Picture this, you’re on your way back from a vacation somewhere outside of the United States. There are a few hundred people walking quickly to get to Customs so they start their trek back home. About 90% of the people on your flight get into one line to get through Customs but you notice that there are few people going to those kiosks to the side then walking up to an almost empty (separate) Customs line, talking to the Customs officer briefly, then breezing through. All this, while you wait in line behind about 100+ people.
Sound familiar to anyone?
Those folks going to the kiosks, they have Global Entry. This also means that they have TSA PreCheck. Confusing? Let us explain.
Global Entry, TSA PreCheck, and more recently Clear, are all programs targeted at making your travel life easier. Below we outline the benefits of each and make a few recommendations.
TSA PreCheck allows you to “skip the line” at airport security (aka TSA). Most airports now have at least one dedicated TSA PreCheck line where they check your digital (or print) boarding pass for the TSA PreCheck logo and if you have it, you typically get through security a little bit faster. No taking your shoes, belt, or hat off. No need to take your laptop out of your bag. It’s like the VIP line at your favorite club in the hood but you can go through the metal detectors without emptying your pockets.
The biggest drawback to the program is that you apply online, pay a non-refundable fee, and then you have to do an in-person interview (“background check”) where you’re asked a few silly questions that you simply answer truthfully and you’re good-to-go.
From there, you will be issued a Known Traveler Number (KTN) and you can enter this when making flight bookings and (participating airlines) will then include the TSA PreCheck logo on your boarding pass.
Duration: 5 years
This is the program you MUST ENROLL IN if you travel out of the country “frequently” (more than 3 times per year). Global Entry gets you quick access back into the USA (and entry into some other countries) without having to wait in long lines at Customs. The way it works is, you walk up to a Global Entry kiosk, scan your passport, scan your fingerprints, answer a few questions, and the kiosk takes a picture of you and prints it out on a slip that you take to the Customs agent before being let back into the U.S. It all takes about 5-10 minutes to get yourself back into the country rather than waiting in a long line to clear Customs. AND, you don’t have to fill out that silly declarations form on your flight!
The biggest drawback to the program (just like TSA PreCheck) is that you apply online, pay the fee, and go through an in-person interview/background check. Another somewhat annoying drawback is that at times, you can clear Customs so quickly that you beat your luggage to the baggage claim. Which means that you could potentially be waiting at baggage claim so long that you’re there when everyone that went through normal Customs line clears Customs. It’s a little annoying but it also depends on the airport you’re coming home to and the airline you’re traveling on (hey Spirit, is that you?). The biggest and most overwhelming advantage of this program however, is that you get TSA PreCheck built in for only $15 more!
Duration: 5 years
Clear is the latest program to enter the “make your airport experience less of a pain” space. It allows you to literally skip the line altogether at airport security. JUST THE LINE THOUGH, not the actual security cheeck! The way this program works is that you go to a Clear kiosk near the security line entrance, scan your eye (sounds fun, right) and your fingerprint. From there, a Clear team representative escorts you to the front of the security line right to the person that checks your ID and boarding pass. You will still have to go through security though so you may want to combine Clear with TSA PreCheck. Clear is slowly being adopted in various airports across the country.
Cost: $179/year and you can add family members for $50/year
Duration: Annually renewable
- Get Global Entry whether you travel internationally on a regular basis or not. It comes with TSA PreCheck and if you’re going to sit through the TSA PreCheck background check you may as well get Global Entry, just in case you decide you wanna venture out of the country at some point.
- If you don’t care to travel outside the United States, TSA PreCheck is just fine.
- At $179/year just to skip the line, Clear is probably not worth it. I will admit however that I came super close to missing a flight once, paid for Clear just to skip the to the front of the security line, barely made my flight, landed, and promptly called and cancelled Clear the same day (no refund though). I’m not saying that in a pinch you should pay $179 for Clear (effectively adding $179 to your flight cost) and then cancel the same day, but ummm yeah it saved me having to pay for another flight later that same day or arrive later than I wanted/had to.
In general, if you travel frequently it makes sense to enroll in one or more of these programs to help make your airport experience more seamless. Air travel is much less about the journey to get to your destination than it is about your destination, but making your journey to your destination as painless as possible always helps!