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What’s your biggest travel hassle? Mine’s a long, slow-moving airport security line. There’s nothing worse than waking up before dawn, getting to the airport and creeping along a never-ending TSA line. Having to unpack half of your luggage and strip off your jewelry, belt and shoes is no way to start a dream vacation.
Thankfully, there are a host of ways to zip through TSA security lines.
Here’s a look at the programs that allow you to buy your way to a shorter line, plus tips for speeding up airport trips without spending any extra cash.
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To help you get through airport security faster, the Transportation Security Administration offers US citizens and permanent residents over 13 years old its own program to streamline airport visits. If you have younger children, don’t be discouraged – kids 12 and under can enjoy all the perks of PreCheck when traveling with a parent or guardian who is a member.
The program allows members to skip long lines by entering a separate TSA queue for ID check and security. Plus, members are spared the hassle of taking off shoes, belts and light jackets as well as removing cell phones and larger electronics from their carry-on bags.
That saves tons of time at security checkpoints. In December 2022, one of the busiest months of the year, TSA reported that 91% of PreCheck members waited less than five minutes in line at the airport. I recently got stuck in traffic on my way to Los Angeles International Airport, arriving just over an hour before takeoff, and spent most of that time waiting at the gate, thanks to a sub-10-minute security line with PreCheck.
How Much Does PreCheck Cost?
The enrollment application fee for TSA PreCheck and its security screening is $78. Membership lasts five years before you must renew.
Many travel and airline credit cards reimburse the cost of TSA PreCheck, so check with yours to see if you’re eligible.
What the Application Process?
The process to apply is fairly simple: fill out a short online application and schedule an in-person follow-up appointment with TSA (you can do these at most airports). This appointment includes a short interview with an agent, a background check and fingerprinting. Expect the whole process to take less than 20 minutes.
After the interview, you should get approved within a few weeks. You’ll receive a “Known Traveler Number” which you can add to any US airline boarding pass to start skipping lines.
Who Should Get TSA PreCheck?
PreCheck is best for US citizens who primarily travel on domestic flights in the US.
If you regularly travel internationally, keep reading to learn about other options that might be better for you.
International travel to the United States is handled by U.S. Customs and Border Protection rather than TSA. CBP offers a program called Global Entry.
Global Entry includes access to all of PreCheck’s airport security perks and speedy lines, but has additional benefits for your return trip to the States: you get to bypass both the lengthy passport processing lines and the entry paperwork. Instead, you’ll be able to use the agency’s Smartgate system to answer a short questionnaire at a kiosk, then report directly to a Customs agent, who will double check your kiosk receipt and send you on your way.
Unlike PreCheck, children of all ages must have their own Global Entry membership.
How Much Does Global Entry Cost?
Global Entry’s application fee is $100 and it’s valid for five years.
The application process is about the same as PreCheck. But the interview is with a Customs and Border Patrol agent and is a bit more in-depth.
Also, Global Entry uses your fingerprints for biometric identification at its Smartgate kiosks. (PreCheck takes your fingerprints only for its records.)
The wait time for the results of your Global Entry screening process and application is considerably longer than PreCheck as well, with DHS estimating processing times at 4-6 months.
Who Should Get Global Entry?
Since it’s only about 20 bucks more than PreCheck, includes all of PreCheck’s perks and is good for five years, just about anyone who wants PreCheck should consider applying for Global Entry instead.
Unless you know you will never travel internationally, Global Entry is the right choice. If you take even one trip out of the country, you’ll be glad to skip the very long Customs lines when you return to the US.
Because the application process can take so much longer than PreCheck, apply now if you’re planning international travel more than six months out.
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The Other International Programs
If you mainly travel to and from Canada and/or Mexico, consider the government’s other programs, NEXUS (Canada only) and SENTRI (both), which cost $50 and $122.25 respectively.
Both also include PreCheck and speed entry from those countries, but application processing times are currently estimated at a year or longer. You may want to hold off unless you plan to travel to one or both countries regularly.
Clear is a relatively new addition to the world of airport line-cutting, and is run by a private company. Clear is now in many major airports in the US.
You don’t actually bypass the regular security lines with Clear. Instead, you bypass the initial ID check line. Clear participants walk right up to a kiosk that scans their biometric data – think eye and/or fingerprint scan – to verify their identity. There’s no need to wait in line for a manual check of your driver’s license or passport by a TSA agent.
Once Clear members finish at the kiosk, they feed into the regular TSA baggage scan lines. That means you don’t get the benefits of the government programs like keeping your shoes, belt and jacket on.
How Much Does Clear Cost?
Clear is significantly more expensive than TSA PreCheck or Global Entry with a 2023 fee of $179. You can add up to three people to your membership at a discounted price of $60 each, but that still comes out to about $50 more than four separate TSA PreCheck memberships.
Clear is a lot more expensive over time because you must renew it annually.
Some credit cards do offer credit towards Clear memberships, so you might be able to get that price tag down. And if you’re regularly using a high-traffic airport at peak times, when even PreCheck lines get congested, you can combine Clear and PreCheck to get through security even faster – it’s just a matter of whether you’re willing to fork over the extra cash.
Who Should Get Clear?
Frequent flyers who regularly travel out of large metropolitan airports, such as O’Hare International Airport in Chicago, JFK in New York or MCO in Orlando. Check the list of airports that support Clear here.
If you want to keep your shoes on and your laptop in your bag, couple Clear with PreCheck to get the best of both worlds.
Free Ways to Get Through Airport Security Faster
If none of these options seem to fit you, or you already have one and still feel like it’s too slow, try some of these travel tips for making air travel less painful.
Credit Card Benefits
If you have an airline credit card or other travel-based card, you may automatically qualify as a “preferred traveler” for one or more airlines. Often called “elite status members,” airlines like to make life easy for these people, and will set up express lanes for baggage checking, customer service and even security checkpoints.
If you travel regularly and don’t have one of these cards, consider signing up for one. Many card offers include thousands of miles after you spend a certain amount in the first few months. But note that most travel rewards credit cards charge an annual fee.
Wait, didn’t we say these tips would be free ways to make your trip through security easier? Actually, if you already bought some kind of premium ticket – like a “plus” tier that includes extra legroom or is closer to the front of the cabin – your ticket might include access to your airline’s express lanes in the airport.
Check with the airline directly, as it varies from one carrier to another.
If you’re a preferred traveler from a credit card benefit, you might even be able to get a free upgrade! And if you’re a business traveler or fly first class, you probably have these perks already available to you.
Ditch Paper Boarding Passes
Have you tried to print your boarding pass at the last minute and run out of paper or toner? Or waited in long customer service lines at the airport to get one? Paper boarding passes are a hassle and something you might misplace , causing a security line kerfuffle.
Most airlines have their own apps for your phone or links to download your boarding pass online. These can be downloaded to your smartphone or even smartwatch so you always have them. And you won’t have to waste time standing in line to get a paper ticket printed.
Book Mid-Week Flights
Try to avoid flying on weekends, especially in the evenings; this is when most leisure travelers want to fly. And skip Monday mornings too. That’s when the bulk of business travelers head to the airport.
Booking a mid-week flight might even save you money. Tuesdays and Wednesdays are usually considered the “best” days to fly.
If you’re in the regular TSA security line, remember that you’ll have to take off your shoes, as well as any jacket or belt you might be wearing, before going through the metal detector.
Wear shoes that slip on and off easily and avoid belts if possible…besides, wouldn’t you rather spend your long, boring flight in comfy pants?
Check Your Bags
Remember that any carry-on bags have to go through the x-ray scanner for a security check. Your bag could get randomly pulled, forcing you to wait while an agent combs through your belongings. Plus there’s the restriction on liquids.
If you check your bags, you can skip this step in the security process. And checked bags aren’t subject to the liquid size restrictions for carry-on luggage. You’ll have to wait at baggage claim once you arrive. But you won’t have to lug your suitcase through security and onto the plane yourself. Plus, checked suitcases can be much larger than carry-ons – but don’t overdo it! Airlines have weight limits for checked bags.
This is another time to check your credit card — some offer reimbursement for checked bag fees.
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