One of the main complaints I hear from fellow travelers, especially this summer, is how painful and time consuming it can be to get through airport security. It’s true that lines have been longer and slower moving lately, with the recent surge in travel demand. Having said that, there are definitely some ways to make navigating the airport easier and less stressful – it starts with expedited security screening.
In the US, the Department of Homeland Security operates several different Trusted Traveler programs that allow pre-approved travelers to clear security with less hassle and shorter wait times. The two Trusted Traveler programs that will make life easier, when it comes to traveling by air, are TSA Precheck and Global Entry. I’ll dig into the details of each program down below to help you decide which option might be best for your individual travel style.
One additional option to consider is CLEAR. CLEAR is a relative newcomer, in the expedited security processing space, but it could be another good option on its own or in addition to one of the other programs like TSA Precheck or Global Entry.
In my opinion, TSA Precheck is a must for anyone who travels more than a couple of times each year. Not only does TSA Precheck get you access to a designated security line, which is usually much shorter, it also allows you to keep your liquids and laptop inside your bag. You can also keep your jacket, belt, and shoes on – all of this helps the already shorter line move much faster. These things add up to be a huge timesaver and allow you to arrive at the airport later or spend more time relaxing in the lounge before your flight.
In order to get TSA Precheck benefits, you must first apply online. The application process is pretty simple and should be completed in less than 5 minutes. After completing your online application, you’ll need to go to one of 400+ enrollment centers across the US to complete a brief interview and fingerprinting for your background check. Once approved, it’s important to ensure you include your Known Traveler Number (KTN) on future itineraries in order to take advantage of your new Precheck benefits.
The cost for TSA Precheck is $85 for new enrollees and that membership will last for 5 years. When you go to renew at the end of your membership period, the renewal rate is only $70 and that will get you another 5 years of TSA Precheck benefits. While paying $85 for expedited airport screening is a pretty small cost for most frequent travelers, you can actually get this benefit completely free with the right travel credit card. I initially got my TSA Precheck as a benefit of holding the Chase Sapphire Reserve card.
Many people think that Global Entry and TSA Precheck compete against each other to offer expedited screening at the airport but that really isn’t the case. Infact, if you enroll in Global Entry, your membership includes TSA Precheck.
Global Entry is a Trusted Traveler Program that allows members to quickly clear immigration upon returning to the US. How quickly? Just like with TSA Precheck you have access to a completely separate customs line where you’ll use a kiosk to scan your passport, give your fingerprints, or complete a facial recognition scan. The kiosk will then print out a receipt that you give to the border agent and you’re free to go. The whole process takes less than 5 minutes and is oftentimes even faster than that!
Since Global Entry also includes TSA Precheck this would seem like the clear winner of Trusted Traveler Programs, right? On the surface, Global Entry would be the best option for all travelers, but the downside to Global Entry is that it costs more and the enrollment process is much longer than with TSA Precheck. For the occasional international traveler, the added cost and processing time just may not be worth it.
Enrolling in Global Entry starts very similarly to enrolling in TSA Precheck – you complete an online application and wait for conditional approval. The wait for conditional approval can sometimes take months, depending on the backlog of applications and a variety of other factors. After being conditionally approved, you’ll need to complete an interview with a Customs and Border Protection Officer. These interviews can be scheduled online, but finding availability can be a real challenge. Perhaps the best option for completing your interview is to do Enrollment on Arrival. Most airports allow travelers who are conditionally approved to complete their interview upon returning from their next international trip.
Besides the added benefit of expedited customs and immigration processing, Global Entry also differs from TSA Precheck when it comes to price. Global Entry costs $100 for 5 years of membership and there isn’t a discount for those who are renewing. Just like with TSA Precheck though, it’s easy to get this fee covered for you. Cards like the Capital One Venture X will reimburse you for this cost and make your membership completely free.
Unlike TSA Precheck and Global Entry, CLEAR is a privately owned company that provides fast-track security access at airports, stadiums, and other venues across the US. CLEAR uses biometric screening to identify members and once verified, a CLEAR Ambassador will bring you to the front of the security line. Without also having TSA Precheck or Global Entry, CLEAR will only allow you to skip to the front of the general security line. You’ll still need to remove your shoes and take all of your liquids out of your bag. For that reason, I recommend having CLEAR along with one of the other programs for the fastest possible airport security experience.
Just like with the other programs, you begin the enrollment process for CLEAR by completing an application online or in person at the airport. Once you’ve completed the application, a CLEAR Ambassador will help you collect a scan of your fingerprints or eyes, for future verification. After completing your enrollment, you can take advantage of your new CLEAR benefits the very same day since there isn’t an additional wait for approval.
One downside to CLEAR is that it’s the most expensive program of the three, at a cost of $189 a year. The good news is that Delta and United get a discounted rate for all of their loyalty members and their top tier elites even get it for free. If you don’t have top level elite status, that’s ok – there is one other way to get it for free. The American Express Platinum card comes with an annual $189 credit to cover the cost of your CLEAR enrollment. Not only is the American Express Platinum the best card for airport lounge access, but it’s also the best card for getting you through airport security!
Airport security is a necessary headache but having the right tools can make it much more bearable. It’s important to weigh the different options and decide which program is right for your travel style but having one or more of these at your disposal will make your travel life much easier going forward – especially when you can get it for free from your credit card company!