Let’s be honest: airport security and traveling through airports is kind of a pain. Through often-time no fault of the hard-working Transportation Security Authority (TSA) agents, travelers often deal with long lines both before they take off and, if they’re traveling internationally, when they land. Over the past several years, though, a number of programs have popped up with the goal of helping to ease those woes and make the airport security processes faster and more efficient. If you’re a somewhat regular traveler, there’s value in each of these programs — but how do they differ and which is right for you? Let’s break it down.
Cost: $85 for 5 years
TSA PreCheck is the largest and likely most well-known airport security program, with more than 7 million members. Membership gets you into a separate security line at participating airport terminals and a more efficient screening process that allows you to keep shoes, belts and light jackets on, and laptops and liquids in your bag. “For busy people who are often pressed to get to the airport early enough, TSA PreCheck is a huge timesaver, both in terms of the length of the line and in how long it takes you to leave the security area because you don’t have to put things back in your suitcase and retie your shoes,” said Damian McCabe, CEO of McCabe World Travel. “Also, people in TSA PreCheck tend to travel more and be a bit more savvy about how to get through quickly, [such as]...taking off heavy metal jewelry.”
PreCheck costs $85 for a five-year membership, though many credit cards and loyalty programs cover that fee or allow members to use reward points to pay it. To enroll in PreCheck, you’ll have to fill out an online application and schedule an in-person appointment (which TSA estimates to be about 10 minutes), which will include a background check and fingerprinting. Once you clear that process, you’ll receive a Known Traveler Number; include it when making all of your airline reservations and the PreCheck logo should appear on your boarding pass. TSA PreCheck is currently available with 56 airlines at more than 200 airports. “Remember that TSA PreCheck requires the airlines to opt in, so it is not offered for every single departure airline,” McCabe pointed out. “But more are added all the time.”
Cost: $179 for 1 year
CLEAR is a privately run program (unlike PreCheck, which is a government program) that lets you bypass the usual security lines (including the PreCheck line) and ID checks that occur before the physical screening. Head to the dedicated CLEAR lane, where your identity will be verified not using your physical ID (like a driver’s license or passport), but by a fingerprint or iris scan (fancy). After that, a CLEAR representative will take you past the other lines and straight to your physical screening.
Once you’re at that point, though, you’ll have to go through the regular screening (removing liquids, laptops, shoes and the like) unless you also have PreCheck — which means you can enroll in both programs and use them together for shorter lines and easier screenings. “If you fly out of a busy airport...having CLEAR cuts down on [security] time even more” when combined with PreCheck, McCabe said.
To join CLEAR, you can either register online and then finish the process (including doing those initial biometric scans) at a CLEAR location or just do the whole thing in person. The biggest downsides to CLEAR are its cost ($179 per year, or $99 for Delta SkyMiles members) and its limited availability (it’s currently only offered in about 40 U.S. airports) — but if it’s available at an airport you fly through regularly and in your budget, it can be a huge timesaver.
Cost: $100 for 5 years
Global Entry is another government program, run by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), geared toward international travelers. With a Global Entry membership, you skip the usual customs lines and paperwork upon arriving to the U.S. from an international trip. Instead, just head to a designated kiosk, scan your passport or U.S. permanent resident card and fingerprints, and answer a few of the usual customs questions (like if you have anything to declare). From there, you’ll get a receipt that allows you to swiftly exit when you show it to the CBP officer in line.
In addition to the U.S., Global Entry offers expedited entry benefits in a handful of additional countries. The program also includes TSA PreCheck benefits, which many believe makes the $15 additional cost worth it. “I [would] do Global Entry versus TSA Pre on the off chance that you might do international travel once or twice a year, or possibly do it more often in the future,” McCabe said. “At only $100 ($20 [per] year), this is a bargain as it gives you a benefit on both ends of your trip.” Plus, like PreCheck, several credit cards cover the fee.
Global Entry is available to not only U.S. citizens and permanent residents, but also citizens of several additional countries. Similar to PreCheck, you’ll need to apply first online before completing a brief, in-person interview.
Mobile Passport Control
Mobile Passport Control (MPC) is yet another government-run program aimed at cutting down the time you’ll spend at Customs and Border Protection checkpoints upon arriving into the U.S. This one requires you to use an app that securely stores some basic profile information (like your photo and passport number), and prompts you to answer the same questions that are on the traditional paper customs declaration when you arrive in the U.S. After you answer those questions, the app will generate a QR code, which you’ll show to the CBP officer on duty after going through the designated Mobile Passport line (often shorter than the standard lines). “While Global Entry used to really cut down immigration time when returning to the U.S., I find that the free Mobile Passport app is just as quick,” McCabe said. “However, the latter isn’t available at all re-entry airports yet.”
Indeed, MPC is only currently available at 26 U.S. airports. If your home airport or one you regularly travel through is on the list, there certainly are benefits — namely the free cost and the fact that it doesn’t require a background check or interview. If you travel with your family, MPC also allows you to include everyone’s profile in one transaction, so each person doesn’t have to use the app or answer the questions. That said, unlike Global Entry, you’ll still need to have your information manually processed by a CBP officer who will look at your passport and possibly ask you a couple questions; and the app is available to fewer people. As of now, MPC can only be used by U.S. citizens (but not permanent residents) and Canadian visitors.
Ultimately, McCabe said she recommends “Global Entry paired with Clear,” but the best way to figure out what is right for you is to consider your usual travel habits and circumstances and weigh the costs and benefits against that information.