The ultimate guide to airport security options

TSA Precheck, Global Entry, CLEAR can speed you through the screening process

Allie Johnson
Personal Finance Writer
Award-winning writer covering consumer and small-business credit cards.

The ultimate guide to airport security and getting through the line fast

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If you fly, you’ve endured the chaos of airport security screening: long lines, wrestling to take off your shoes and jacket in the middle of a cranky crowd, and maybe even missing a flight. 

As screening has become stricter to make flying safer, it’s become a huge hassle for travelers. 

Trusted traveler programs such as TSA Precheck, Global Entry and CLEAR can speed you through security, and rewards credit cards increasingly offer credits to cover the costs of this fast-track to your plane. 

If you’re unsure of what these programs offer and which one is best, you’re not alone. The availability of multiple programs, and the fact that some can be used together, tends to cause confusion among harried travelers. 

Use this helpful guide to learn the ins and outs of getting through airport security faster, along with the pros and cons of each major trusted traveler program. 

Airport security screening 101

If you use general airport security screening, you’re probably familiar with the steps in the process. 

First you stand in one line to have your boarding pass and ID checked. Then you wait in another line for physical screening. You take off shoes and outerwear and empty your pockets. You remove electronics bigger than a cellphone and place your stuff in plastic bins on a conveyor belt. 

Your bags get X-rayed, and your body gets scanned. If you are unlucky, you get pulled aside for a pat down. 

The expedited traveler programs available allow you to skip or speed up some or all of the above steps. Some programs also allow you to re-enter the United States more quickly after a trip abroad. 

However, if you don’t travel enough to justify signing up for one or more of these programs, you can still make general security screening easier and less frustrating by being a savvy traveler. 

What to know about airport security screening

“The lines are getting longer and it can be really crazy,” says Stephanie Miller, founder of the travel site The Scenic Suitcase. “So just be prepared.”

What’s the best way to be prepared? 

Knowing which items of clothing you must take off during screening can help to speed the security screening process and ensure you don’t hold up the line. Here’s a list of requirements for accessories and clothing: 

  • Take off belts, watches and bulky jewelry.
  • Empty your pockets of all items, including coins, papers and your wallet.
  • Remove your jacket and shoes, unless you are a traveler age 75 or older
  • Place your items in plastic bins and put them on the conveyor belt. 

These items come off and out to avoid setting off a metal detector and to ease the screener’s job, says Mike O’Rourke, a travel security expert and CEO Advanced Operational Concepts, a global security consultancy. 

“Ask any street cop and he will tell you people tend to conceal weapons around the waist because a belt helps hold things in place,” O’Rourke says. “And jackets have large pockets to conceal things that shouldn’t go onboard an aircraft.” 

It’s even more important to know what you can and can’t carry on the plane with you.

Going through screening with a prohibited item slows the line and might force you to chuck it or check it. For a comprehensive list, see the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) page on what you can carry on a plane

Carry-on bags: Some items that are allowed

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  • Baby supplies, including carriers, diapers, food and wipes
  • Beauty items such as bobby pins, curling irons, hairdryers, disposable razors, nail clippers and tweezers
  • Books and magazines
  • Cigarettes, cigars, electronic cigarettes and vaping devices
  • Medical items such as blood sugar test kits, braces, canes and crutches and prosthetics (some medical devices, such as CPAPs and syringes, require you to follow special instructions)
  • Solid foods such as candy and crackers and granola bars
  • Clothing, belts and shoes
  • Laptops, tablets and cellphones
  • Some sports equipment, including basketballs, bowling balls and soccer balls
  • Some hobby items, including crochet and knitting needles
  • Some gun accessories such as holsters or scopes
  • Small kitchen appliances including coffee makers, mixers and tortilla presses 

Many items, including cymbals, parachutes, scissors and even cremated remains are allowed but require you to follow special instructions. If you plan to bring an odd or iffy item, check ahead of time to see if you need to jump through any special hoops. 

And a cautionary tale for parents: Breast milk may be carried on in “reasonable quantities” but you may be singled out for special screening. That added screening could cause a delay, even if you’re a member of a trusted traveler program. 

Frequent traveler, founder of Business Travel Life, and TSA Precheck member Kristina Portillo was traveling with her 8-month-old son and a bottle full of breast milk when she was stopped at security. “It set off their bomb detector,” she says. 

She had to wait 20 minutes for a TSA explosives expert to come check the bottle. “He shook it twice and said, ‘You’re good to go,’” she says. “He told me he gets called down multiple times a day over breast milk.” 

Carry-on luggage: Items not allowed on the plane

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  • Any kind of flammable fuel, such as cooking fuel or gasoline
  • Other flammable items such as dynamite, firecrackers, spray paint and strike-anywhere matches
  • Gel heating pads
  • Sports equipment that could be used as a weapon, including bows and arrows, baseball bats, darts and golf clubs
  • Many tools, such as box cutters, drills and drill bits, hammers and saws
  • Many sharp objects, including wine corkscrews, ice picks, meat cleavers and sabers
  • Weapons such as knives, guns, swords and throwing stars 

Liquids and electronics: Rules about what can and cannot fly with you

  • Remove from your bag any electronics larger than a cellphone, including laptops, e-readers, tablets and handheld games. Place each one in a plastic bin by itself with nothing else under, around or on top.
  • Follow the 3-1-1- Rule for liquids. This means all liquids, aerosols, creams, gels and pastes must be in a sealable quart-sized bag in containers no larger than 3.4 ounces. You should remove the baggie from your carry-on and place it in a plastic bin for screening.
  • Be aware that there are exceptions for liquid medications. You can carry medically necessary liquids in quantities larger than 3.4 ounces, but these must be removed and screened separately. If you’re traveling with an infant or toddler, you can bring baby food, formula and juice in “reasonable quantities.”
  • Be careful with packing food in your carry-on, especially any items that have a creamy, liquid or gel consistency. These foods, including creamy cheeses, liquid chocolate and yogurt, are subject to the 3-1-1 rule. Canned food is allowed but could draw extra scrutiny because of how it looks on an X-ray. For that reason, the TSA recommends stowing it in your checked baggage. 

Many foods can cause glitches in security lines, and traveling internationally with food is likely to get you snagged at the point of entry. “I understand budget-conscious travelers don’t want to pay the high prices for airport or onboard food,” O’Rourke says. “However, my honest advice is to leave most food at home.” 

Still have doubts about an item you plan to take with you? Snap a photo and run it past AskTSA on Facebook messenger or Twitter between 9 a.m. and 7 p.m. Eastern time daily. 

On Twitter, AskTSA has given its blessing to carrying on an array of items, including: condoms, fidget spinners and rotisserie chickens. But AskTSA has nixed other items, such as souvenir mini baseball bats, music stands and large “massager sticks.” 

Want to avoid snafus caused by unprepared travelers and security glitches? Keep an eye on the people in line when choosing which X-ray machine to go to, Portillo recommends. 

“Scan the lines and see which are moving and which are not,” she says. “Whether there is an extra picky screener, a group of kids or people with water bottles, one line may take twice as long to get through.” 

Don’t get grounded by the wrong ID

One important part of breezing through general security screening is having your ID out and ready to show a TSA agent. Now, a law known as the Real ID Act is affecting some flyers. 

Congress passed the REAL ID Act in 2005 in response to recommendations by the 9/11 Commission. The law prevents federal agencies from accepting IDs that do not meet minimum security standards. The goal? To thwart terrorists who try to use fake IDs. 

As of June 2018, 32 states are compliant with the REAL ID Act and the other 18 states, which include California, Missouri and Pennsylvania, have been granted extensions. All U.S. territories also have been granted extensions, except for American Samoa, which is non-compliant. Now, travelers from American Samoa can no longer use their IDs at airports. 

Right now, residents of all U.S. states can still use their IDs, but that will change on October 1, 2020, when all air travelers will be required to carry compliant IDs. 

If you are flying from a state that has been given an extension and you want to start carrying a compliant ID now, a U.S. passport or passport card might be your best options. However, they’re not your only choices. You can use other types of ID, including military IDs and the ID cards issued by Global Entry and other trusted traveler programs. 

But if you arrive at the airport without the proper ID, or you’ve forgotten your ID, you still might be allowed to fly if you undergo the TSA identity verification process, which includes filling out a form with your personal information and extra security screening. 

“The Real ID Act, especially as it relates to air travel, is about safety and security,” O’Rourke says. 

Fly through the airport with trusted traveler programs

If you’re eager to bypass some of the hassles of general security screening, consider a trusted traveler program. Most cost $100 or less for five years of much less stress at the airport. 

Comparing TSA Precheck, Global Entry and CLEAR

  TSA Precheck
Global Entry
CLEAR
Cost  $85 (5-year membership) $100 (5-year-membership, includes TSA Precheck)  $179 a year
Why you should get it TSA Precheck is best if you only fly within the U.S., at least a couple of times a year.  Global Entry is best if you travel internationally or plan a trip abroad
CLEAR is pricey, but it is best if you are a frequent flyer departing from airports that have CLEAR
Where is it available? More than 200 airports and 53 airlines are participating in program.
Global Entry kiosks are in about 60 airports
Available in 24 airports
How does it improve the travel experience? Dedicated TSA Precheck security line with expedited screening. You also don’t need to take off your shoes, belt and jacket, and won’t need to remove electronics from your bag. 
On your return to the United States, you get to skip filling out the paper U.S. Customs and Border Protection form. In the airport, you go to a Global Entry kiosk, scan your passport and fill out the form electronically. 

If you have CLEAR, you scan your boarding pass and tap your finger (or, if there’s a glitch, have your irises scanned) at a CLEAR kiosk. A CLEAR employee then escorts you straight to the front of the line for physical security screening.

Passport required? No
Yes, or lawful permanent resident card
No
Application process? Pre-enroll online, visit an enrollment center, get fingerprinted and verify your ID.
Pre-enroll online, visit an enrollment center for an interview, get fingerprinted and verify your ID.

Start the process online, visit a CLEAR location (no appointment necessary), complete your enrollment in 5-10 minutes (all you need is your ID).

Here’s a rundown of the main programs and their benefits: 

1. TSA Precheck

Get TSA Precheck if you only travel domestically and you fly at least one or two times a year. 

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TSA Precheck is designed to allow trusted travelers at U.S. airports to speed through security screening faster. After you become a TSA Precheck member, you get to use a dedicated TSA Precheck security line, which is typically shorter than the general security screening line. Your wait might be as short as five minutes.

 As a TSA Precheck member, you also won’t need to take off your shoes, belt and jacket. And you won’t need to remove electronics from your bag. “It’s just a huge timesaver,” Portillo says. 

The application fee is $85, and the downside is that if you get rejected for any reason, you don’t get your money back, Miller points out. 

More than 200 airports and 53 airlines participate in TSA Precheck. But you might want to verify that an airline is part of the program before booking, Miller says. On a recent trip to South Africa, she unknowingly booked a flight on a non-participating airline. 

She had to go through general screening with five big camera lenses and a laptop, pulling everything out of her perfectly packed bag and then trying to shoehorn it all back in. “It was just a massive hassle,” she says. 

2. CLEAR

Get CLEAR if you’re a business traveler or other frequent flyer and you often fly out of airports that have CLEAR. 

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CLEAR is a service offered by a private company that complements, but doesn’t replace, TSA Precheck. It’s pricey at $179 a year, but you might be able to get a discount, and many frequent travelers, especially business travelers, swear by the program. 

CLEAR uses biometrics, both scans of the eye and fingerprints, to verify the identity of members. If you have CLEAR, you can skip the initial wait in line to show your ID and boarding pass to a TSA agent. Instead, you scan your boarding pass and tap your finger (or, if there’s a glitch, have your irises scanned) at a CLEAR kiosk. 

A CLEAR employee then escorts you straight to the front of the line for physical security screening. If you have TSA Precheck, you go through that screening and get those benefits, such as not taking off your shoes. If you don’t, you go through standard screening. 

Frequent traveler Jacob Fu and his wife, Esther, who run the travel blog Local Adventurer, have had Global Entry and TSA Precheck for years and recently added CLEAR after seeing it in action at an airport. “It’s this amazing VIP experience,” he says. 

The service is offered only in 24 select airports, so it’s important to check which airports have it before you pay. Airports with CLEAR include those in Atlanta, Los Angeles, Miami and New York. 

In some airports, CLEAR can cut your wait in line down to a minute or so, says Andy Abramson, a business traveler who averages 200 days a year of travel and has done two round-the-world trips. 

“The smart travelers are using Precheck,” he says. “The really smart travelers are using Precheck and CLEAR.” 

3. Global Entry 

Get Global Entry if you fly at least once or twice a year and sometimes travel internationally or have plans for a trip abroad. 

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Global Entry is a program that speeds up your re-entry into the United States after an international trip. There are Global Entry kiosks at about 60 airports

And Global Entry comes with TSA Precheck, so you get all those benefits when you head to the airport to leave the country. Global Entry costs only $15 more than TSA Precheck alone, so experts say it’s a good value. 

On your return to the United States, you get to skip filling out the paper U.S. Customs and Border Protection form. In the airport, you go to a Global Entry kiosk, scan your passport and fill out the form electronically. You get to skip the lines and avoid getting grilled by a customs agent. 

“Global Entry is the fastest way to getting back on U.S. soil,” Abramson says. 

Global Entry also offers benefits in some other countries. 

For example, U.S. citizens with Global Entry can use the Smartgate expedited traveler system when entering Australia and also can apply for expedited traveler systems in the Netherlands, Korea, Panama and Mexico. Global Entry status also is honored in the U.K. and New Zealand, Abramson says. 

Tip

Tip: If you don’t want to pay for Global Entry, you can still get expedited entry into the United States by using Mobile Passport Control, a free app authorized by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. “The Mobile Passport app is huge, and nobody knows about it,” Miller says.

The three programs above are the ones most U.S. travelers would find most useful. But depending on your situation, you might want to consider either NEXUS or SENTRI. 

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NEXUS is designed to expedite travel between the United States and Canada.

SENTRI speeds up car travel between the United States and Mexico.

#Global Entry members also can apply to use both NEXUS and SENTRI benefits, so Global Entry still might make the most sense for a majority of travelers. 

“Of all the trusted traveler programs, Global Entry is my favorite,” O’Rourke says. 

Credit cards can cut trusted traveler costs

A number of credit cards will reimburse your application fee for a trusted traveler program. 

Some of these cards are premium cards that have high annual fees. For example, the Chase Sapphire Reserve card ($450 annual fee) includes a $100 credit for TSA Precheck or Global Entry and an annual $300 travel credit to offset that annual fee. 

It’s smart to weight the benefits versus the cost to see if paying a premium card’s annual fee is worth it to you, Portillo says. 

However, you don’t need to pay a hefty annual fee to get the perk. The new United Explorer Card, from Chase, has no annual fee during the first year ($95 thereafter) and offers up to $100 statement credit for your application fee for Global Entry or TSA Precheck. 

And the Capital One Venture card offers up to $100 credit for the application fee, and the $95 annual fee is waived the first year. 

If you are a Delta SkyMiles frequent flyer or credit cardholder, you can get a free or discounted CLEAR membership of $70 or $99 a year, with the cost depending on your status with the airline. 

Don’t apply for a trusted travel program just because you can get it at a discount. Instead, take the time to weight the cost, the pros and cons and whether you’ll use the benefits. 

“Choose the program that best fits your traveling style,” O’Rourke says. 

See related:

TSA Precheck, Global Entry credits now offered on lower-annual-fee cards9 travel-related fees, perks your rewards card may cover for free


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Updated: 10-16-2018