What You Need to Know About TSA PreCheck
Want to breeze past long security lines? This expedited security fast pass may be just the ticket.
Make your trips to the airport more efficient and less stressful.(Getty Images)
Even if you don't fly often, it's easy to see the appeal of paying an $85 enrollment fee to dodge lengthy airport security lines, keep your shoes on and your electronics stowed away and then zip through to your gate. Add in the fact that TSA PreCheck is available with 18 participating carriers, including international airlines such as Lufthansa and Aeromexico, at more than 180 hubs across the country, and you may be compelled to sign up, stat.
But before you submit your application, there are a few essential points to understand about the enrollment process, added status perks and key differentiators between PreCheck and U.S. Customs and Border Protection Trusted Traveler programs such as Global Entry and Clear. For this reason, U.S. News sought guidance from a TSA official and top industry experts to pinpoint the pros and cons of the program – and top criteria to consider before signing up.
Why You Should Enroll in TSA PreCheck or Another Trusted Traveler Program
Aside from the perk of using expedited security lanes, PreCheck and other preflight risk assessment screening programs offer added convenience to many passengers, eliminating the need to remove your valuables, shoes, belts and quart-sized bag of liquids from your carry-on. "For a traveler who travels once or twice a year, it's advantageous," says Don Lombardo, a TSA program analyst. Plus, the $85 enrollment fee is valid for five years, he adds, noting that the program can be beneficial for casual leisure and business travelers alike and that the average wait time for the more than 3 million fliers enrolled in TSA PreCheck has been less than five minutes in 2016.
While you can't circumvent the lines completely and you still have to empty everything out of your pockets, a key advantage is that you can keep your laptop in your bag without worrying that somebody might walk away with it past security, says George Hobica, founder of Airfarewatchdog.com. Also keep in mind that travelers ages 12 and under can take advantage of expedited security when accompanied by a parent or guardian with PreCheck status, explains Michael Holtz, the owner and founder of SmartFlyer, a travel company specializing in air travel.
Beyond deciding whether you should enroll in a trusted travel program, it's important to determine which program is right for you based on your travel patterns. "I recommend Global Entry over PreCheck," Hobica says. For an additional $15, Global Entry automatically enrolls fliers in TSA PreCheck and enables them to check in with their Trusted Travel pin information and a fingerprint scan at a kiosk, allowing them to skip lengthy immigration lines entirely when departing or returning from the U.S. Another expedited security program, Clear, which requires a $179 annual fee, allows you to bypass security at more than 15 airports across the U.S. and register family members for an additional annual $50 fee per person (kids ages 18 and under can enroll for free). Meanwhile, the Nexus program offers expedited screening for preapproved, low-risk fliers traveling into the U.S. and Canada for a $50 one-time enrollment fee.
How to Sign Up
The top requirements for TSA PreCheck are that you must be a U.S. citizen and lawful, permanent resident, Lombardo explains. Simply pre-enroll online and submit biographical information, and once you're approved, you can go online and schedule an appointment at one of the more than 380 enrollment centers across the country. By pre-enrolling, "you can be in and out in about five minutes," Lombardo says, noting that you'll need to provide proof of identity, payment and undergo fingerprinting during the criminal background check, and when approved you'll receive a written notice indicating your known traveler number that will serve as your TSA PreCheck credentials. Once you receive this number, you can easily add it to your reservations when you book upcoming flights to ensure your ticket indicates you're preapproved. Also, keep in mind, if you're a frequent flier, you can often get the PreCheck application fee waived with a variety of traveler rewards credit cards and frequent flier programs, Holtz says. The Citi Prestige and Chase Sapphire Preferred cards, for example, both offer a $100 credit for Global Entry (and automatically cover the fee for TSA PreCheck). The Platinum Card from American Express, for instance, allows you to recoup the $85 application charge for PreCheck, along with the fee for Global Entry.
What Happens After You Enroll
"At the end of the day, it just makes your life easier," Holtz says. Once you're accepted, you can simply punch in your Trusted Traveler number at the kiosk and head to designated PreCheck lanes at participating airports. Though PreCheck lines can be long during peak travel periods, it's still worthwhile to have access to a speedier security clearance rather than no opportunity for an expedited airport screening, he adds.
The only downside: "TSA PreCheck lines aren't at every airport," Hobica says, noting that they're not necessarily open all day either. "It's not a panacea, but it is a great convenience," he says. You will need to present your ID and boarding pass, but you can keep your valuables, electronics and TSA-approved liquids stowed away. Overall, it's a great benefit and "reduces some of the stress when you travel," Lombardo adds.
How to Get the Most Out of the Program
"PreCheck only works when you're going through security in the U.S.," Holtz cautions. If you travel internationally often or occasionally, Global Entry can be a much greater value. Say you're taking a family trip abroad and returning on a Sunday in summer along with many other U.S. citizens, Holtz explains. The process of getting through customs can be a much smoother and speedier process with Global Entry's automated process, which mitigates congestion, he says.
And while many travelers were outraged by the long wait times this past summer, TSA PreCheck lines have become shorter, and experts expect this trend to continue as long as the TSA continues to add full-time officers to meet demand. "They have to add more staff," Hobica says. "More importantly, they have to retain the staff that they have," he adds. Still, we can all help everyone zip through security in TSA and standard lines by being polite and making TSA officials' jobs easier, Hobica says.
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