A Warning to Families and Couples With Global Entry

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Last week when we were re-entering the United States after being out of the country, we had a less than warm and fuzzy customs and border patrol experience at LAX, even with Global Entry.  I chalked it up to bad luck and a “culture of grumpiness” at some entry points (compared to much of the rest of the world), but upon further review I think some of the details are worth a mention here as they were issues related to traveling with a family that could potentially be avoided.

(Literally) Hold Your Own Passport:

With Global Entry you go to an unmanned kiosk, have the machine take your picture (which is always quite cute after hours/days of travel), scan your fingerprints, and answer the Customs Declarations questions that you would need to answer on a written form if you didn’t have Global Entry.  The machine then prints out a receipt that you hand to a nearby officer in a special Global Entry lane.  Assuming you didn’t get an X or O on your receipt, your experience is potentially now pretty much over if you don’t have to catch a connecting flight or obtain your checked bags.

When I normally go through this process in Houston it takes about a minute and it is usually a no fuss situation.  I assume is quite a formal process for Customs and Border Patrol behind the scenes, but thankfully as a traveler it is very easy and simple.  When we entered in LAX (you have to go through this wherever your first port of entry is in the US), we went through the normal process with the machines, had our receipts checked by a CBP officer who was located at a desk next to the machines, and then were directed to another customs line before we could get to our connecting flights.

As is usual in our travels, my husband takes the lead with the bags when needed, and I take the lead with keeping all the passports and tickets together in one spot.  It’s a habit we developed when traveling with our daughter and all her stuff, but it works for us pretty well when it is just the two of us as well.  We were carrying our own bags, but we approached the customs officer together with the passports and Global Entry receipts all in my hand.  Upon seeing this the customs officer immediately started fussing at us like we were 3 year olds who spilled our juice on the couch for the 10th time that day.  In fact, I hope even 3 year olds aren’t fussed at like this. 

He stated we should know better and you can’t handle each other’s bags or passports or approach the customs officer together and yada yada yada.  He was quite grumpy which didn’t help us receive the message well, but that aside, I had never even heard this information before, and I am not a Global Entry novice.  A search after the event on their website still turned up nothing for me in terms of these rules.  Perhaps more confusingly the Customs Declaration form is one per family and says things like “I am (we are)”, so again this was from left field for us that it was to be such a starkly different process if all members of your family have Global Entry.  Following rules is hard when you have never heard them (or at least never remembered hearing them), and have never seen them enforced that way.

Pack and Carry Your Own Bags:

What actually made me share this experience was a friend posting on Facebook today that he was re-entering the US in Seattle yesterday and CBP was doing a Global Entry Compliance check on his flight.  Several people on the flight that had Global Entry (including him) were sent to secondary screening and asked to describe the entire contents of their bag.  There was one couple in the group sent to secondary who had mixed some of their items together in their bags, and apparently this was a very big no-no that got them scolded, and according to my friend, potentially kicked out of the program it was viewed as that big of a no-no.

I can guarantee that on almost every trip, some of my items make their way into Josh’s bag as guys simply don’t need as much stuff, and he usually has more available room.  Between curling irons, make-up, more toiletries, more shoes, etc. than he has, I make use of his unused space.  When our daughter is with us, this issue is just further compounded as sometimes by the end of the trip we just want all of our stuff to make it home.  We could care less which bag it fits in.  Well, apparently customs and border patrol cares quite a bit, at least if you have Global Entry.  Not only must you only carry your documents and approach the officer one at a time, but you sure as heck better not add your curling iron into your husband’s bag.

The officer that scolded us in LAX did say it would be different if a kid was with us, but I’m not 100% sure what that meant.  Did that mean my four year old (who does have Global Entry and NEXUS) could approach with one of us, or does it mean all three of us could then go together?  I don’t know.  Does it mean her stuff could be in one of our bags, but the adults need to keep their stuff separate?  I don’t know.

What I do know is that these two data points were similar enough, close enough together in timing, and issues new to both me and my Global Entry seasoned friend to warrant mentioning.  I am sure these rules about not mixing with your family or travel partners are written somewhere, so if anyone knows where these rules are please share so we can keep traveling families from the wrath of customs, and keep them from potentially losing their Global Entry privileges.  In the meantime, I would do your best to keep things separate both in terms of packing, and when going through customs upon your return to the United States.

As a side note, I am all for security and following rules, but….sigh.  Let’s make it clear, easy, logical, and professional.  Please.

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  1. That’s all very weird. I have personal experience with driving across the border and the CBP people being a little grumpy about NEXUS, presumably because it takes power away from them, but I’ve never had a Global Entry issue. Of course, I always travel alone.

    In fact, now that I think of it, the only GE issue I ever had was in Houston when the machine didn’t already know what flight I’d arrived on. The CBP guy wandered over and commented that the machines are always goofed up and did something to induce the machine to find my flight. Super friendly.

    Of course, nobody is friendly in Los Angeles, so a grumpy CBP person isn’t a surprise. 🙂

  2. I went through all the documentation provided to me by CBP when my Global Entry was approved, and the docs that came in the mail with my card. I can’t find anything that discusses either of these two “rules.”

  3. That is really weird, they told us the exact opposite the last time we used Global Entry in March. My wife and I approached separately and they fussed at us and told us that your party has to stay together. No consistency with TSA or Border Protection but we are supposed to feel safer. Haha. Ridiculous.

    • Patrick, double sigh and head desk. When the rules can mean keeping or losing something like Global Entry, I would hope to have at least a tad more consistency. At least so far I consistently know what to expect in Houston. Perhaps I should just always enter the country there. Ha!

  4. In the last year, I’ve been yelled at twice for conflicting information. The first time I was yelled at for approaching separately. Thinking that I learned something, the second time I was yelled at for approaching together. I honestly think it depends on the officer’s attitude that day.

  5. Shane, what a bummer! Here I was hoping my error was in not knowing some rule. Apparently the rule I “forgot” might just be that I just should expect conflicting info and hope that getting “fussed at/yelled at” is as bad as it gets. I knew that with TSA, but kinda hoped it was a bit different when it came to actually entering the country. Silly me!

  6. Wow…that’s absurd! We just recently got Global Entry for hubby and I and have only had the opportunity to use it once. I’m pretty positive that we approached separately but that was only because the process was moving so quickly and the CBP agent was telling everyone that once they used the kiosk that they needed to move aside. (This was at JFK).

    As far as packing goes, we just got back from a trip to Hawaii and packed our family of four into two carry on bags. Needless to say, there was stuff of mine and the kids in the bag that was my husband’s. I also was the only one who physically packed any of the stuff since I pack the family so often that I have it down to a science. I would be majorly upset if we were to get our Global Entry taken away because of something so silly.

    Also, I kind of consider all of the stuff in those bags “our” stuff meaning it belongs to the whole family. If necessary, it isn’t as if my husband wouldn’t allow me to wear one of his shirts if I got puked on during the flight. I get that maybe you wouldn’t want to use a packing service (like the St. Regis Bali offers) where someone unrelated to you is packing your stuff because you never really know what they might put in the bag. I trust my husband to pack my suitcase though and he obviously trusts me.

    Anyway, I just am so shocked by this post…I’ll be checking back for updates for sure!

  7. You didn’t do anything wrong in LAX. In my several years of CBP experience as a passenger and a flight-crew member, every station sets their own (unpublished) rules and expects you to follow them. Do in Las Angeles what is expected of you in Houston, and you’ll be yelled at for not following the rules. When it comes to CBP, I just usually offer an apology, do as I’m told, and walk away reminding myself I can only do so much when expected to read minds. Don’t let them get to you.

  8. I guess you got an office that was having a bad day or wanted to give people a hard time. I am a green card holder and before having Global Entry I had many different experiences when talking to immigration officers. I had the ones that smiled and said “welcome back home” and stamped my passport and I had the ones that asked almost every detail of my trip and would not smile at all. It looked like I was hiding something from him.
    With Global Entry I always had good experience and now my wife and two kids were just approved for GE so we will test this experience traveling as a family in November when we will travel abroad. I cannot believe they would care which bag contains what. I mean, I could tell everything that we are carrying as a family but what is in which bag is too much. Sometimes you just fit stuff in whatever bag that has space so hope this was just an officer having a bad day.

    BTW, how about if Josh uses a curling iron? 🙂 Well, I guess that would not fly after seeing some of his pictures. LOL!!!

  9. I’ve been thru LAX many times using GE and they are consistently the grumpiest CBP officers I’ve encountered! The best GE airport for me is ORD and SFO. Always pleasant, and I never had any problems.

  10. I find many (but not all) customs agents really have some sort of power trip and love to scold and act grumpy. However, my family of 5 recently came back to Dulles and approached together, with me holding all documents, and the very nice agent sent us sailing through. The lines were HUGE (spring break) and this saved us hours, so I’m a huge lover of GLobal Entry.

  11. Yup just the norm at LAX. And they are even grumpier if you are not a US citizen. I’m sure it doesn’t leave a pleasant taste in the mouth for many tourists.

  12. I see you have get each of the family members global entry. Did you use any of the Amex Plat’s benefits for that?

    – naroowal

  13. Power corrupts. The CBP agents at LAX were just being their normal Grumpy selves. Have never had an issue at IAH and secondary screened only once at IAD.

  14. I’m with Erica. I can’t imagine how CPB can or would want to determine which specific object tends to be used by which specific member of a family, given that they are all purchased with family funds in the first place. Yes, as we make our way through daily life we may tend to think this is my shirt, that is your curling iron, this is her toy, but when it comes down it, what difference does it really make legally? You could consider filing a formal complaint.

  15. As some said above, I’ve always been told it’s OK to approach together (GF, Wife, Mom, Dad, etc.). The agent was probably just on a mini power trip.

  16. Something that is fairly consistent in the US is that you cannot expect any consistency from different stations of the same agency.

    I’ve seen this with every federal agency I’ve dealt with. While there are the national “rules and standards” the local station will fill in the cracks with their own “rules and standards” for things not explicitly defined.

  17. Not sure about property rights in Texas but California is a Community Property state which means everything acquired during a marriage is held 50/50 even the curling irons. Even the Fed Gov’t recognizes this. At least in death.
    Not sure why you got the reception that you did.

  18. Recently got Nexus/Global Entry for the wife and kids and am curious about returning to the USA from an upcoming trip we have. We always manage to bring candy/chocolate back with us when we travel. Been reading about conflicting stories in forums about whether to declare chocolate/candy as “food” or not. Some people report they always declare it as food and wind up in secondary screening but get scolded by CBP, others don’t declare it and if they get the “X” the agents have asked why they didn’t declare the candy/chocolate and get scolded. Wondering if you or other readers have had experience with this and what you’d suggest.

  19. @BothofUs2: I am not American but live here for many years. We always travel as a family (wife and two kids) to my home country and all we bring back are chocolate and candies that we cannot find here. We never declare those. First, they are packaged goods so not to worry about issues with the Agriculture Department since they are not raw fruits/vegetables/meat. Second, as long as you are not bringing chocolate and candy to sell in the US and it is an amount that can easily claimed as for your own family consumption there is nothing to worry about. We had several occasions when we did not declare anything and when the customs officer asking if we were bringing anything we said chocolates and candies and we were never asked to open our bags. Once the lady asked where we were coming from and what we were bringing. We said the country and chocolates and she smiled and asked if they were from a specific brand that is famous in my home country. I smiled back and confirmed they were from that brand and she told us to go. Thus, in my opinion you do not need to declare chocolates and candies and if asked just say you are bringing them.

  20. Just follow CBP rules and you should be fine. If you aren’t sure, ask, don’t assume. I work at LAX and encounter CBP officers during the course of my duty and as a traveler, I’ve never had any issues going through GE. You seem well traveled enough to know to hold your own passport and pack and keep you own belongings in your bag.

    • Gumby, your comment wasn’t deleted it was held in moderation until I woke up this morning and approved it since it was your first comment on the site (at least from that IP address). Pretty sure the problem wasn’t exactly “stupidity”, but thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  21. Why did you delete my post, ashamed at your stupidity? Just follow CBP rules and you should be fine. If you aren’t sure, ask, don’t assume. I work at LAX and encounter CBP officers during the course of my duty and as a traveler, I’ve never had any issues going through GE. You seem well traveled enough to know to hold your own passport and pack and keep you own belongings in your bag.

  22. Had a similar type thing happen in Istanbul. Wouldn’t let me go to counter with my children, teenaged. I thought they could probably handle it but then everytime my shy 14 yo was asked a question, he turned to me to find out what to respond. Was having trouble with the agents accent. Generally very rude to us coming in but we got through.

    Leaving Vegas in march, they again separated us. Sent the kids straight thru and held me up for a baggage check. Of course, every loose left item was in my carry on bc I had done the room sweep. I kept trying to tell myself it was all for my safety.

  23. You should have noted the time name and Lane of the officer and filled out complaint form at TSA website. Made suggestions like need standard policy and notice by sign before approaching.

  24. Whether one is dealt with separately or as a family is not at all clear. I do know what I have experienced traveling with my wife and daughter, and what my wife has experienced traveling with her parents through Dulles. In both cases, the customs and immigration officers were VERY CLEAR they considered our luggage collectively as a family. And they even made it clear that all of us would be responsible for the contents of each others luggage, in terms of customs issues. And I do agree the customs form is pretty clear that the duty free limits are on a family basis.

  25. We’ve had inconsistency with together or separate approaching as well. If we get yelled at, I have no problem giving them a piece of my mind. As for packing bags separately, there is no problem with your stuff in your husbands bag, but what they DO care about it that he packed his bag, whatever is in it. So either set everything out together and pack your own bags, or just be sure you all know what you packed in each others bags and tell them you packed them yourselves. Either way, these guys are just flexing muscles it sounds like. You can absolutely challenge if they attempt to revoke GE for a rule that is not published!

  26. My boyfriend and I live together, so we’re never sure if we should consider ourselves a family for border-crossing purposes or not (we don’t have GE). We always fill out our own customs forms and then depending on the agent, they either make us go through separately or tell us we need to come through together. Never the same in any country, not just the US.

  27. Hi there! I realize this post/comment section is a couple of years old, but I’m hoping you’re still checking the comments and can answer a question. My husband and I were both approved for Global Entry, and we’re planning to use it upon return from our upcoming European cruise. When we’ve filled out the paper declaration form in the past, it indicated only one was required per household. How does it work with the Global Entry kiosks? Do we both use the same kiosk and have just one of us complete the on-screen form, or do we go to separate kiosks and each complete our own on-screen form? I’m curious as to how the process works. Thanks in advance for any light you can shed on this matter!

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