permanent resident card, and following a facial recognition sequence, the kiosk then issues the traveler a transaction receipt and directs the traveler to baggage claim and the exit. There is often no need for a member to interact with CBP.

Global Entry membership, however, isn’t a replacement for an ESTA.

For eligible foreign nationals, Global Entry membership is simply an expedited way of physically entering the United States once they’ve been granted entry into the country via the Visa Waiver Program.

Link to the CBP official Global Entry page

Why the confusion?

Global Entry membership is offered to foreign nationals of just 13 countries (link) and anyone wanting to enjoy the benefits of Global Entry membership has to pass at least one background check and subject themselves to a face-to-face interview. That makes the program feel special.

Getting membership of the Global Entry program takes a lot more effort than it takes to get an ESTA and because both programs are run by the CBP and because nationals of just 6 counties are eligible for both the Global Entry and the Visa Waiver programs, I can see how some people can fall into the trap of thinking that Global Entry trumps the Visa Waiver Program and that if they pass all the hurdles to Global Entry membership, they don’t need an ESTA.

Unfortunately, that’s not how entry into the United States works. Both programs are very different and they run in parallel, not in tandem, so just because a foreign national holds Global Entry membership doesn’t mean that they don’t have to hold an ESTA (or a visa) as well.

Bottom line

If you’re a US citizen or have permission to reside in the United States this article isn’t for you. If, however, you’re a foreign national who usually requires a visa or an ESTA to enter the United States, don’t make the mistake of thinking that Global Entry membership allows you to skip the visa or visa waiver process – it dosn’t.

Featured image courtesy of US CBP

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