There’s nothing worse than arriving to the airport only to be greeted by a crowd of people snaking through long security lines. Luckily, U.S. Borders and Customs offers a few options for travelers willing to go through extra screening to be deemed a “low-risk traveler.”
“You go through a process to be vetted and cleared by the government and deemed a lower security risk, and in exchange, you have a less onerous security process,” says Gary Leff, founder of the travel blog View From the Wing.
The numbers speak for themselves. According to TSA data, 90% of passengers traveling with TSA PreCheck, a government-run expedited security screening, reported waiting five minutes or less in February 2023.
There’s a myriad of services that allow customers to skip the line when traveling, but which ones are worth it? Here are the options to consider.
The application process for TSA PreCheck is simple: travelers submit a five-minute online application and schedule an in-person background check and fingerprinting appointment at an enrollment center. According to the TSA website, most applicants receive their Known Traveler Number (KTN) in 3-5 days. Travelers simply enter their KTN when booking their airline reservations and a PreCheck indicator will show up on the boarding pass.
For a $78 fee, TSA PreCheck allows users to zip through security in most airports in the U.S. without removing their shoes, laptop, liquids, belt and light jacket for five years. Children under 12 are able to enter the PreCheck line with you, without being enrolled in the program.
“It usually also entails a shorter line than standard security because each person goes through more quickly without the need to go through the same process of taking as many things out,” says Leff.
Global Entry and NEXUS
Two other options, NEXUS and Global Entry, provide all the benefits of PreCheck and then some. NEXUS members receive expedited border control through the U.S.-Canada border for five years with a $50 fee, while Global Entry allows expedited entry for U.S. citizens and permanent residents entering the U.S.
Global Entry costs a one-time, $100 dollar fee for five years, compared to $78 for five years of PreCheck.
U.S. citizens, U.S. permanent residents, and citizens of several foreign partner countries can apply by submitting an online application and then scheduling an in-person interview at a Global Entry or NEXUS Enrollment Center.
Another option for travelers looking to cut the line is CLEAR, a service that uses biometrics to confirm passenger’s identities and bring them to the front of the line. The program comes with some drawbacks—like the steeper price of $189 a year without partnership discounts—and the fact that the company, which United Airlines and Delta both have stakes in, won’t be found in any terminal hubs run by American Airlines.
There’s no waiting around for an appointment when applying for CLEAR; simply apply at an airport kiosk next time you fly. Even better, if you show up to the airport and see a particularly long line, Leff says you can sign up for CLEAR on the spot and use it immediately to skip the queue.
Which one works best?
Leff says there is one option that stands apart from the rest for frequent international travelers. “If you’re going to do one, I would do Global Entry if you’re eligible,” says Leff. “It’s the better deal if you’re ever going to leave the U.S.”
Leff also says that some travelers can gain from enrolling in multiple services. “If you are a frequent traveler, then Global Entry and CLEAR can be worthwhile together, because PreCheck lines can get long,” he says.
Ultimately, he says, it all comes down to some simple equations. “Do the math,” he says. “How many times do you travel and what is the value of your time?”