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TSA PreCheck or Global Entry: Which Is Right for You?

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TSA PreCheck or Global Entry: Which is Right for You?

The TSA PreCheck program lets you go through special security lanes at the airport, which usually means faster and less intrusive screening. Global Entry gives you everything TSA PreCheck does, plus expedited entry through U.S. customs when you return from a foreign country.

Many people should apply for these programs — especially if their credit card or frequent-flier program will cover the cost. Even if you fly only occasionally, it could be worth the work of applying.

Here’s a closer look at the programs and some tips for choosing between them.

In this article

How PreCheck works
Programs offering PreCheck status
Hassle vs. benefits 
Important considerations for both programs
How to apply
Credit cards that reimburse application fees
Other programs for travelers
Making the decision

How TSA PreCheck works

The federal government operates trusted traveler programs that allow some people to use speedier airport security lines. If you pass a background check that verifies you as a low-risk traveler, the government will issue you a “Known Traveler Number.” You can then add that number to any airline reservation you make. If you add it to a frequent-flier account, it will automatically be applied to all your reservations with that airline.

When using a KTN, you’re very likely — but not guaranteed — to get PreCheck status for your flights. You’ll see a PreCheck indicator on your boarding pass, whether paper or electronic. Eligibility is also embedded in the bar code of the boarding pass.

PreCheck status gives you access to security lanes with lighter screening: You can leave your belt and shoes on, your laptop can stay in its case, and you don’t have to take the liquids and gels out of your carry-on. Most of the time, that means a quicker line. In September 2017, 96% of PreCheck passengers waited less than 5 minutes in line, according to the Transportation Security Administration.

Nerd tip

Since the TSA PreCheck program became widely available in late 2013, passengers have sometimes been selected to use PreCheck lanes even if they weren’t enrolled in the program. The TSA said in 2017 that practice will be “significantly reduced.” It recommends consumers who fly three times a year or more apply for a program that gets them access to expedited lanes.

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Programs offering PreCheck status

TSA PreCheck

Costs $85 to apply. Some credit cards and elite frequent flier programs reimburse your application fee. Status lasts five years. Operated by the TSA, this program has one benefit: access to TSA PreCheck lanes. Those lanes are available at 200 airports and through 37 airlines, as of November 2017.

Global Entry

Costs $100 to apply. Some credit cards and elite frequent flier programs reimburse your application fee. Status lasts five years. This program is run by a different agency, U.S. Customs and Border Protection. It refers to the Known Traveler Number as PASSID, but the number is used the same way. Global Entry includes TSA PreCheck and its benefits but also gives you expedited customs screening when traveling internationally. Upon returning to the U.S., you can use an airport kiosk that should be far faster than traditional customs inspection lines. It also includes expedited processing at land borders with Mexico and Canada.

The Transportation Security Administration offers an FAQ for both programs.

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Hassle vs. benefits

For frequent travelers, Global Entry is probably preferable because it offers extra benefits when leaving the U.S. Even if you’re paying the application fee yourself, you’ll get the added benefits of Global Entry costs for just $15 extra, or $3 a year.

The downside? Applying for Global Entry is more of a hassle than TSA PreCheck. Here’s why:

  • Passport: You must already have a valid passport to apply for Global Entry. Getting a passport comes with its own costs and paperwork. Specific eligibility requirements for Global Entry are here.
  • Interview: Both programs require you to visit an enrollment center for fingerprinting and an ID check. But Global Entry also requires a scheduled interview, and availability might be weeks away.
  • Enrollment locations: There are fewer places to apply for Global Entry: mostly major airports, U.S. Customs and Border Protection Offices and some designated enrollment centers. By contrast, TSA PreCheck has far more enrollment locations — more than 380 as of November 2017. You can walk in during business hours or schedule an appointment.

PreCheck enrollment locations

Global Entry enrollment locations

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Important considerations for both programs

Privacy

For any trusted traveler program, a potential drawback is supplying information about yourself to the government, including fingerprints and a photo. Giving up that personal information is an individual decision.

Children

Children ages 12 and younger can accompany an adult with TSA PreCheck or Global Entry through the quicker airport security lines without having their own PreCheck clearance. However, Global Entry does not allow children to go through expedited customs screening without their own enrollment in the program.

Nonrefundable fees

The application fees for both programs are nonrefundable, even if your application is denied.

Traveling with others

A practical consideration with speedier security and customs lanes is your traveling companions. If they don’t have PreCheck status, you may find yourself waiting for a while on the other side of the security screening area for your family or friends.

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How to apply

If you decide PreCheck or Global Entry is right for you, you can get started with these online forms:

Apply for PreCheck

Apply for Global Entry

These application sites will guide you through the process, help you find enrollment center locations and tell you which documents to bring.

Nerd Tip

Do you have an upcoming trip, or long layover through an airport that offers Global Entry interviews? That could be an ideal time to schedule an interview without making a special trip to a far-flung enrollment center.

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Credit cards that reimburse application fees

Some higher-end credit and charge cards reimburse you the application fee for trusted traveler programs when you charge the fee to the card, mitigating its annual fee. A sampling of cards offering a statement credit for application fees:

Additionally, some credit card and travel loyalty programs will let you use travel credits or rewards points to pay for the applications fee. American Express has its own list of cards that can help you pay for trusted traveler programs.

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Other programs for travelers

NEXUS

For $50, or half the price of Global Entry, you’ll get the equivalent of Global Entry privileges for entering Canada. The bad news: An interview is required, and it must take place at a border-crossing facility. So it makes sense to apply only if you live near the Canadian border or will be traveling through and can coordinate the interview with your travel plans.

SENTRI

This is a border-crossing program with Mexico that offers similar benefits to NEXUS, but costs $122.25. Enrollment centers are only on the U.S. southern border.

CLEAR

Available at only 20 airports as of 2017, CLEAR is a prescreening program administered by a private company. It uses biometrics, such as fingerprint and iris scans, to confirm your identity at a kiosk. You must still go through physical security screenings at participating airports, but you can bypass the identification check and get straight to the conveyor belt and security scanners. It does not qualify you for the light TSA PreCheck screening. CLEAR also lets you cut the security line at several Major League Baseball parks.

This option is considerably more expensive at $179 per year. (Remember, the government programs’ fees cover five years.) Delta Air Lines has a financial stake in CLEAR and offers free and discounted memberships to its frequent fliers.

For military personnel

PreCheck status is available for U.S. armed forces service members, including those serving in the Coast Guard, Reserves and National Guard.

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Making the decision

The decision to apply for a trusted traveler program comes down to convenience at the airport versus the hassle and cost to apply. For people whose choice is between Global Entry and TSA PreCheck: Those who live near a Global Entry interview center and already have a passport should consider Global Entry, which includes PreCheck; if you don’t live near a Global Entry center, don’t have a passport and rarely travel abroad, TSA PreCheck is the better option.

Information related to the Chase Sapphire Reserve℠ has been collected by NerdWallet and has not been reviewed or provided by the issuer of this card.

Gregory Karp is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: gkarp@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @spendingsmart