A guide to the application process, pricing, and benefits of the most widely used trusted traveler programs.
No one likes to waste time in long airport security lines—especially when there’s a vacation waiting. Expedited security screening cuts down on wait times and is one of the best things to happen to road warriors in some time (aside from improved elite status perks and flat-bed seats). There are a variety of programs that will help you speed through the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA’s) security lines and through the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s international checkpoints. Here’s how to figure out which airport security program is best for you.
TSA PreCheck is the most prevalent program, available in more than 200 airports across the country, and it provides expedited screening through security lanes. It was first implemented in 2011 as a way to prescreen travelers before they arrived at the airport. In the TSA PreCheck lines, there’s no need to remove your shoes, belt, or light jacket; liquids and electronics like tablets and laptops can stay in your bag.
To apply for this program, travelers must undergo a background screening and pay the $85 fee for five years of membership. There are numerous global enrollment centers, most often at airports, and the modest fee is worth it for frequent travelers given the typically shorter lines and streamlined screening process.
Many credit cards, such as the Chase Sapphire Reserve, Citi Prestige, and American Express Platinum, will refund the $85 application fee if you pay for TSA PreCheck 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.
Once enrolled, you will be assigned a Known Traveler Number that verifies your TSA PreCheck approval status. You should make sure that number is listed in your frequent flyer accounts and online reservations so that you can take advantage of it. 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. With a Known Traveler Number, 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.
One handy tip: If you’re approved for PreCheck but don’t see it on your boarding pass, ask an airline agent to try re-entering your Known Traveler Number. Sometimes, the number doesn’t “stick” when the airline reservation is made. Make sure your date of birth is correct in the reservation and that your name is spelled properly, or PreCheck won’t show up on your boarding pass.
If your whole family doesn’t have TSA PreCheck, send the bags with the approved family member to save time. Children 12 and under can also go through the expedited line with a guardian who has TSA PreCheck.
Global Entry is the most robust trusted traveler program, with a thorough application process. It involves a background check, and not everyone is approved for the program. (Those with a criminal history, for example, may not be approved for Global Entry.) After preliminary approval, travelers must go through an in-person interview before they get Global Entry, which lasts five years.
If you are approved, Global Entry includes TSA PreCheck, 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. Many credit cards provide fee waivers to cover the application fee for Global Entry, which costs $100 for five years.
Global Entry is only beneficial to international travelers because it is designed to provide expedited re-entry into the United States. 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. 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.
Global Entry is currently available at more than 50 U.S. airports.
Beyond TSA PreCheck and Global Entry, there are a couple other expedited screening options worth noting, including CLEAR. This program is at more than two dozen domestic airports. 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 might be wise to carry it as backup.
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.
The easy application process 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. It costs $179 per year, but Delta is treating its Diamond Medallion travelers to free membership. Other Medallion members can take advantage of a price discount when they sign up.
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 (available for iOS and Android) for speeding past customs at 25 U.S. airports. 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 set up a profile via the app, including submitting your passport information. 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.