The 4 Ways to Get Cleared Through Airport Security and Across Borders Fastest

Photo by Yuganov Konstantin / Shutterstock.com

The Department of Homeland Security has four different (but overlapping) “trusted traveler” programs that allow you to pay a fee and submit to pre-screening for a membership that will let you move more quickly through airport security, customs checkpoints and U.S. border crossings. U.S. citizens and “lawful permanent residents” can apply and, in some cases, citizens of a handful of other countries also are allowed.

Homeland Security could do a far better at clarifying for the public which program is useful for what purpose. To fill the gap, here’s a rundown of each program, its uses and how to apply. Also, this Homeland Security chart explains differences among the programs and links to the site for each. These programs have great benefits. Here’s how to choose.

1. TSA PreCheck

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TSA PreCheck status — the TSA calls it “Pre®” — lets you breeze through sluggish airport security by way of an expedited queue.

Cost: $85 for a five-year membership. (Want to skip the fee? TSA has a list of credit card and loyalty programs whose memberships include paying your PreCheck fee.)

Application process:

  1. Go online. Start your application at the Department of Homeland Security’s TSA PreCheck site. There, you’ll type in identifying information about yourself and schedule an appointment at one of the 380 enrollment centers around the U.S. (type in a ZIP code here to find centers near you).
  2. Interview in-person. The in-person appointment involves a 10-minute interview, including a background check and fingerprinting.
  3. Await word. Wait for notice that you’ve been approved. You’ll hear within two to three weeks after your interview — often even sooner, according to TSA’s FAQ. You also can check your status online.

When your application is approved you receive a “known traveler number.” Use the number when purchasing an airline ticket. That generates a PreCheck indicator that’s visible on your boarding pass and embedded in your boarding pass bar code.

By April 2017, according to TSA, wait times at security were five minutes or less for 97 percent of passengers with PreCheck status. About 4 million travelers have PreCheck status. It’s used at more than 180 airports by 30 airlines. For more details, see the TSA PreCheck FAQs.

With PreCheck, you can leave on a belt, lightweight jacket and shoes when you go through security. You can also keep your laptop in your bag and sail right through because you have been — as the name suggests — previously screened.

Want a look at the PreCheck application? A commercial website, ImmigrationVisaTravel, shows what it says on the PreCheck application form. (ImmigrationVisaTravel charges fees for application guidance, tips and reminders — a service not recommended by MoneyTalksNews.)

Bonus: If you are approved, family members who are not TSA PreCheck members can use expedited PreCheck security lines with you.

Is getting PreCheck worth the money and effort? Travel + Leisure senior editor Stephanie Wu is an advocate: “While I don’t recommend this (later arrival) for all travelers, I’ve consistently started arriving to the airport 20 minutes later when I’m flying an airline that participates in this program … with absolutely no stress.”

2. Global Entry

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Trusted traveler status through the Global Entry program lets you enjoy expedited treatment at customs when returning to the United States from international travel. (There’s no promise you won’t ever be pulled over for a more-thorough screening, though.) U.S. Customs and Border Protection explains who’s eligible, including Americans and citizens from a handful of other nations. As with TSA PreCheck, applicants must pass muster as “low-risk” travelers. That means that, generally, no previous (adult) felony convictions, among other things.

Cost: $100. Membership is valid for five years.

Application process:

  1. Start your Global Online Enrollment System account. Even children need their own GOES accounts to use the service. Here’s where to initiate your application online and pay the $100 fee, assessed with each application. The fee will not be refunded, regardless of whether you are or are not approved.
  2. Customs and Border Protection reviews. Next, your application is looked over by CBP. If it gets a conditional approval, your GOES account will let you know to schedule an interview.
  3. Schedule an interview. The next step is an in-person interview. Schedule it online at a Global Entry Enrollment Center near you. Here’s the list of centers. You’ll be instructed to bring certain types of identification.
  4. Check your GOES account. You won’t receive a call letting you know if your application has been approved or denied. Instead, learn your status by keeping an eye on your GOES account. The process typically takes four to six weeks, according to this additional FAQ.

Customs and Border Protection explains how Global Entry works at an airport:

At airports, program members proceed to Global Entry kiosks, present their machine-readable passport or U.S. permanent resident card, place their fingerprints on the scanner for fingerprint verification and complete a customs declaration. The kiosk issues the traveler a transaction receipt and directs the traveler to baggage claim and the exit.

Here’s the list of airports with Global Entry kiosks. Unlike with TSA PreCheck, family members are not allowed to use Global Entry kiosks unless they are approved members.

Additionally, some other nations recognize Global Entry membership. According to the Global Entry FAQs:

U.S. Citizens enrolled in Global Entry may use the Smartgate system when entering Australia without registration. U.S. Citizens may apply for the Dutch FLUX program, the Korean SES program, Panama’s Global Pass or the Mexican Viajero Confiable program for expedited entry into those countries. Additional fees and enrollment interviews will apply.

Bonus: Membership in the Global Entry program includes TSA PreCheck Trusted Traveler status, too. There’s no need to pay an additional fee or make a separate application for PreCheck. Customs and Border Protection explains here how to use your Global Entry membership to enjoy expedited PreCheck security at U.S. airports.

Lori Zaino, writer for travel advice website The Points Guy, weighs in on the benefits of Global Entry:

The process of obtaining this benefit was relatively painless, and the service has exceeded my expectationsI’m in and out of customs in literally three minutes.

3. SENTRI (Secure Electronic Network for Travelers Rapid Inspection)

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If you drive or walk into and out of Mexico frequently, SENTRI is the program for you. Citizens of any country can apply to join. At highway border crossings between the United States and Mexico, SENTRI members use expedited SENTRI lanes to get around the long traffic queues filled with nonmembers.

Cost: $122.50 for a five-year membership

Application process:

  1. Get a GOES account. Start the process by enrolling in the Global Online Enrollment System and submitting an application online.
  2. Schedule an interview. Set up an interview. Here is a list of enrollment centers, in Texas, Arizona and California.
  3. Wait for word. Watch your GOES account for word on your application.

Bonus: SENTRI members who are U.S. citizens or “lawful permanent residents” automatically enjoy Global Entry benefits if Customs and Border Protection has your ten fingerprints and passport information on file. “If you do not have passport information or ten fingerprint information on file, you will be required to schedule an appointment at a trusted traveler enrollment center in order for CBP to capture this information,” this FAQ says.

4. NEXUS

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NEXUS is much like SENTRI, offering members expedited passage through U.S.-Canada border crossings, including in vehicles, on foot and in boats and ships, as well as expedited processing into the United States or Canada when arriving by air. With your Nexus ID, no passport is required at the Canada-U.S. border. Also, members can use self-report customs forms when entering the United States or Canada via air, speeding up their processing time. There are key differences from SENTRI, though.

Note: Every passenger in a vehicle must be a NEXUS member to use a NEXUS lane at the border.

Cost: $50 for a five-year membership

Application process

  1. Get a GOES account. Start the process by enrolling in the Global Online Enrollment System and submitting an application online.
  2. Schedule interviews. Set your interviews (see enrollment center locations). Note: A NEXUS application involves separate interviews with both U.S. and Canadian authorities.
  3. Wait for word. Watch your GOES account for word on your application.

The Canada Border Services Agency offers some helpful FAQs about the NEXUS program.

Bonus: NEXUS membership includes not only membership in TSA PreCheck at no extra cost but also, for U.S. citizens, U.S. lawful permanent residents and Canadian citizens, it includes Global Entry membership too. Of the four programs, this is definitely the best deal for the money.

Also, notes NEXUS: “If you are approved to participate in NEXUS, you will receive a radio frequency identification card to use when entering the United States and Canada at designated NEXUS air, land and marine ports of entry.”

If you love to travel, or business requires you to be on the road a lot, you can make your life easier by getting on board one of these four programs.

What is your experience with TSA and pre-screening programs? Share with us in comments below or on our Facebook page.

Disclosure: The information you read here is always objective. However, we sometimes receive compensation when you click links within our stories.

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