Airport security is a breeze...said no one ever! Air travel, especially in 2022, is rebounding swiftly but not without the incredible (re)growing pains associated with airport logistics. Even at the best airports in the United States, it seems like the recommended time to arrive at the airport is getting earlier and earlier. Long lines at the check-in counter, bag drops, and security make it feel like you're never at the airport early enough... even if you have all the airport hacks on hand!
If you're someone who travels by plane more than once a year, it may be the right time to invest in an expedited security program (also known as a Trusted Traveler Program) to get you through some of these hard travel spots. Nowadays, though, there's more than one choice to investigate, and the savvy traveler must choose the one that fits their travel and financial needs the best. Between TSA PreCheck, Global Entry, and CLEAR, which one suits you the best?
What Is TSA PreCheck?
The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) PreCheck program is a federally organized scheme that allows for expedited entry through security at over 200 airports across the country. In order to enroll, a prospective participant submits an application online via the official website. After a conditional acceptance, you make an appointment at an enrollment center for an in-person interview. These centers are often in major airports or at highly-trafficked land crossings. Once you obtain a Known Traveler Number (KTN)--sometimes this takes a few days up to a couple of months--you input this number upon any airline booking. This number is good for five years from number assignment, at which point you need to renew your participation in the program.
Pros Of TSA PreCheck
First, the widespread availability of TSA PreCheck is the most obvious pro of this first program. As a program organized by and facilitated through the federal government, over 80 airlines and over 200 airports have a TSA PreCheck lane dedicated to expedited security. The TSA PreCheck's website boasts that as of July 2022, 95% of TSA PreCheck holders only waited five minutes or less to get through security. PreCheck holders can get through security without having to take out electronics or toiletries or take off articles of clothing like shoes, belts, and jewelry.
TSA PreCheck is also the most budget-friendly option and works well for people who predominantly travel domestically. For five years of eligibility, the fee is only $85.
Cons Of TSA PreCheck
While the availability of use once you receive your Known Traveler Number, especially for the price you pay, makes TSA PreCheck a great option, the availability to enroll once getting your conditional letter is a true con of this program. Some enrollment centers, especially at major hub airports, have their appointments booked up for the rest of the year and into the next...so if you're hoping for an immediate turnaround, you may have to travel to a different enrollment center than the one closest to you.
Also, with this program gaining popularity in years past, the TSA PreCheck lane sometimes may actually have a slightly longer line than even regular security. So while you have that KTN, it's no guarantee that you'll get through faster. In fact, having a KTN is no guarantee of TSA PreCheck at all; the TSA can omit the assignment of that illustrious green check mark on your boarding pass if, for some reason, they see fit. This is rare, but a con that may take you by surprise if you only air travel once or twice a year domestically, and for some reason, you don't get PreCheck on one of those flights.
Then, What's Global Entry?
Global Entry, much like its domestic cousin TSA PreCheck, is a government-organized program facilitated by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. This version can be utilized by international passengers arriving in the United States. Once landing, Global Entry enrollees can participate in expedited arrival procedures via an automated kiosk, your passport, and fingerprinting. Much like obtaining TSA PreCheck, you fill out an online application and then submit it to an in-person interview before being approved.
Pros Of Global Entry
Where TSA PreCheck is focused on domestic travel, Global Entry accommodates international travelers entering into or back into the U.S. via 50 American airports. You can even participate in pre-clearance Global Entry procedures at over two dozen international airports. This can be especially appealing for travelers between the U.S. and Canada as many of these airports include the major airports in Canada. With your Global Entry approval, you also receive TSA PreCheck, so you get both the international and national benefits from enrolling in this program. At some major airports, you may also enroll upon arrival.
Cons Of Global Entry
Global Entry suffers some of the same cons as TSAPreCheck, given they are both facilitated through the federal government and some procedural perks are, in fact, exactly the same. Snagging an enrollment interview or taking advantage of enrollment upon arrival has been harder lately than in years past, so again here, you'll need to plan far ahead to get your Known Traveler Number in time for your next trip. The same pitfall of wait times at security applies to Global Entry as TSA PreCheck, too, since, again, you also get PreCheck with this program.
Global Entry is also not as budget-friendly as TSA PreCheck. While you do get the same eligibility period of five years, Global Entry will set you back $100 rather than $85--though an additional $15 to participate in both expedited international arrival processes and TSA PreCheck lines aren't as bad as it could be.
The New Kid On The Block: CLEAR
You may have started seeing those funny-looking, white pod-like kiosks alongside regular airport security lines lately. Those belong to CLEAR, a newer addition to the expedited security line game. Created by a private company that's partnering with various airports around the country, CLEAR utilizes your boarding pass and biometric scanning (either eyes or fingers) to get you through the security line fast (no ID required!). First, you enroll initially online, much like the other programs, and then you go to a CLEAR enrollment center to finish the process at participating airports.
Pros Of CLEAR
Where TSA PreCheck and Global Entry fall short, CLEAR beats both programs swiftly. CLEAR's enrollment process isn't dependent on the availability of appointments, so it's possible for you to get cleared with CLEAR within days. Once you complete the online enrollment portion, you simply go to the CLEAR center (usually the cluster of pods near security) to finish your enrollment--no appointment is necessary!
CLEAR virtually never has a wait to use its kiosks, so it also bypasses the problem of regular security times outpacing PreCheck security times... you'll be breezing past it all! Also, because its use is not limited to border crossings, CLEAR kiosks can also be found at some sports and concert venues too!
Cons Of CLEAR
The major drawback of CLEAR is its hefty price tag-- $189 a year! Now, if you have an American Express Card or are a mileage rewards member for Delta or United, there are discounts available. You can also add family members or friends to your CLEAR account for $60 per person, so it is possible to share this fee with others.
But here comes another con-- though you get through the document check part of security quickly, the actual security screening still applies to CLEAR users. This means, that if you don't have TSA PreCheck (it is possible to double-dip and be enrolled in both programs, however), then you still have to go through the arduous process of removing liquids, electronics, shoes, etc. CLEAR has stated that they hope to forge a formal partnership with TSA PreCheck in the future, however, so this concern may become moot in years to come.
The last major con of CLEAR is its availability at airports--or lack, therefore-- and the fact it is run through a company; though getting enrolled is a breeze compared to other options, the program isn't implemented in as many airports since it wasn't rolled out by the government. However, the company does have a presence at most major hubs, so many airline passengers are covered.