Photo credit: freeimages.com/nina chantrasmi
If you’re a frequent traveler, you have one goal when you get to that airport.
GET THROUGH THAT SECURITY LINE.
And more importantly, you want to get through it quickly and quietly without having to completely disrobe. So what’s a traveler to do? What’s the quickest way to get through the security line and what’s the best way? That all depends on the type of traveler you are.
Please note that the following programs are geared primarily (although not exclusively) toward United States Citizens. If you have tips for non-US citizens, I’d love to hear them!
Regular Old Security Line
The good news is that there is absolutely nothing special that you need to do to have the privilege of going through the regular old security line. But if you’re someone who doesn’t travel too often, it’s good to know exactly what you’re getting yourself into.
Getting Approved: Did you buy an airline ticket? Are you breathing? Then you’re approved. But there’s one problem. See those long security lines? That’s where you’re going.
The Procedure: You get in line, usually a long line, with a wide variety of travelers (i.e., people who know what they’re doing and people who most decidedly do NOT know what they’re doing).
Upon reaching the x-ray machine, you’ll have to remove several items to be placed on the belt:
- Your shoes, your belt, your jacket (even the light ones)
- Your laptop, from whatever carrying case it’s in, place it in a separate bin
- Your see-through quart-size bag of liquids, aerosols, gels, creams and pastes (each no more than 3.4 oz) for all the world to see
Once you send your items on the way, you stand in the Full Body Scanner that uses non-ionizing electromagnetic radiation and low dose penetrating radiation to make sure you’re not carrying any suspicious items.
Sound fun? It’s not but it’s a necessary evil to get to your gate. Just make sure you allow plenty of time because neither the fellow passengers nor the TSA agents generally care if you’re running late (ask me how I know).
Best for: Occasional travelers (1-2 times per year), leisure travelers
Cost: Your time (make sure you have lots of it)
TSA PreCheck (also known as TSA Pre✓®)
Remember the first time those words magically appeared on your boarding pass and you were ushered through the security line with hardly a blink? And then you swore you would do whatever it took to have that experience every single time you traveled.
Or at least that’s how I felt when I signed up for TSA PreCheck a few years ago.
Getting Approved: You must apply online and schedule an appointment at a TSA Enrollment Center. At your appointment, you’ll submit some information, a few documents, and your fingerprints. Once your background check is complete (assuming there are no red flags), you’ll be approved with a KTN (Known Traveler Number) that can be used during ticket purchase to assure your TSA PreCheck status.
With the correct indication on your boarding pass, meaning you have successfully entered your KTN for a participating airline), you’ll be allowed to use the TSA Precheck line at any airport that has it (Note: not all airports participate in the program, particularly small airports).
The Procedure: This time, leave your laptop in your bag, keep your light jacket and shoes on, and shun the full body scanner for a simple metal detector. Just note that the same rules apply for the amount of liquids you can take with you – you just don’t have to pull that see-through bag out for all the world to see.
Best for: Business travelers, frequent leisure travelers
Cost: $85 for a 5 year membership (that’s only $17 per year); children 12 and under are eligible when traveling with an approved parent
Let’s say you not only travel a few times a year but some of those times are international flights (even if you’re coming home from the Caribbean or Canada). If you’ve done that, you know that the time spent clearing U.S. Customs and Immigration can be quick and painless (if you’re extremely lucky) or incredibly long and drawn out if too many flights arrive at the same time.
Global Entry is your ticket to fast track your way through Customs and Immigration.
Getting Approved: Much like TSA PreCheck, you’ll need to apply online, schedule an in-person interview, and then show up for your appointment before being approved. Unlike TSA PreCheck, your application fee is non-refundable, even if you’re rejected.
If you are approved, you use your Global Entry membership ID just like a KTN to ensure you get your TSA PreCheck status to expedite the security line.
The Procedure: As long as you see that TSA PreCheck on your boarding pass, you get in the TSA line just like all the other PreCheckers and the same rules apply. But coming home, things get a little easier.
Upon return to the United States, look for the Global Entry lines at Immigration. Instead of waiting in a long line, you head straight to the Global Entry kiosk, insert your passport, and hold your fingers out ready for scanning. With your printed receipt, you head right to baggage claim, collect your bag (if you checked one), and hand your receipt to the Customs agent on the way out (no more filling out forms on the airplane!).
Best for: Any frequent traveler that plans at least one international trip in the next 5 years
Cost: $100 application fee applies to a 5 year membership if approved; children must have their own Global Entry
You may be hearing more about CLEAR but still be unclear about what exactly it is. It’s currently available in 65+ airports across the United States, including my home airport of BWI (Baltimore-Washington International Airport). My husband recently upgraded his TSA PreCheck status to include CLEAR and he was thrilled but there’s a lot to know before you make this hefty investment.
Getting Approved: The process for CLEAR is much simpler than the others. It starts with a simple online form to enter you into their system and pay for the enrollment fee. Or, if you visit one of the participating airports, you can skip this step and do it all in person.
Either way, your next step is to meet with a CLEAR Ambassador who is usually parked near the CLEAR lanes. There, they will walk you through your profile set-up which includes scanning your biometrics, in this case, an iris scan and a fingerprint scan.
Yes, this is some serious James Bond stuff.
The Procedure: This is important to know. The ONLY thing that CLEAR does for you is bypass the TSA Agent checking your boarding pass and ID. But that also means that you bypass the longest part of the line in the first place.
If you have no other security clearance, you’ll still go through the security checkpoint and scanners. If you do have TSA PreCheck, you’ll go through the expedited security scanning.
Finally! No waiting! But it comes at a cost.
Best for: Frequent travelers or travelers who are always running late
Cost: $179 for an adult traveler for a 1 year membership; additional adults memberships are $50; children under 18 are eligible with an approved parent
My advice: if you’re going looking to speed up your airport security line experience and need to start somewhere, go for Global Entry. It gets you all the advantages of TSA PreCheck for $15 more and will make traveling internationally that much easier. And if you have money to blow, sign up for CLEAR. I wouldn’t foot the bill for $179 but since my husband already did, I’m happy to try it for another $50!
I’d love to hear your advice on how you fly through the security lines at any airport.