Get your Global Entry Approval (and TSA Pre✓ authorization) Fast

Global Entry LogoA few years ago I signed up for the US Custom and Border Patrol (CBP) Global Entry Program available to Americans and others. Getting approved and acquiring a “Known Traveler Number” (KTN) allows me to skip the lines at passport control in the US, using Global Entry kiosks instead. Adding my KTN number to my airline accounts also results in the “TSA Pre” stamp automagically appearing on my boarding passes. This lets me take the faster, shorter lanes at TSA checkpoints, leaving my laptop in its case, shoes on my feet and belt on my jeans.

I arranged an appointment at O’Hare airport for about 6 weeks in the future, the earliest available appointment at the time. I burned frequent flyer miles to fly down from my local airport just for the appointment. Unfortunately, when I got to the CBP office at O’Hare, I realized I had flown down one day too early. The CBP agent at the counter had me stick around and about an hour later they fit me in between appointments. I had a short interview, they took my picture and sent me on my way. My card and KTN arrived a few weeks later in the mail.

I was reminded of this experience today when I ran across a Lifehacker article suggesting that you might try just walking in when you have an extended layover in an airport with a CBP Enrollment Center. You’ll want to make sure you’ve gone through the steps outlined in the “How to Apply” page first. But then try walking in and getting in without an appointment.

Cheap Passport Photos

Sooner or later, you’re going to need passport photos. Get them now and have them when you need them. I do this by filling an 8×10 print with passport photos and sending it to the local Walgreens photo department. This gives me 20 2×2 passport photos for $3.99 rather than 2 passport photos for $13.99 using Walgreens passport photo service. If you need information for visa photo requirements for a specific country, check visafoto.com.

The following instructions are for US passport photos (2″ x 2″) but can be adapted for other photo sizes. First, get a headshot photo that satisfies the necessary requirements. Then get the photo into PhotoShop or your favorite photo editing program and crop it to a square to look something like this:

Dwight D Eisenhower Portrait
Dwight D Eisenhower

Next, resize the image to 2 inches square and set the canvas size to 8 inches by 10 inches. Duplicate the 2×2″headshot three times and arrange the image four layers across the top of the canvas. You should have one row complete, looking something like this:

Then merge those four image layers into one and duplicate it four more times, arranging them to fill the 8×10:

Now just flatten the image, save it as a jpg file and upload it to your Walgreens Photo account. Print it as an 8×10 for $3.99 and pick it up in an hour or just have it mailed to you for $0.99 more.

Pro tip: Check the Walgreens Photo Promo page, look for the current month’s special discount code. There’s often a 40% off or free 8×10 code you can enter at checkout for an even better deal.

Google Fi – Cellular and Data for the World Traveler

[Updated: May 20,2019]
Google Fi is an international phone and data service that works almost everywhere in the world (Non-Fi countries listed at the end of this post). Previously, only Nexus, Pixel and Moto X4 phones worked with Project Fi. Now, most phones (Android and iOS) can activate and use the service.

Google Fi service costs $20/month and $10 per GB of data (after the first 6GB data – the next 9GB are free). International calls cost an additional $0.20/minute, but I just use Skype, Messenger, WhatsApp or Hangouts and call for free using data. Add another line for an additional $15/month (in this case the free data doesn’t kick in until 10GB). You can also add a data-only SIM card for a tablet or compatible phone for free; just pay $10 for each GB of data it uses.

Google Fi works in most countries and there’s no need to switch settings or cards when traveling. Land in another country, turn off airplane mode and you’re online within a few minutes. Anyone calling your US number reaches you regardless of what country you’re in.

Fi also allows you to suspend service for up to three months at a time. Some people get the service just for travelling. They use a local cellular contract, suspending the Fi service when they’re at home and re-enabling it  when they travel. In this case, many couples also use just one line and get an additional data-only SIM card for the other spouse.

There are a few downsides. First, using Project Fi means I have a US number and not a local Korean number. This isn’t a big problem for me as virtually all of my communication is via messaging services.  Second, when I do make a phone call from outside the US, it costs $0.20/minute. But, if I need to make a lengthy call, I’ll usually use Skype or Hangouts and use data or Wi-Fi instead. Third, many Korean institutions expect users to have a Korean cell phone number to receive SMS messages. I finally relented and got a super cheap prepaid Korean SIM just for this purpose.

Crunching the numbers, I find that I’m paying a little more on average while in Korea than I would with a locally available plan (about $70/month vs. approx. $55). But in the summer, I’m no longer paying $120 for 2 months of AT&T’s prepaid plan while still paying for my $55/month Korean plan. I’m also not paying $20-50 to get a prepaid card every time I land in another country. I just keep paying about $70/month to burn through an average of 5GB of data through Google Fi. Due to the 6GB cap on data cost, my bill is never over $80 (plus tax).

If you’re interested in using the service, just head over to https://fi.google.com and feel free to use this referral code https://g.co/fi/r/9CV9YJ to get a $20 credit on your account.

Non-Fi Countries as of May, 2019

Roughneck Totes as Checked Baggage

Rubbermaid’s 25 gallon Roughneck Tote is the best container to use as checked baggage when transporting a lot of stuff via intercontinental flights. The length + width + height dimensions are the maximum allowed by airlines, maximizing the volume per piece of baggage, they stack nicely on airport carts and the handles make loading and unloading convenient. I have used this method since 2008, moving back and forth from the U.S. to Kuwait, Nigeria and South Korea, taking a couple dozen of these totes on several dozen flights. I’ve never had a problem and never lost a tote or lid.

They’re available at most Ace Hardware stores. On Amazon.com, the shipping charges are prohibitive. But if you visit my favorite hometown Blain’s Farm and Fleet, you can get 4 of them shipped just about anywhere in the US for around $20 each. While you’re there, throw in your 14″ zip ties, colored duct tape, packing tape, and Sharpie.

The only challenge is closing them up to remain sealed during travel. But, there is an easy way of handling this. I use a 5/16″ drill bit (8mm) to put 12 holes strategically placed around the lid which accept plastic zip-ties or 16 gauge solid-core copper wire to keep the tote sealed.

It’s important to put the holes in the right place so that if you use several totes, any lid will be able to be used on any tote with the lid and tote holes lining up perfectly. Check out my video for the details: