TSA Pre-Check is a relatively recent program launched by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) back in 2011 to enhance the pre-boarding security screening process. It started off as a bit of an experiment found in only a handful of airports and utilized by only American and Delta Airlines, but in 2013 it opened up to the public so anyone could apply. Now it’s found at over 180 different airports and involves 16 different airlines. Here’s what you need to know about TSA Pre-Check in order to decide if you should apply.
What are the benefits of TSA Pre-Check?
TSA Pre-Check offers passengers expedited security screening that comes in the form of two main benefits. The first major benefit is having access to much shorter lines and the second benefit involves having fewer restrictions to abide by when you make your way through those shorter lines.
In almost all cases, the line for TSA Pre-Check will be shorter than the standard security line. Thus, you’ll often be able to breeze through security and stress less about getting through a long, snaking line of nervous passengers. Notice I said in “almost” all cases. Sometimes the TSA Pre-Check lines get backed up just as bad (or worse) than the standard security lines so you can’t take this benefit for granted 100% of the time.
Also, sometimes, such as very early in the morning or very late, the Pre-Check lanes will not be open at some airports. However, during these times, the lines aren’t usually a problem so it’s not a major deal.
And finally, some airports don’t implement proper TSA Pre-Check lines. At some airports you may find that terminals that don’t serve the hub airline have no TSA Pre-Check or a “dumbed-down” version of it where you get to keep your shoes on but still have to abide by some of the standard rules like taking out your liquids and laptop.
Despite the occasional exception, I’ve found the TSA Pre-Check line to be shorter the vast majority of the time when going through airport security, so I definitely think the expedited line benefit is worthwhile.
The other major benefit is that you’re able to enjoy fewer restrictions when going through security. You often only have to pass through a traditional metal detector (as opposed to the full-body scanners) and you also get to enjoy the following benefits:
- Shoes can stay on
- Belt can stay on
- Light jackets can stay on
- Laptops allowed to stay in bag
- Liquids (3-1-1) can stay in bag
On occasion, if your shoes or belt contains too much metal or your jacket is too bulky, you may have to remove them.
Is it guaranteed each time I fly?
Unfortunately, getting TSA Pre-Check is not guaranteed every time you fly. However, your odds of getting Pre-Check once you are approved are somewhere close to 97% each time that you fly, so you can rest assured that you’ll be enjoying the benefit almost every time that you fly.
The application process is very simple
Compared to Global Entry, the application process of TSA Pre-Check is a breeze. (I finished the TSA Pre-Check application for both of my parents in about 10 minutes.) All that is required is very basic contact information and verification about any previous run-ins with the law and you’re done. You can find a link to the application here.
Scheduling an appointment
There are many more enrollment centers for your appointment compared to Global Entry, which means that you can schedule an appointment and get approved much quicker. There are some reports of applicants having a hard time finding openings, but TSA has made recent attempts to provide more staffing and locations for appointments so hopefully that’s less of an issue now.
At the appointment, you’ll provide some form of official identification (e.g., passport) and the agent will take your fingerprints in order to complete the background check. You then pay the non-refundable $85 fee (good for five years) and then it’s all over. For many, the appointment only takes a few minutes and is a pain-free process.
After your in-person interview, you should receive your approval decision within 5 business days, likely by email. You’ll be able to check your status online and pull up your Known Traveler Number (“KTN”) but will need to wait up to 48 hours for it to be activated. If you don’t check your status online, a letter will arrive in the mail after about 10 to 21 days after your appointment.
Add your KTN to frequent flyer accounts
It’s very important that you remember to enter in your KTN number into all of your frequent flyer accounts. When you log into your accounts online, you should see an option to input your KTN number somewhere in your profile.
Once your KTN is saved into your frequent flyer accounts, you are often automatically eligible for TSA Pre-Check each time you fly but it’s not guaranteed that your KTN will be added to your future itineraries. Thus, you should always verify that your KTN is in your itinerary each time you fly — this is especially true if someone else is booking your ticket as part of their itinerary.
Tip: if you have pre-existing reservations when you get approved, I recommend calling into the airline before you show up to the airport to make sure that your KTN is on your itinerary. Also, have your KTN handy every time you check in at the airport to so that the agent at check-in can add in your number just in case it isn’t showing up.
How do you know you’ve been cleared for TSA Pre-Check for your flight?
When you print out your boarding pass (or view it online), you’ll see “Pre-Check” somewhere on the boarding pass if you’ve been cleared. If for some reason you don’t see it, always check with an airline agent to make sure your KTN was in your itinerary. If it was, then you simply were unlucky and didn’t get cleared in that instance.
What airports participate?
There are over over 180 different airports that participate in TSA Pre-Check. You look up what airports are part of the program here.
What airlines participate?
The number of airlines that participate in TSA Pre-Check is growing each year and is now over 30. Some of the airlines that take part in the program are:
- Air Canada
- Alaska Airlines
- American Airlines
- Cape Air
- Delta Air Lines
- Etihad Airways
- Hawaiian Airlines
- JetBlue Airlines
- Seaborne Airlines
- Southwest Airlines
- Spirit Airlines
- United Airlines
- Virgin America
- Virgin Atlantic
Not all of these airlines offer TSA Pre-Check when flying internationally, however. I recently flew Southwest to Mexico and it was confirmed to me that Southwest did not offer TSA Pre-Check for international flights as of that time. Update: Southwest offers TSA Pre-Check on international flights now!
Membership is good for five years
Your membership will continue for five years. After that point, you’ll need to return to a TSA enrollment center to renew your application.
Use credit cards to cover the application fee
I mentioned the fee is $85 (non-refundable) for five years worth of membership, which isn’t bad at all. However, many credit cards offer statement credits that you can use to get TSA Pre-Check for free. Some of these cards are:
- Chase Sapphire Reserve
- Platinum Card from American Express
- Citi Prestige
- Citi Executive AAdvantage Card
- Ritz-Carlton Rewards Card
These cards offer credits for both TSA Pre-Check and Global Entry. Thus, you need to arrive at a decision about which one is better for you to apply for before utilizing your credit.
Global Entry or TSA Pre-Check?
I’ll write a little more in depth on this decision at a later time, but many people are not sure which program is better for them to apply for. It’s actually a pretty easy decision to make, considering that if you get Global Entry, you also get the TSA Pre-Check with it.
Thus, the question is do you need the additional benefits of Global Entry? The factors you should consider are:
- Do you fly internationally? Global Entry is allows for expedited entry into the U.S., so if you never fly internationally, this benefit will not be needed.
- Do you have a checkered criminal history? The standard for approval are much higher for Global Entry with respect to having a criminal history. If you have things on your record (e.g., DWI, possession, etc.), you might not be able to get approved for Global Entry but might still have a shot with Pre-Check.
- Are you near an enrollment center? If you’re very far away from a Global Entry enrollment center and aren’t crazy about the expedited entry into the U.S., you might not feel it’s worth it to travel that far when you can likely find a TSA Pre-Check center much closer.
All things considered, if you’re not interested in Global Entry, TSA Pre-Check is worth the little bit of time it takes to apply. And considering that you can get this benefit for free with certain credit cards, it definitely makes sense to look into applying and making your travel experience a little less stressful.
Daniel Gillaspia is the Founder of UponArriving.com and creator of the credit card app, WalletFlo. He is a former attorney turned full-time travel expert covering destinations along with TSA, airline, and hotel policies. Since 2014, his content has been featured in major publications such as National Geographic, Smithsonian Magazine, Forbes, CNBC, US News, and Business Insider. Find his full bio here.