Are you waiting in line at the airport watching others zip through security with less hassle? If you haven’t signed up for a “trusted traveler” program to cut your waiting time, this may be the year to do it.
Consider these figures: The number of airline passengers at U.S. airports hit a high of 895.5 million in 2015 and is on track to surpass that in 2016, according to the latest data available from the Transportation Department’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics.
If those numbers persuade you to sign up, you will have to choose the program that suits your travel style, based on how often you fly, and find out where you will need to go to get fingerprinted. Then you will have to determine whether the benefits will outweigh the cost. With few exceptions, the programs require applicants to be U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents. And even after you are enrolled there are no guarantees that you won’t be selected for further screening from time to time. There are also new concerns after President Donald Trump’s executive order on refugees. Earlier this month, some green card holders were notified that their Global Entry Trusted Traveler Network status had been revoked.
One other factor to consider: As more people sign up, the expedited lines may grow longer.
The biggest of the programs is PreCheck, run by the Transportation Security Administration. The agency says about 12 million people are enrolled, but it would like more travelers to sign up. “Maximizing the use of expedited screening by enabling other lower-risk travelers to receive expedited screening on a flight-by-flight basis is in everyone’s interest as it allows TSA to focus more attention on those we have identified as requiring more scrutiny,” said Michael England, a spokesman for the agency. “Our long-term goal is to have a fully vetted traveling population in the TSA PreCheck lanes.”
Clear, a biometric screening firm that offers a way to cut to the front of security lines, is making a big push into more airports this year with sign-up stations near the security line, and it offers of a free one-month trial.
So which program is best for you? Here is a guide:
Cost: $85 for five years
Best for: Domestic air travelers who lack a passport
What you get: A special indicator on your boarding pass that allows you to use expedited security lines and keep on your shoes, belt and light jacket as well as leave your laptop and clear, quart-size toiletry kit in your bag at more than 180 airports nationwide with 30 airlines. Children ages 12 and younger may also use the TSA PreCheck lane when traveling with parents or guardians who have the indicator on their boarding pass.
You can apply online and make an appointment at one of more than 380 enrollment centers around the country for a background check and fingerprinting. (No passport required — a driver’s license and birth certificate will suffice for identification.)
Within about a week or two, approved applicants receive a “known traveler number,” which must be entered when booking your flight to ensure a TSA PreCheck indicator shows up on your boarding pass.
The system isn’t perfect. Travelers who book their ticket through a third-party website must be extra vigilant to ensure the number is put in correctly or they may be sent to the regular security line. And the expedited security lanes can grow longer than the regular line, especially during peak business travel times.
Frequent fliers who were invited into the PreCheck program free when the program began about five years ago are being phased out of the system, forcing those travelers to pay to continue zipping through security at the airport.
Bottom line: It’s still worth signing up if you fly regularly. If you take only five trips over the next five years, the cost roughly breaks down to less than $10 a flight for less wait time and hassle. Plus, several credit cards and loyalty programs offer to cover the $85 fee or allow members to pay for it with points or miles.
Cost: $100 for five years
Best for: International travelers
What you get: A fast track through U.S. immigration, and TSA PreCheck
Global Entry is a U.S. Customs and Border Protection program that allows preapproved travelers to skip the paperwork and processing lines when returning from international trips. Members go straight to a kiosk to make any customs declarations and have their passport and fingerprint scanned before receiving a receipt and heading to baggage claim and the exit. Members are also automatically enrolled in TSA PreCheck. After applying online, travelers must undergo a background check and are given an appointment for an in-person interview at a Global Entry Enrollment Center at many airports and major cities to answer some questions, scan your fingerprints and get your photo taken. Children traveling with parents must also have an interview and pay the fee for Global Entry. Once enrolled, members can also apply for expedited customs used by other countries, including Britain and South Korea.
Bottom line: If you are considering paying the $85 fee for PreCheck, you may as well pay the extra $15 for Global Entry, especially if you plan to travel internationally within the next five years.
Cost: $179 a year
Best for: Baseball fans, and frequent fliers who fly out of one of Clear’s airport locations
What you get: A quick cut to the front of the security line
Clear is a private trusted-traveler program, sanctioned by the Transportation Security Administration. Instead of waiting for an officer to review your ID and boarding pass, members go to Clear’s lane to have their identity verified by fingerprint or iris scan, then move directly to the metal detectors and bag scanners at the security checkpoint. Those without TSA PreCheck will still have to take off their shoes, pull out their laptops and submit to the usual drill. Clear has lanes at only 20 airports, including major international hubs like San Francisco, Miami and Kennedy in New York. But it is moving into more airports, including Los Angeles and Minneapolis-St. Paul, by the end of the first quarter. Clear is also used at several baseball stadiums, including New York’s Citi Field and Yankee Stadium, to help fans move more quickly through security lines.
Clear promises that the sign-up process, which involves digitally authenticating your driver’s license or passport, confirming your identity and creating your biometric account, takes just five minutes and can be completed on the spot at the airport so new members can skip to the front of the security line immediately. Children younger than 18 can use the Clear lane free when traveling with an enrolled family member, and a spouse or partner can sign up for an extra $50. Delta, which took a 5 percent stake in Clear last year, reimburses the $179 annual fee for its top-tier fliers and offers reduced rates for other loyalty members. Some 800,000 travelers have signed up so far.
Bottom line: With a limited number of airports and a price of $179 a year, Clear doesn’t make a lot of sense for the occasional traveler. But road warriors who regularly fly in and out of airports with Clear can expect to shave down their wait time.
Cost: $50 for five years
Best for: Canadians and Americans who live near the northern border
What you get: Expedited processing at airports and land borders when entering the United States and Canada, plus enrollment in Global Entry and TSA PreCheck. Applicants must schedule an interview at a Nexus enrollment center. The centers are only in Canadian and U.S. cities near the northern border. Once registered, members can use dedicated processing lanes when crossing the northern border, including Nexus kiosks when entering Canada by air and Global Entry kiosks when entering the United States via Canadian preclearance airports. Members also receive expedited processing at marine reporting locations.
Bottom line: If you are paying out of pocket, this is the best deal since Nexus members enjoy the benefits of TSA PreCheck and Global Entry at no additional cost. But it doesn’t make sense to enroll unless you live near a Nexus enrollment center.