Updated: Dec 19, 2019
We've all been there: You've made it to the airport at the crack of dawn, lugged your hastily-packed baggage up to the airline counter, and finally have a boarding pass in hand when you round the corner to what can only be described as an apocalyptic security line. You quietly question whether or not you have the mental fortitude to carry on and consider how upset your parents will be if you just don't fly home for Christmas before begrudgingly taking your place at the end of the end of the never-ending queue. You shake your first in the air and ask to no one in particular, is there anything that can be done to avoid this fresh hell? Well, yes! Yes, there is. Thankfully, the last few years have seen a rise in screening programs designed to mark you as a Trusted Traveler™ on the front end so that when you're actually at the airport you can electric slide through security in 1/3 of the time and saunter to your gate with a smile. Let's talk about them!
Probably the most obvious and widely-known, TSA Pre-Check exists courtesy of the Transportation Security Administration that we all know and love.
How it works: You submit an online application and schedule an in-person appointment at any of the over 300 enrollment centers. Once your appointment date arrives a background check will be conducted and you'll be fingerprinted. Once everything checks out, you'll be able to add your known traveler number to any ticket you purchase and voila! Reap the rewards. If your flight is eligible for pre-check it will be printed on your boarding pass.
Pro tip: Appointments tend to fill up quickly and there is often a bit of a waiting period before you can get it, so it's a good idea to sign up for Pre-Check a couple months before you actually have to travel.
Perks: Separate, faster, and almost always shorter line at security checkpoints.
Flyers with the TSA pre-check designation don't have to remove shoes, belts, or jackets or remove laptops and liquids from bags.
Fees: $85 for a 5-year membership
Pro tip: If you have a credit card with any type of travel perks or travel reward redemption, make sure to check the policies because many cards offer a one-time reimbursement for TSA pre-check fees.
Think of Global Entry as TSA pre-check's more cultured cousin who studied abroad in Paris. This program is tailored to international travel, and allows expedited clearance for low-risk, pre-approved travelers upon arrival to the U.S.
How it works: Create a Trusted Traveler Programs (TTP) account online, and login in to complete the application. Once you submit your application Customs & Border Patrol will review it, and if it is conditionally approved you will be instructed to schedule an interview at a Global Entry Enrollment Center
Perks: Upon re-entry into the U.S. you'll be able to proceed directly to a Global Entry kiosk without having to wait in any processing lines or fill out any paperwork. Global Entry also includes TSA Pre-Check, so the application fee gives you access to both programs.
Fees: $100 non-refundable fee at time of application
CLEAR is a private company that uses biometrics to verify your identity and allow for expedited passage through security at major airports.
How it works: You start the CLEAR process by registering online and then completing enrollment in-person at a CLEAR location. You'll need to answer a few verification questions, provide a photo ID, and attach your biometrics (finger prints and a picture of your iris) to your account.
Perks: Expedite security by going to a CLEAR pod, scanning your boarding pass, and confirming your identity with either your fingerprints or irises. You'll then be taken straight back for a physical screening. CLEAR technology is also available at locations other than airports such as sports venues. TSA pre-check members can also utilize CLEAR, though I'm not sure if it's worth it to pay for both services unless you'll be utilizing CLEAR at a non-airport venue regularly.
Fees: $179/year for CLEAR Plus membership. There is a free membership, but it only allows for expedited entry at participating sports and entertainment venues.
Well, we've covered the basics! While none of these programs are free, the time and sanity you'll save is truly priceless. Here's to skipping the lines.