Spend less time in line and more time, well, anywhere other than the airport, with these apps and government programs.
I love flying, but I hate airports. Specifically, I hate the endless lines. Lines to check in, lines for security, lines for passport control, and then at the other end, lines for your luggage, more lines for passport control and, if you’re really lucky, lines for taxis or buses to get you away.
Some of these lines are unavoidable. Other lines can be shortened or skipped by just about anyone. Anyone who wants to pay up front with a bit of money and time, that is. Here’s a look at the options.
TSA PreCheck is a program run by the Transportation Security Administration that lets travelers departing from airports in the United States access a separate — and usually much shorter — line through airport security. Generally you’ll get a simplified security screening as well, letting you leave the laptops and liquids in your bag, and keep on your shoes, belt, jacket and other articles of clothing. PreCheck lines are available at more than 200 airports and with over 70 airlines, including nine new airlines this year. According to TSA PreCheck, in August 2019, 93 percent of the program’s passengers waited less than five minutes.
To be approved for PreCheck, the first step is to complete an online form that includes questions about your physical appearance and criminal history. Then you schedule and complete a 10-minute, in-person interview with a TSA official that includes fingerprinting, a photograph and background check, at one of several hundred enrollment centers all over the country.
Most people are approved a few days after their appointment, notified in writing within two or three weeks, or online. You’ll receive a Known Traveler Number, which you add to any frequent flier profiles you have, or include in any reservation with a participating airline. Your ticket will then indicate you have PreCheck, and let you access the special security lane. If you’re traveling with children under 12, they can go with you in the special lane. Children 13 and over will need to apply for their own PreCheck and Known Traveler Number.
Though PreCheck typically costs $85 for five years, several credit cards include the fee as one of their perks. Wirecutter, a New York Times company that reviews products and services, has a list of the best travel cards that include TSA PreCheck.
You can renew for an additional five years and $85, and most people can do so online. Some might be asked for an additional in-person interview.
If you live near the Canadian or Mexican border, and cross frequently, consider getting NEXUS or SENTRI. These are programs with United States Customs and Border Protection that speed crossings at those borders, plus they get you TSA PreCheck when you fly anywhere.
WHO THIS IS FOR American citizens and permanent residents over the age of 13 who fly more than infrequently and hate long lines.
WHO SHOULD SKIP IT Frequent international travelers (see Global Entry below), and anyone with NEXUS or SENTRI.
PROS Less time waiting in line.
CONS Only applicable for airport security.
Global Entry is a program run by the United States Customs and Border Protection agency. Just like TSA PreCheck, access to the program allows you to skip the long line at security when you’re departing the United States. Additionally, it speeds you through passport control when you arrive back at an American airport from overseas. At passport control you get to skip the long line, skip the paperwork and instead answer a few questions at a computer kiosk. Then a Customs and Border Protection agent double checks you’re you, and you’re on your way. Global Entry is even available at a handful of airports outside the United States, like those in Abu Dhabi and Dublin, along with land and seaports of entry, like San Ysidro in California and Port Everglades in Florida. So while PreCheck only saves time when you’re departing, Global Entry helps when you’re departing and when you’re arriving.
Getting Global Entry is similar to the process of getting PreCheck. There’s an online form, then an in-person interview with a C.B.P. agent, during which you’ll be asked why you want to be a part of the program, your employment history, any criminal history, and what countries you’ve visited recently. You’ll be photographed and fingerprinted. There’s no minimum age, though anyone under 18 will need their parent or legal guardian present at the interview. Only those with Global Entry can use the Global Entry kiosks. Any family member, including children, who don’t have it, will have to use the normal line.
The $100 fee will get you five years of Global Entry, and is covered by many travel credit cards. Since it includes TSA PreCheck for only $15 more than that service, this is an easy choice for even occasional international travelers. You also get a credit card-size Global Entry ID card which lets you use SENTRI and NEXUS lanes when crossing the border into the United States from Canada and Mexico.
If Global Entry seems great, you’re not the only one who thinks so. The program is currently quite backlogged, and it might take weeks, sometimes months, to get approved. If you get conditionally approved and there are long wait times for the interview at your closest enrollment center, you might be able to enroll on arrival at certain airports.
WHO THIS IS FOR American citizens who frequently, or even occasionally, travel internationally, permanent residents and travelers from a handful of other countries.
WHO SHOULD SKIP IT Anyone without a passport.
PROS Includes TSA PreCheck for when you leave, then speeds you through passport control when you get home.
CONS Like all of these options, there are privacy concerns. Sure, the government already knows your social security number, so adding fingerprints and a detailed history probably isn’t a huge deal, but many don’t love the idea of giving the government more information, especially since it hasn’t done a great job keeping your, or even their own, info private.
Clear is a privately run company that uses biometrics like your fingerprints and eyeballs to verify that you’re you. This, Clear claims, speeds access through security lines at more than 60 airports and sports and event stadiums across the country. Once you sign up, you just find the Clear kiosk, and once it verifies you, you get brought to the front of the security line.
Clear only lets you cut the initial ID-check line, though. You still need to pass through security like the rest of us plebes. So to speed up the actual security process, you’d need TSA PreCheck/Global Entry on top of Clear, which isn’t included. At $179 per year, that seems a lot of money for just a few minutes of a few trips per year. Additional adults added to your account, either friends or family, are $50 each per year, but children under 18 can go with you through the Clear lane for free. If you know the airports you regularly use have Clear and long lines, this could be worth it. Not for most people, though. It’s worth checking to see if your airline’s frequent flier program offers a discount. Many do.
A free version, Clear Sports, works at 22 stadiums across the country. It might be worth checking out if you go to a lot of games.
WHO THIS IS FOR Anyone with a United States photo I.D. (driver’s license, passport, etc.) and Global Entry card holders who really, really hate lines, or can’t get/don’t want TSA PreCheck.
WHO SHOULD SKIP IT Most everyone else (other than certain sports fans)
PROS Removes yet another line.
CONS Expensive, and you don’t get PreCheck or Global Entry.
Mobile Passport is a free app by Airside Mobile, a private company run by former TSA employees. It’s available on Apple iOS and Google Android and it lets you access a separate, shorter line at passport control when arriving at certain airports and ports. Instead of waiting in line to tell a person, machine or both, that you are who you say you are, you upload your info and a selfie to Customs and Border Protection via this app. C.P.B. will approve you, also within the app, sending you a QR code receipt to display on your phone that lets you breeze through passport control through a special lane.
Mobile Passport currently works at 27 United States airports and four cruise ship ports. That’s pretty much all of the busiest international airports, with a few exceptions like Washington Dulles, LaGuardia and Detroit as of this writing. The app isn’t confusing, but you’re better off downloading before you leave. I have yet to be in a passport control zone in the world that has strong Wi-Fi or mobile data signal. The free version of the app only stores your information for four hours, and doesn’t include a document scanner, so you’ll have to manually enter your information each time you travel. If you travel a lot, the premium version, called Mobile Passport Plus, is $15 a year. It encrypts and saves your information on your device (not on Mobile Passport’s servers) if you so choose, and has a document scanner to speed up the initial data entry.
WHO THIS IS FOR Americans and Canadians who hate paperwork and lines.
WHO SHOULD SKIP IT Anyone who needs help finding the camera app.
PROS Simple and free, usually.