Waiting in security lines at the airport has to be on the list of least enjoyable things about traveling in 2023. It’s right up there with traffic jams and canceled reservations.
But it doesn’t have to be that way!
Thanks to three very affordable programs, you could be skipping to the front of airport security lines.
In this article, I’ll lay out what each offers and try to help you pick which membership is right for you.
Table of Contents
Quick Comparison: TSA PreCheck® vs. Global Entry vs. CLEAR
Before we get into the details of each program, let’s first look at the basics to understand their differences.
|TSA PreCheck||Global Entry||CLEAR Plus|
|Membership Length||5 years||5 years||1 year|
|Designed For||Domestic Travel||International Travel||Domestic Travel|
|Backing Agency||Transportation Security Administration||U.S. Customs and Border Protection||Private Company|
|Background Check Required||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|In-Person Interview Required||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Participating U.S. Airports||More than 200||More than 75||More than 40|
TSA PreCheck is a five-year membership offered by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). It costs $78, and you can renew it online for just $70 when your five-year term expires.
TSA reports that, in December 2022, 91% of PreCheck customers experienced wait times of less than five minutes at airport security checkpoints.
How It Works
TSA PreCheck, which can be used at more than 200 airports, is designed for domestic travel in the United States.
Applicants are required to attend a short, in-person appointment for fingerprinting and a background check. Once you’ve cleared the required assessments and are added to the approved list, you’ll be issued a credential that allows you to enter special, expedited security lines at airport checkpoints.
Clark Howard on TSA PreCheck®
Clark, who in addition to being a money expert is also a self-described travel nut, is a fan of TSA PreCheck for expedited domestic travel. We asked him to give you a taste of what you can expect as an applicant.
“For PreCheck, you go through a background check and typically an interview with a government contractor,” Clark explains. “And then they issue you a credential. It’s good for five years. 85 bucks for five years. That’s $17 a year. And because they’ve already decided you’re not a threat, you go through this expedited security area. You don’t take your shoes off, don’t take your liquids out and don’t take your laptop out. You go through the old fashioned metal detector instead of the full-body scan. And it in most airports, PreCheck is going to be a reliable and really, really quick way through security.”
Steps To Apply
The Transportation Security Administration provides the following steps for obtaining your TSA PreCheck membership:
- Apply Online: Submit an online application in 5 minutes & schedule an appointment at any of 380+ enrollment centers.
- Enroll in Person: 10-min in-person appointment that includes fingerprinting for a background check.
- Travel with Ease: Add your Known Traveler Number to your airline reservation to enjoy faster, more seamless screening.
Global Entry is a five-year membership offered by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. It costs $100 and is designed for international travel, but that price also includes a TSA PreCheck subscription for domestic travel.
More than 75 airports have Global Entry kiosks, and more than 200 have TSA PreCheck capabilities.
The application process is a bit more strenuous than PreCheck because of the risks the United States associates with lightly-monitored international travel. The need for a more extensive in-person interview for proper clearance makes appointment times harder to come by.
How It Works
You’ll get expedited clearance through Customs and Border Protection (CBP) upon arrival in the United States whether you’ve arrived by air, land or sea as long as your arrival point participates in the program.
The CBP uses enhanced biometric technology to expedite approved Global Entry members during entry and exit of checkpoints for international travel. You can read more about the biometrics, which include facial recognition and retinal scanning, in the CBP’s summary of the process.
Note that you’ll still need to meet the border clearance requirements of other countries for flights departing the United States. Global Entry expedites only your return to the U.S.
Domestically, your experience will be the same as if you had only TSA PreCheck.
Clark Howard on Global Entry
Clark likes the concept and functionality of Global Entry once you’re a member, but his major complaint is with the snags in the application process that can slow your access to benefits.
“The problem is the Global Entry application process is unbelievably difficult, bureaucratic and you have to have this Homeland Security interview for it,” Clark says. “And getting an appointment? The stories about it where someone will try to get an appointment for months, and then it’ll pop up: ‘You’re in luck. There’s appointments available in Honolulu.’ I mean, it’s just idiotic.”
He says there is a way around this frustrating waiting period for some travelers.
“At some major airports, you can enter Global Entry upon arrival. So, you’re coming back in from a trip. You’ve already done your application, but you haven’t had your interview. When you come back into the United States, at big airports with a lot of international flights booked, look for signs that say “Global Entry enrollment upon arrival.” And you go and you have your interview as part of the process of entering the country. They decide at that point you’re not going to be a terrorist. They go ahead and put it through and then for the five years you have your Global Entry.”
Steps To Apply
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security provides the following four steps to apply for your Global Entry subscription:
- Create a Trusted Traveler Programs (TTP) account. Regardless of your age, you must have your own TTP account.
- Log in to your TTP account and complete the application. A $100 non-refundable fee is required with each completed application.
- After accepting your completed application and fee, CBP will review your application. If your application is conditionally approved, then your TTP account will instruct you to schedule an interview at a Global Entry Enrollment Center. Each applicant must schedule a separate interview.
- You will need to bring your valid passport(s) booklet and one other form of identification, such as a driver’s license or ID card to the interview. If you are a lawful permanent resident, you must present your machine readable permanent resident card.
CLEAR Plus is annual membership offered by CLEAR, a private company that works at more than 40 airports in the United States. The cost is $179 per year for an individual membership, though family members can be added for an additional $50.
CLEAR positions itself as a “faster” alternative to the TSA PreCheck airport line-skipping method. It also offers expedited entrance to stadium and venues that require verification of personal identification (or vaccination status, in some instances).
How It Works
CLEAR Plus has positioned itself as a way to speed through the documentation check portion of an airport security line. You’ll line up at a designated CLEAR entry checkpoint and by able to bypass certain measures as your identity is able to be verified via the CLEAR database.
You will then “jump to the front” of the security line for departing flights.
Clark Howard on CLEAR Plus
Clark says CLEAR Plus works great, but he doesn’t love that it is so much more expensive than TSA PreCheck.
He’s also worried that so many people are getting discounted or complimentary CLEAR Plus passes that it may not end up saving you much more time than TSA PreCheck or Global Entry.
“CLEAR is a private program. It’s available at many of the busiest airports in the United States,” Clark says. “What CLEAR does is you go to the front of the PreCheck line.
“So the hierarchy is like this: You’ve got regular security, you’ve got PreCheck and then you have CLEAR. CLEAR works very well except at Delta’s busiest airports. The reason is Delta owns part of CLEAR and comps the very high annual fee for CLEAR. They compensate to their high level frequent fliers and offer discounts to others.
“CLEAR is also partially owned by United. I don’t know if United is doing the same level of discounts for enrollment for their elite level flyers, but I’ve not heard of any of the problems with the long CLEAR lines at United hubs that there are at Delta hubs right now.
“It’s funny, I talked to travelers all the time who say that when they fly through certain Delta hub cities they look and see that many times the PreCheck line is shorter than the CLEAR line. So then they’re like, ‘Why would I pay the money for CLEAR?’
“If you get it for free with your frequent flyer status, great. If not, you have to fly a lot, and I mean a lot, to make CLEAR really work for you.”
Steps To Apply
- Fill out an application on CLEAR’s enrollment website.
- Visit any airport CLEAR location to complete the enrollment process. No appointment is necessary. CLEAR says you just have to bring a valid government-issued ID with you.
Final Thoughts: Which Is Best for You?
Now that you know a little bit more about each of these programs, it’s time to make a call on what is best for you.
Some people may find the need for none of the above, while others may say “give me all of them.” It gets down to the frequency of your travels and your tolerance for airport security lines.
If you’re a moderate traveler who primarily travels domestically, you may find that TSA PreCheck is your simplest option.
If you’re an international traveler, opting into Global Entry — for what ends up being an additional $3 per year — makes a lot of sense. Remember, your Global Entry subscription includes TSA PreCheck.
And if you’re unsure whether it’s worth paying for a subscription to either, you may want to check your wallet before dismissing it as too expensive. Many credit cards offer a complimentary subscription to one or more of these services as a perk for card holders.
CLEAR Plus is a more expensive option that probably makes sense only for frequent travelers. Remember to check your airline rewards program to see if it offers a complimentary or discounted membership. And for maximum value, you may want to consider taking advantage of the discount afforded to family members who want to join as an add-on to your membership.