Airport security screening has become easier with the implementation of programs like TSA PreCheck, Global Entry and Clear. Here’s how each compares to the other and which one is best for you.
Nothing increases travel time like waiting in long security lines at the airport.
For travelers who would rather avoid that delay, there are three options: TSA PreCheck, Global Entry and Clear. All cost money (though one substantially more than the others) and two require planning ahead. Maybe one, or all, of them is right for you.
Program breakdowns and benefits
A Trusted Traveler program, TSA PreCheck allows you to move more quickly through airport security. That’s because if you have PreCheck, you get to stand in a shorter, faster line where you don’t have to take off your shoes, your belt or a light jacket, nor do you have to remove your laptop or carry-on liquids from your bag.
The federal Transportation Security Administration reports that in June 2021, 97% of PreCheck passengers waited less than five minutes in security lines.
A U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) program, Global Entry offers everything TSA PreCheck does – and more. When you return from travel abroad, Global Entry means no more waiting in long customs lines and filling out paperwork. One quick check-in at an electronic kiosk and you’re ready to head to baggage claim. Plus, TSA PreCheck is included in Global Entry.
Clear is a biometric secure identity platform that stores the personal information of its users – what it calls “biometric identifiers” – and uses this data to allow users to skip airport lines.
Unlike TSA PreCheck and Global Entry, Clear is operated by a technology company known as Alclear, LLC – not the government. The program uses your irises and fingertips to prove that you are, indeed, you.
A Clear agent scans your eyes and hands, matches you with information you previously provided the company and presto – you’re sweeping right past the ID line at the stadium or airport. SAFETY Act Certified, Clear offers a futuristic alternative to avoiding lines at airports and other venues.
CLEAR enhances PreCheck. With PreCheck, you can still be randomly excluded from the expedited line. Not so with CLEAR. After verifying that you are really you, a CLEAR agent will escort you directly to the security screening.
- TSA PreCheck: $85 per person for a five-year membership.
- Global Entry: $100 per person for a five-year membership.
- Clear: $179 annually for airports (free at stadiums). Children under 18 are free with an adult member. Adult family members can be added for $50 per person, up to three additional family members. United MileagePlus and Delta SkyMiles members receive a discounted CLEAR membership – anywhere from $119 to complimentary – depending on status or affiliated credit card.
- TSA PreCheck is available at more than 200 airports with 80 participating airlines nationwide.
- Global Entry is available at about 75 airports.
- Clear is available at more than 45 airports, stadiums and other venues nationwide.
For TSA PreCheck, you apply online for pre-approval. Once pre-approved, you will need to schedule an appointment for a required 10-minute interview, background check and in-person fingerprinting.
You can schedule the appointment at one of nearly 400 enrollment centers nationwide. Bring your driver’s license and birth certificate (or your passport if you have one), along with any immigration papers.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will conduct the interview and approval takes about two weeks. Once approved, the government will issue you a known traveler number, which you can type in when you purchase airplane tickets.
The application process for Global Entry is a bit more involved. CBP reviews your application before deciding if you are eligible for an interview. It can take about three weeks to receive approval. Then comes the hard part: scheduling an interview.
Some enrollment centers are booked months in advance, while others have lots of available appointments – it just depends where you live and on the backlog leftover from pandemic closures. But there are other options.
If you’ve received conditional approval, you may be able to get a walk-in appointment at your local center. Or you can opt for “Enrollment on Arrival,” where you interview with a CBP agent upon arrival at an international terminal. This option is available at airports in six foreign countries, including Canada, and in 28 U.S. states and Puerto Rico.
Whatever way you choose, you will need your passport and another identifying document, like a driver’s license or lawful permanent resident card.
Probably the easiest of the three, the enrollment process for Clear takes just a few minutes. You can start the process online, including payment, but the biometrics and ID verification must be done in person.
At the airport, a Clear agent will validate your traveler’s ID (driver’s license, passport, etc.), then take your biometrics (an eye scan, fingerprints and a photo of your face) to create a profile. You will have to answer a few questions to verify identity and, of course, pay for the service. Then you’re good to go.
TSA PreCheck is available to U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents, with a few exceptions:
- Those convicted of various crimes (depending on the crime, this can be a permanent or temporary disqualification)
- Those under criminal indictment
- Anyone on a terrorism watchlist
Global Entry follows similar guidelines to TSA PreCheck, plus it is available to citizens and residents of Canada, along with citizens of various foreign countries.
Clear offers membership to U.S. citizens or permanent residents 18 and over, who have at least one form of official photo ID (like a U.S. passport, driver’s license or permanent resident card).
Which program is best for you?
TSA PreCheck makes the most sense for the most people. It’s available at most U.S. airports and it can make a serious dent in airport wait time. Also, not only is it the least expensive of the three options, but if you have the right credit card, it could even be free (see tables below).
“I’m a fan,” says Scott Keyes, founder of Scott’s Cheap Flights. “Unless you’re traveling at peak hours out of an airport like DCA [Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Washington, D.C.], SFO [San Francisco International Airport] or JFK [John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City], it’s rare to see TSA PreCheck lines longer than a 60-second wait.”
If you’re still on the fence, TSA PreCheck is usually best if you only travel domestically (since it doesn’t require a passport) and fly at least one to two times a year.
Global Entry is best if you travel internationally. For only $15 more, you get both PreCheck and the ability to whisk through customs. Plus, as with PreCheck, many cards will refund the $100 fee on your statement.
“I have Global Entry and I love it,” says Adam Riemer, a marketing consultant and frequent flyer.
Global Entry has even saved Riemer from missing flights.
“One time, I was in Houston, coming back from Mexico, and there was a light storm that was delaying entry,” he said. “If I didn’t have Global Entry, I would not have made it through on time to get my connection.”
In combination with TSA PreCheck, CLEAR slashes security wait time to nearly zero. Adam Sterling, founder of The Sterling Traveler, recently got Clear and was thrilled with the results.
“It was less than a minute between when I walked up to the Clear kiosk to when I left security,” he said.
But it’s not for everyone. Sterling also has TSA PreCheck and, according to him, the Clear membership would not have been so helpful without it – as the regular scanner line is slower and more cumbersome.
There are also times when the non-PreCheck line is in a different part of the airport from the Clear kiosk, Riemer says, and “it can be a pretty long walk” to the regular TSA line.
Additionally, not everyone is comfortable turning over their biometric data to a private company. It’s also the most expensive of the three options (though, as mentioned above, there are discounts for various card and loyalty program members). And Clear is only available at a fraction of the airports that offer TSA PreCheck.
For instance, in Southern California, there are Clear kiosks at Los Angeles International Airport. But there are four other airports serving the area: San Diego, Orange County, the Inland Empire and Burbank. None of them has Clear, so it might not make as much sense for someone who regularly flies out of San Diego International Airport, for example, to shell out close to $200 a year for a Clear membership.
The membership is best suited to those who are both frequent flyers and often fly out of airports that have Clear.
Credit cards that offer membership credits
Many travel credit cards offer statement refunds for the two federal programs. However, American Express has two cards that offer deals on Clear membership. The Platinum Card® from American Express will cover the $179 cost of a Clear membership if you buy it using the card, and the American Express® Green Card offers its cardholders an annual credit of $100 that can be used toward a Clear membership.
*All information about the Southwest Rapid Rewards Performance Business Credit Card and the Citi Prestige has been collected independently by CreditCards.com and has not been reviewed by the issuer.