We’ve been conditioned to expect long lines at the airport, but it doesn’t have to be this way. If I accomplish one thing this year it’s to help my friends, family and readers get in and out of airports faster and with far less stress.
I am not making this up. Jason and I have now enjoyed minimal airport lines for the past two years and we want to share this with the world.
There are several good options to get through security lines and passport control lines much faster. There is even one option that’s free, so don’t tell me you can’t do this because it costs too much money. (And by the way, everyone uses this excuse without actually knowing the costs involved.)
So depending on how often you travel, where you travel, and your budget, I am going to help you reduce the time spent in a line at the airport. You're welcome!
Table of Contents
Precheck is the program created to speed up the airport security line for pre-approved travelers. It involves a background check through the Transportation and Security Administration or TSA. Even for occasional travelers, this is a helpful program that costs just $85 for five years. According to TSA’s own website, in February of 2019, 92% of Precheck passengers waited less than five minutes in the airport security line.
Other benefits of TSA Precheck include not removing shoes, not removing laptops from carry-on luggage and not removing belts or lightweight jackets.
Here’s how it works. Go here to apply online and pay the fee. It will take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks to be approved. Then schedule an appointment at one of 380+ enrollment centers around the country. You will need to bring to your interview your drivers license and passport. The appointment will take less than fifteen minutes, involves answering a few questions and being fingerprinted. Wasn’t that easy?
How can you get TSA Precheck for free? Apply for a travel rewards credit card like Chase Reserve, American Express Platinum, or Capital One Venture Rewards. Use the card to pay for your fee and your card company will reimburse you through a statement credit. (All of these cards offer additional great benefits. To learn more read Travel Hacking 101--Hong Kong Case Study.)
All travelers approved for TSA Precheck will be given a KTN or Known Traveler Number. Be sure to enter this in the proper spot when booking any airfare. If you add the KTN to your frequent flyer accounts then it should be added automatically to all future reservations. When printing boarding passes be sure that TSA Precheck is included somewhere on the document because this is now your ticket to the shorter security line.
If you already have a flight booked, call the airline's customer service number to add your KTN to your reservation.
TSA Precheck will expire on your birthday of the fifth year. Be sure to start the renewal process a few months prior to this date.
Global Entry is the program designed to speed up passport control and immigration lines upon arrival in the U.S. from a foreign destination. Again, by undergoing a background check, Global Entry passengers will use a dedicated line with computer kiosks to verify their identity. No waiting for a human to scan your passport and ask lots of questions. After baggage claim this program also offers a shorter immigration and customs line. I estimate that we save 30-60 minutes of time in line when using Global Entry at Los Angeles International Airport.
The cost of Global Entry is $100 for five years, but it includes TSA Precheck. For just $15 more, your time in any government line at an airport will be significantly decreased. And just like TSA Precheck, many travel credit cards offer a statement credit when you charge your fee to that card.
Here’s how it works. Apply online here, pay the $100 fee and then wait for conditional approval. When you’ve received notice of conditional approval go back online and schedule your interview at a Global Entry Enrollment Center. When your appointment day arrives be sure to bring your conditional approval letter, passport and driver’s license. This interview is brief and will include answering a few questions and taking your fingerprints and photo. You may need to wait several months for your appointment, so start the process early if you are planning an international trip in the near future.
After approval a Global Entry card will be mailed to you with the KTN, or Known Traveler Number, on the back. Again, this is the number to enter when making a flight reservation or add to frequent flyer accounts. According to the U.S. Customs and Border Control Protection website you aren’t required to bring this card when traveling. However, I do travel with this card just in case I need to prove my status.
When returning from an international trip, look for the Global Entry line which will not be staffed by agents, but instead offers rows of kiosks for you to scan your passport, answer a few questions, and take your photo and fingerprints. You’ll receive a printed receipt which is quickly reviewed by an agent in the area. This whole process should take 2-3 minutes.
After claiming your baggage, look again for the Global Entry line and hand your printed receipt to the agent. Now pat yourself on the back for avoiding long and tedious lines.
I’ll admit that the first time Jason and I used the Global Entry line at Los Angeles International Airport, we were confused. We looked at the long line of kiosks, but no one else was there. Was it closed? We considered returning to the regular line. Then a helpful airport employee walked up to us, assured us the line was open and encouraged us to scan our passports. We were truly stunned at how few people are benefiting from this opportunity.
Like TSA Precheck, your Global Entry will expire on your birthday in the fifth year. Be sure to start the renewal process a few months prior to this date.
Avoid Global Entry Scams
One afternoon I received a text message from my daughter, Jessica, asking me if the price of Global Entry had increased to $150. I replied that it hadn't, but then I quickly checked the website and confirmed the $100 price. I called her and asked why she thought it had increased and soon learned that she had landed on a scam website that attempts to make money from people applying by offering to 'help.' (I've since learned that some sites charge even more than $50 for this fake service.)
There is nothing a third party can do to help you apply for TSA Precheck or Global Entry. The process cannot be expedited. The only thing that is accomplished by using these scam sites is losing money and your personal data.
This is the only valid place to apply. If you Google "Global Entry Application" a scam website will likely appear at the top--don't click on it! Sites like this pay for advertising to appear at the top, but the US government does not.
If you have questions about Global Entry, the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol Department offers a very thorough Frequently Asked Questions page.
Mobile Passport and Mobile Passport Plus
Mobile Passport is a program similar to Global Entry except that its free. It does not reduce wait times in security lines for departing flights, but it does offer a dedicated line when arriving at a U.S. airport from an international destination. Simply download the app on your phone, set-up your profile, answer a few questions upon arrival and then speed through passport control. People going through the Mobile Passport line will still need to speak with an agent, but it will be much faster than the regular line.
Mobile Passport is currently available at 26 airports and 3 cruise ports. Click here for a complete list.
In November I tested this option with my sister, Beth, as we returned from Prague to Los Angeles International Airport. I entered the Global Entry area at the same time she entered the Mobile Passport section. She needed just five minutes longer to be cleared than I did. She travels less than I do, so this option is perfect for her.
Mobile Passport Plus is a premium version of this app that stores the user's data and provides access to a document scanner for faster uploads. In the free version information must be entered for each trip. The upgraded version is also ad free. Currently they are offering a 7-day free trial and the cost is $14.99 a year. However, when you consider that Global Entry and TSA Precheck combined are just $20 a year, its probably worth your time to apply for the government's program and receive the full range of benefits offered.
CLEAR compliments TSA Precheck by allowing its customers to skip the step of an agent reviewing your boarding pass and ID. Through a biometric scan of eyes and fingerprints, a CLEAR kiosk confirms identity and a staff member escorts you to the front of the physical security check line (this is where your bags are scanned). So if you also have TSA Precheck you will skip the first line and move more quickly through the second.
There are currently 40 airports and stadiums in the U.S. using CLEAR and the cost is $179 a year. CLEAR members can enroll their children under age 18 for free, and other family members can join for $50 each. Delta SkyMiles members qualify for discounts. Before considering this purchase, be sure it’s offered at your home airport or other airports you frequent.
To apply just visit their website, complete the brief online application and pay the fee. Then visit a CLEAR airport with your driver’s license or passport to complete the biometric scans.
Now stop waiting in line at the airport!
I hope I’ve convinced you to use at least one of these programs and that your future trips to the airport will be more pleasant. If you travel two to three times a year by air, there is a program that will make your life better and for minimal cost.
I recommend taking a look at your travel plans for the next few years and then select your best option. Make yourself start the process today! The sooner you start, the sooner you’ll have what you need to speed through airport lines.