Costa Rica may be the United States’ largest trading partner in Central America, but Panama is the first country on the isthmus to receive elite membership into the U.S.’ Global Entry Program. The program allows pre-approved travelers from certain countries to skip immigration lines upon arrival in the U.S.
On Tuesday, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and Panama’s President Ricardo Martinelli signed an agreement to expedite travel between the U.S. and Panama and to share criminal and other information.
In the Americas, only Mexico and Canada are part of the Global Entry Program, and Mexicans are the largest group of members, with 36,000 enrolled.
Other participating countries are the Netherlands, Germany, the United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and South Korea. Almost 2 million travelers currently are enrolled in the program.
After paying a $100 application fee and providing individual background information, travelers can use automated kiosks at designated airports to bypass regular passport control queues. According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Global Entry travelers pass immigration controls in less than one minute.
When the Global Entry Program starts operating for Panamanians in January, Martinelli wants to become the first in his country to enroll.
In addition to Global Entry, Mexican and Canadian travelers also benefit from faster immigration checks at U.S. border crossings on land through the NEXUS and SENTRI programs.
After revelations of U.S. government spying by the National Security Agency, some countries have backed out on plans to share their criminal records and other information, a Department of Homeland Security official said. However, the Global Entry Program involves only the sharing of information between law enforcement agencies, the official added.
Travelers from all countries in Latin America are required to apply for a tourist or business visa prior to entry in the U.S. In 2011, Brazil initiated talks for a visa waiver program, but they have been unable to meet the program’s requirements.
The U.S. is evaluating whether to add Chile to a list of 37 countries already belonging to the visa waiver program. A participating country must share security-related data with the U.S. and have a visitor-visa refusal rate of less than three percent, among other requirements. No country in Latin America currently meets those requirements.