On the average person’s list of “favorite activities,” waiting in airport security or passport control lines generally ranks somewhere between paying bills and working off a wicked hangover. It’s one of those necessary evils that we must suffer through in order to have that next awesome travel experience. Fortunately, though, there are two main ways to make these activities much less time-consuming. TSA PreCheck and Global Entry are application-based programs that provide approved travelers with the enviable position of shorter lines before a flight and faster exits from the arrivals terminal. Here’s the lowdown on the two programs and which one is the better option for you.
What TSA PreCheck is and when it’s the best option
TSA PreCheck is a program started and managed by, you guessed it, the Transportation Security Administration. To join, you must apply online and pass an in-person interview with a TSA agent. Once a member, you’ll receive a “Known Traveler Number” that identifies you to the agency each time you fly. This number can be added — by you — to boarding passes when you purchase a flight so that when you get to the security line, you’re allowed to head into that highly desired shorter line located adjacent to the main security line. The program was designed to make the airport process smoother for US-based frequent fliers as they hop between airports.
It also saves you from having to undress at security. Even your shoes can stay on your feet, your laptop in your bag, and your liquid toiletries safely zipped away in their pouch. If you’re a business traveler who routinely flies around the US, the program is actually quite effective in cutting your wait time — according to the agency’s website, PreCheck members waited in security lines for less than five minutes on average in October of 2019. Nearly all US airlines recognize and accept Known Traveler Numbers on their boarding passes and the designated checkpoints are available at over 200 airports nationwide. But therein lies its limitation. The biggest downside of TSA PreCheck is that it only works domestically.
Cost: $85 for a five-year membership
How to apply:
- Head to the TSA website.
- Create an account, enter your information, and answer the questions.
- The agency will conduct a background check and then schedule you for an in-person interview with an agent at the nearest TSA office.
What Global Entry is and why it’s the better option for international travelers
Global Entry is part of the US Customs and Border Protection’s Trusted Traveler Programs. Members are granted expedited security clearance upon entering the US from abroad because the agency already has a basic file compiled on each member that brands them as a “low risk” traveler. Once in the program, instead of joining the main customs declaration line, you’ll head to a designated kiosk to make any declarations and pass through passport control upon arriving on an international flight. The biggest bonus here is that Global Entry also includes TSA PreCheck, meaning there’s no reason to join both programs. Once approved for Global Entry, you’ll receive a card to keep with your passport along with the perk of expedited wait times on both sides of your travel. From the traveler’s perspective, the general airport security process for domestic flights works the same as TSA PreCheck — allowing you to access the restricted security line.
Because Global Entry is designed for international travelers, membership benefits are available whether you arrive by plane, boat, or overland travel. You’ll see Global Entry kiosks at international arrival points throughout the US. This program is worth the investment for US citizens who travel abroad more than once per year. If you’re a regular global vagabond, you’d be a fool not to apply.
Cost: $100 for a five-year membership, including TSA PreCheck
How to apply:
- Create an account with Trusted Traveler Programs.
- Pass a background check and complete an in-person interview with US Customs and Border Protection. You’ll likely need to visit an international airport to do the interview, though the agency has a list of locations on its website.
Other airport security hacks
For those not wanting to shell out the dough to shorten their wait times, these two mobile apps can also save you precious minutes:
- MyTSA app — The TSA posts current wait times at most major airports on this app, available for both iOS and Android. It also offers handy guides to what can and can’t fly, as well as delays and cancellations.
- Mobile Passport — If you’re a US citizen and travel abroad frequently, download this app from US Customs and Border Protection immediately. It is essentially a digitized version of passport control, allowing travelers to waive the paper declaration form on their return flights to the US. Because of this, you can skip the first checkpoint, which typically has the longest wait time, once you enter the customs area at a US international airport. You’ll typically see a sign directing those with Mobile Passport to a separate line. If you don’t, ask an agent.