When you apply for TSA PreCheck, you’re essentially requesting a Known Traveler Number. This basic form of registration identifies you as an unlikely threat to national security and enables you to speed through the airport checkpoint with less scrutiny.
It does require an application and an $85 fee for five years, so this post will explain everything you need to know about TSA PreCheck and why you should enroll. If you aren’t a U.S. citizen or permanent resident, some foreign citizens can still gain access to TSA PreCheck by applying for Global Entry instead.
Members of the armed forces are also eligible to use TSA PreCheck lines without enrolling in the program. Just use your Department of Defense identification number instead of a Known Traveler Number.
Benefits of PreCheck
The best way to describe TSA PreCheck is that it provides a security experience more similar to what used to exist before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. You can keep all your belongings in your bag, even a laptop. You can keep your shoes on. You can keep a light coat on, as well as any non-metallic items in your pockets. Instead of a full body scanner you’ll pass through a standard metal detector.
All these things help the line move more quickly. As more people enroll the TSA continues to add more checkpoints and more participating airlines and airports so that the service only becomes more valuable. It’s often possible to get from the airport curb to the other side of security in less than 10 minutes, though at some congested airports longer delays are inevitable.
If your airport doesn’t offer TSA PreCheck, many of them will still provide some form of expedited security that allows you to keep your shoes on and pass through a metal detector instead of a full body scanner. However, expect to take your liquids and computer out of your baggage.
When Can You Use TSA PreCheck?
Even if you’ve enrolled in PreCheck, that isn’t enough to guarantee you a spot in the queue at the airport. You must actually be traveling with an airline that participates in PreCheck and departing from an airport that offers it. You’ll know you can use the TSA PreCheck lane because of the words “TSA PreCheck” printed on the boarding pass.
There are now over 140 airports that participate in PreCheck, though not all of them provide the service at every checkpoint. You may need to walk a little further to the next one. The number of airlines is more limited, so I’ll list them here:
- Air Canada Airlines
- Alaska Airlines
- Allegiant Airlines
- American Airlines
- Cape Air
- Delta Air Lines
- Hawaiian Airlines
- JetBlue Airways
- Seaborne Airlines
- Southwest Airlines
- Sun Country Airlines
- United Airlines
- Virgin America
You can also get a complete list of participating airports and airlines from the TSA’s website.
Using TSA PreCheck for International Travel
It’s now possible to use the TSA PreCheck lane when beginning an international flight originating in the United States. However, you must still be flying on an airline and departing from an airport that participate in the program.
A more complicated issue presents itself when you return from an international journey on a carrier that doesn’t participate in TSA PreCheck and connect onward with an airline that does. After clearing immigration and customs in the United States all passengers need to re-clear security, which makes access to TSA PreCheck pretty important.
Even if you already have your boarding pass for every flight, take a moment to visit the ticket counter and check in again after arriving in the United States. The agent can re-print your boarding pass after adding your KTN, and this new boarding pass will probably have the Global Entry symbol. It’s just another way to speed through long connections.
Alternatives to TSA PreCheck
Many people are attracted by the short lines and want to apply for TSA PreCheck even with the $85 fee for five years (just $17 per year). Before you do, consider some alternatives. There are several other programs like CLEAR that also provide passengers with a Known Traveler Number, giving you access to TSA PreCheck as well as assistance with international customs and immigration. Some of them cost just a few dollars more, and others are even cheaper.
- Global Entry is the standard program for expedited immigration and customs. It costs $100 per person.
- NEXUS is a specialized program that includes the benefits of Global Entry and pre-clearance when entering Canada. It costs $50 per person.
- SENTRI is a specialized program that includes the benefits of Global Entry and pre-clearance when entering Mexico. It costs $112.50 per person.
Like PreCheck, each of these programs is valid for five years, but eligibility rules and application requirements are more stringent. For example, even though NEXUS is cheaper than either Global Entry or TSA PreCheck, many people do not enroll because there are only a handful of interview locations within the United States near the Canadian border.
Global Entry interview locations are at almost every major airport but even they are not as common as TSA PreCheck enrollment centers and often have longer lines. If you can afford the extra cost and are willing to wait for an appointment, Global Entry is still the better deal. Many passengers are able to stop by a Customs and Boarder Patrol office for a walk-in appointment at an earlier date.
Can You Get TSA PreCheck for Free?
It’s possible to be diverted to a TSA PreCheck line even if you haven’t applied. A process called “Managed Inclusion” is used at some airports to relieve congestion from standard security checkpoints, although passengers may be asked to undergo an additional screening process such as a non-invasive hand swab to detect explosives. But this is unreliable and too sporadic to be of use to the average traveler.
If you really don’t want to pay for TSA PreCheck, several premium credit cards like the American Express Platinum Card and Citi Prestige Card now include a credit to cover the cost of enrolling in Global Entry. Remember, this offers more benefits plus the KTN you need to access TSA PreCheck. Some airlines are also offering the chance to redeem miles to cover the enrollment fee, but this is generally a bad offer. There are much more valuable things to do with your miles such as book a free trip!
However you get it – Global Entry, TSA PreCheck, or serving our country — access to the shorter queues for TSA PreCheck security screening has become essential to frequent travelers in the United States.