Courtesy of TSA
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With TSA PreCheck, travelers can leave their shoes on and their personal devices in their bags when going through security.
Not sure how these trusted traveler programs differ? You’re not alone.
No one likes to waste time in long airport lines—especially when there’s a vacation at the other end. Fortunately, programs like TSA PreCheck, Global Entry, and Clear save travelers time and hassle at the airport. Before takeoff, TSA PreCheck and Clear allow travelers to go through the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) security lines faster. After landing, Global Entry speeds up checks at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) international checkpoints.
But if you’re still unsure of how TSA PreCheck, Global Entry, and Clear are different from one another, read on for an overview of how each program works.
TSA PreCheck, Global Entry, and Clear are all expedited screening programs that help you get through U.S. airport security checkpoints faster. The main difference is that TSA PreCheck and Clear save you time at the initial TSA security screening, while Global Entry speeds up the process at customs after you return to the U.S. from an international destination. Global Entry costs $100 and includes TSA PreCheck, whereas PreCheck on its own is $85. (As of October 1, 2021, the cost to renew your TSA PreCheck membership online dropped to $70.) Both fees are often reimbursed or covered by travel credit cards and both programs are valid for five years.
Clear, which relies on biometric technology to pre-verify ID checks, allows travelers to go directly to baggage screening at TSA checkpoints (though you’ll still need TSA PreCheck if you want to avoid the general security line altogether). Clear is also present in several stadiums and event venues, like Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles and Citi Field in New York City, throughout the United States, extending membership benefits beyond the airport. Clear costs $179 per year, but AFAR readers can get it for just $149 per year with the promo code “AFF149”.
If you’re not sure which one to get, we recommend applying for Global Entry since you can enroll in TSA PreCheck at the same time for an additional $15, essentially bundling the two programs. The only downside is that appointment times for Global Entry application interviews at larger, more trafficked airports can be hard to get (especially now, thanks to COVID-related delays). Interview appointments for Global Entry at smaller airports or for TSA PreCheck only are much easier to find.
If your home airport is one of the dozens with Clear and you’re a frequent traveler, the program is worth signing up for on top of Global Entry and TSA PreCheck—especially if you’ve noticed your TSA PreCheck lines slowly growing as more people get approved and join the program.
First implemented in 2013, TSA PreCheck serves as a way to screen travelers before they arrive at the airport and allow them access to expedited screening through security lanes in more than 200 airports. In TSA PreCheck lines, there’s no need to remove your shoes, belt, or light jacket. Liquids and electronics like tablets and laptops can also stay in your bag, saving travelers time and hassle. Children 12 and under can also go through the expedited line with a guardian who has TSA PreCheck.
To apply for a new TSA PreCheck membership, travelers must undergo a background screening and pay the $85 fee for five years of membership. To renew your membership online, the fee is only $70 now. Many credit cards, such as the Chase Sapphire Reserve, Citi Prestige, and American Express Platinum, will refund the application fee if you pay for it with the card. This is typically an annual benefit, and after you use it for yourself the first year, you can pay for a friend or family member’s application using your card to have it waived too.
There are numerous global enrollment centers, most often at airports, and the fee is worth it for frequent travelers given the shorter lines and streamlined screening process.
Once enrolled, you will be assigned a Known Traveler Number (KTN) that verifies your TSA PreCheck approval status. You can then add the KTN to your frequent flier accounts to make sure it’s applied every time you purchase an airline ticket. Alternatively, you can enter your KTN during the checkout process.
Most domestic airlines and a growing roster of international carriers participate in this program, but it only works on flights within or departing from the United States. If you have successfully entered your KTN, the TSA PreCheck logo will appear on your boarding pass, which indicates that you are eligible for expedited screening through the PreCheck line at airport security.
If you’re approved for PreCheck but don’t see it on your boarding pass, ask an airline agent to try re-entering your KTN or double-check that it has been entered through your airline’s app. Sometimes, the number doesn’t “stick” when the airline reservation is made.
After five years, you can renew TSA PreCheck online—simply fill out a form and pay the new lower $70 fee for online renewals, ideally with a credit card that will reimburse you for it. Members will receive a letter when their KTN is about to expire, but you can also submit a Service Status form to find out online.
Global Entry is designed to provide expedited re-entry into the United States by helping international travelers clear customs faster. It is available at more than 50 U.S. airports, costs $100 to apply (though the CBP has proposed raising the fee to $120), and is valid for five years.
If you are approved, Global Entry includes TSA PreCheck for no additional fee, so you don’t have to apply separately for it. Everyone who has Global Entry gets TSA PreCheck, but not everyone who has TSA PreCheck qualifies for Global Entry. As with TSA PreCheck, many credit cards provide fee waivers to cover the application fee for Global Entry.
Global Entry has a thorough application process that involves a background check and in-person interview after preliminary approval. To schedule an in-person interview, you can book an appointment online—though many airports are experiencing long delays and in some cases the next available appointment may be months out. Those who have been conditionally approved, however, can save time by getting an interview through the “Enrollment on Arrival” program—which is essentially a walk-in appointment available after landing in an international terminal at a participating airport.
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Even after completing all the required steps, though, not everyone will be approved for the program. Those with a criminal history, for example, may not be approved for Global Entry. All Global Entry members must follow the rules and regulations of international travel, including being aware of what they are permitted to bring back to the country. Even the most minor infractions, such as not declaring a piece of fruit when re-entering the United States, could result in the loss of Global Entry.
By scanning fingerprints and answering questions at a Global Entry kiosk, travelers bypass longer queues during the customs process and typically do not have to speak to an immigration officer.
Travelers can renew Global Entry online starting one year before expiration. Some people will have to be interviewed again.
Because CBP is experiencing a backlog of new and renewal applications, it is currently offering a two-year grace period for travelers whose Global Entry has expired. As long as you submit your application for renewal before it expires, the extension will allow you to use Global Entry for two years beyond its expiration date.
Beyond TSA PreCheck and Global Entry, there are a couple other expedited screening options worth noting, including Clear. This program is at more than 50 domestic airports, stadiums, and other venues. Instead of showing identification at the security checkpoint, facial recognition and fingerprint scans are used at the dedicated kiosks in participating airports. Thus, you don’t need to show any identification when traveling through the airport—although it’s wise to carry it as backup.
The easy application process for Clear involves registering your fingerprints and iris (for the facial scan) along with your government-issued identification. You can register online or at an enrollment center, often found at airports, among other locations. Once your biometrics are in the system, you can start using the program the same day.
Once the machine matches your identity with the boarding pass, a Clear agent will whisk you to the front of the security line. If you also have TSA PreCheck, you can take advantage of expedited TSA screening (keeping your shoes, belt, and light jacket on)—but if you don’t, you’ll go through the regular security protocol, just having bypassed the line.
If you aren’t eligible for Global Entry or simply don’t feel like going through the cumbersome application process, Mobile Passport is a helpful free app for speeding past customs at 30 U.S. airports and four seaports. In fact, sometimes the lines for Mobile Passport at the immigration checkpoint are even shorter than the lines for Global Entry.
There is no application process to sign up for Mobile Passport. You simply need to download the app (available for iOS and Android) and set up a profile in it—all of which you can do before your travel date.
Once you land from an international flight, the app asks you the standard customs questions and creates a unique QR code for you to scan when you talk to an immigration officer. All you need is a cellular or Wi-Fi connection to get the QR code when you land—and it only takes about one minute.
This article was published on December 18, 2018. It was updated on August 31, 2021, and again on October 5, 2021, to include new information. Jessie Beck contributed to the reporting of this story.
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