August 31, 2020 By Jake Pearring
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In the last decade, numerous programs have emerged to offer expedited or simplified security screening or verification for air travelers in the United States. And for good reason — nothing kills vacation vibes quite like a painfully long line and frustrating security process to start (or end) your holiday.
In this post, we’ll discuss three of the most common options — TSA PreCheck, Global Entry, and CLEAR. I’ll also give you my personal recommendation for which program(s) are best suited for which travelers, and how you can save on membership fees.
Which is best? TSA Precheck vs Global Entry vs CLEAR?
Though each program offers unique benefits, Global Entry stands apart as the most versatile, most prevalent, and the most useful option across the board for domestic and international travelers. We also think Global Entry gives you the most bang for your buck over the long term, as you only need to renew once every five years. But keep reading for a detailed analysis of each program, and remember that you’re not limited to just one!
If you’ve traveled domestically in the last couple of years, you may have seen different security checkpoint lines. Typically, you might see a standard line for “all passengers” and an expedited, shorter line showing the TSA PreCheck logo. These are in addition to any preferential treatments for frequent fliers or those who have unique airline elite status.
TSA PreCheck is the most common service offered and currently has over 10 million members. Anyone can join TSA PreCheck so long as you are a U.S. citizen or a lawful permanent resident. You don’t even need a passport to apply, so TSA PreCheck is a great option for folks who don’t like to travel internationally or simply don’t have a passport.
Passengers who are part of TSA PreCheck often get access to shorter lines, quicker service, and reduced requirements for security clearance. For example, you won’t need to remove your shoes or your laptop to clear security if you have TSA PreCheck. And in my travels, the lines for TSA PreCheck are significantly shorter and progress more quickly due to expedited screening.
TSA Precheck costs just $85, and membership lasts five years, making TSA PreCheck the cheapest option discussed here. You can apply online and then complete your application by visiting a TSA enrollment center the next time you’re passing through an airport. Once approved, enjoy the benefits of TSA PreCheck at over 200 airports in the United States by entering your uniquely assigned Known Traveller Number when booking your next flight.
Global Entry is like the more advanced TSA PreCheck designed specifically for international travelers. Membership in Global Entry includes TSA PreCheck and also offers expedited screening when reentering the United States after traveling internationally. If you’ve ever waited in a torturously long customs and immigration line upon landing back home, Global Entry might be the solution for you. Global Entry members instead visit an automated kiosk to answer a few customs and immigration questions before having an immigration officer quickly verify their passport and send them on their way.
Global Entry also offers a reasonable price of just $100 for five years worth of membership, just $15 more than TSA PreCheck (only $3 extra dollars per year). So if you are a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident (or citizen of one of these countries) with even one trip abroad planned, the time savings might be worth it to secure Global Entry.
Global Entry applications are very similar to TSA PreCheck and require you to apply online before visiting an in-person enrollment center. My wife and I planned our “interviews” (they really just ask one or two questions and confirm your personal information) at Washington Dulles Airport (IAD) during a layover, and the process was straightforward and painless.
Keep in mind that some credit cards include reimbursement for your TSA PreCheck or Global Entry fee once every five years just for being a cardholder. In these instances, I recommend you go for Global Entry as TSA PreCheck is included.
Though TSA PreCheck and Global Entry are closely related (and government-run), CLEAR is a unique program at select airports that is privately run and can be used in conjunction with TSA PreCheck or Global Entry. Simply put, CLEAR lets you scan your eye and fingerprint and then cut to the very front of the security line.
CLEAR uses identity verification to give its members expedited access and is by far (in our experience) the most convenient of the three programs discussed here. If it sounds too good to be true (Cutting in line? Yes please!), keep in mind that CLEAR costs $179 per year —nearly 9x more expensive than Global Entry when considered over five years. And further, CLEAR has a limited footprint and is available in less than 40 airports nationwide.
But if you’re a very frequent traveler with your home base at a CLEAR-supported airport, $15 per month might be a steal to jump to the front of the security checkpoint line consistently. In fact, I have multiple family members who utilize both CLEAR and Global Entry (and thus the included TSA PreCheck) to skip to the front of the TSA PreCheck line and be off to their departure gate within minutes.
If CLEAR has piqued your interest, you can typically enroll at any CLEAR-enabled airport in just a few minutes before you clear (no pun intended) security. Often, you can find free trials for two to six months that allow you to test the program before committing to the annual fee. You can also get a reduced rate (instead of the $179 yearly) if you’re a member of Delta SkyMiles or United MileagePlus. For more information, check out our review of CLEAR.
I’ll be the first to admit that long lines are perhaps my least favorite part of air travel. But the above programs can offer some relief from long lines and legacy processes by automating identity verification and making your travel experience a bit smoother.
Global Entry stands apart for its low cost, breadth of availability, and longevity of membership. And TSA PreCheck is a solid choice if you don’t have a passport or simply never travel internationally. For either of these programs, be sure to check out the cards that reimburse your Global Entry or TSA PreCheck fee once every five years (up to $100), including:
The information for the Southwest Rapid Rewards Performance Business card has been collected independently by Million Mile Secrets. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.
For very frequent travelers, CLEAR may be a good option (in addition to one of the above) despite its high fees and lack of nationwide coverage. You can read our review for tips on getting a discounted CLEAR membership.
Featured image by Bignai/Shutterstock.
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- Up to $100 statement credit for Global Entry
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- Read our review of the Chase Sapphire Reserve
Editorial Note: We’re the Million Mile Secrets team. And we’re proud of our content, opinions and analysis, and of our reader’s comments. These haven’t been reviewed, approved or endorsed by any of the airlines, hotels, or credit card issuers which we often write about. And that’s just how we like it! 🙂