Standing in lines at airports ranks up there with unmedicated dental procedures on my List of Fun Things. In the post-9/11 security environment, getting to your gate has gotten more complicated, and infrequent travelers may be confused or frustrated by the enhanced security. If you travel by air more than a few times per year, there are two Federal programs that can speed up your airport experiences.
The first is TSA Precheck, a program that allows passengers to be pre-screened for security risks when flying from US airports. This is also known as “the fast lane” at airport security, and is available at over 150 US airports through the major US airlines. (Click here for a list of current US airlines and airports that participate in TSA Precheck.) Enrollees are able to use the fast security lane; do not need to remove belts, shoes, or jackets; can keep their laptops in the case; and do not have to remove liquids for inspection as long as you follow the 3-1-1 rule.
Applying for TSA Precheck is straightforward:
- Complete an online application here with your basic personal information. Your application will be processed and you will receive an email with preliminary approval, assuming you do not have any “red flags” in your security check.
- Next, you need to make an appointment to appear in person for fingerprinting and identity verification. You can do this by using the link in your pre approval notice or call (855) 347-8371. At this appointment you will need to bring your US Passport OR your valid driver’s license AND an official copy of your birth certificate. Your ID will be verified and you will be electronically fingerprinted.
- Pay $85 on your way out the door.
In a couple of weeks you will receive an approval letter that includes your Known Traveler Number (KTN), the magic key that unlocks the fast lane. Go to the web sites of the airlines you fly, and in your customer profile, enter this number. From now on, when you print a boarding pass from that airline, TSA Precheck should be printed proudly at the top.
Caveat Emptor: The TSA makes it clear that membership in TSA Precheck is NOT an “entitlement.” Anyone can be searched for any reason, at any time, by TSA personnel. So be aware that TSA Precheck may get you in the fast lane MOST of the time but it is not an ironclad guarantee.
The other helpful program is Global Entry. While TSA Precheck gets you from the street to your plane faster, Global Entry speeds your return through US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) when you fly into a US airport from a foreign country. Rather than stand in the long line at Customs, you go to the kiosk, swipe your passport, lay your fingers on the fingerprint reader, answer a customs declaration question, and be on your way. You don’t even need to fill out those little slips of paper the flight attendant gives you, asking you to declare any goods you are bringing back into the country. Just take the printed Global Entry receipt from the kiosk to the CBP Agent.
Best of all, Global Entry also includes TSA Precheck as a benefit. So if you travel abroad, skip the TSA Precheck process and go straight for Global Entry. Like I didn’t, because I didn’t know at the time. Sigh.
Getting Global Entry is slightly more complicated, because there are two layers of enrollment. The first is to enroll in the Global Online Enrollment System (GOES), a CBP site that handles enrollments for several “trusted traveller” programs. Click on the link above and click the “Register” button to create an account with your own username and password. Then log in from the main page and click “Global Entry”. Have your passport and US driver’s license handy. The Global Entry application is extensive but straightforward, so be absolutely sure you have included all information asked for before you submit the application. The fee of $100 is paid at this time, and note that certain travel-themed credit cards (like the Citi AAdvantage Executive Card, the US Airways Barclaycard, and the American Express Platinum Card) have a perk that will refund this cost if you charge it on their card.
After about a week or two, you will receive an email on the GOES system (NOT in your personal email) that you have been conditionally approved. This means that you will want to log in to GOES every few days to check on your application status. By clicking the appropriate box you can now schedule an in-person appointment to complete your Global Entry application. Unfortunately the list of sites for Global Entry verification is less extensive than that for TSA Precheck, but is usually available near large airports. Be aware that appointments can be a month or two out, so allow plenty of time before your overseas trip to complete the process.
On your appointment day, take your US passport and another form of ID like a driver’s license or permanent resident card. After identity verification, a photo, and fingerprinting, you are approved. Your Known Traveler Number is activated that same day, and you receive your Global Entry card about a week later. (The Global Entry card is actually just for reference, so you don’t need to carry it with you to access the program advantages).
To be sure you get TSA Precheck on your boarding pass, enter your Known Traveler Number on your customer profile for your airlines of choice, or give it to the customer service representative if you do your business by phone.
Both programs are good for 5 years and need to be renewed or the benefits will expire. If you get a new passport number you need to update this information via your GOES account; if you change your legal name, you will need to visit the in-person Global Entry enrollment center to change it.