Whether you rarely fly or you’re a seasoned road warrior, we’ve all got something in common: Spending time in airport security lines is the worst.
TSA PreCheck is a household name at this point, billed as one of the best airport timesavers out there. But even after years of growing popularity, it can still be confusing.
Here’s everything you need to know about this popular trusted traveler program, from how to get signed up, how to make sure it works, and how to get the cost of your application reimbursed.
What is TSA PreCheck?
Officially, PreCheck is run by the Transportation Security Administration, a federal government agency, as a trusted-traveler program. Unofficially, it’s your ticket for a fast pass through airport security screening.
Only members of this program are eligible to hop in the TSA PreCheck lanes, which means lines are generally much shorter than the standard screening lines. And once you’re in it, there’s no need to remove your coat, shoes, or belt, nor do you need to remove electronics or liquids from your bag. That means the line moves much faster, too.
In short, TSA PreCheck can shave a ton of time off your wait in the security line. Your first time using it, you’ll wonder why you didn’t join the program sooner.
The one catch is that TSA PreCheck only partners with specific airlines, so you may not always get that quick pass through security. However, all of the major domestic airlines and even many of the small U.S. carriers are included. More international airlines are joining the program each year. All told, 73 airlines currently participate in PreCheck.
How Do I Apply for TSA PreCheck?
Signing up is a fairly easy process – and there are two ways you can get it. And if you hold the right credit card, you don’t have to pay for it. More on that later.
For starters, you can apply online directly with the TSA. The PreCheck application is fast and easy; just fill it out and pay the fee – $85 for a five-year membership. From there, you’ll head to a certified enrollment center for a background check, including a brief interview (bring your passport!), fingerprinting, and a photo. These interviews are simple and generally take 10 minutes or less. If everything checks out, the whole process should take about two or three weeks from application to approval.
Thrifty Tip: You’ll get notified once you’re approved for PreCheck, but you can check your status online with TSA.
But there’s another way to get PreCheck: Get Global Entry instead.
Global Entry is an outstanding two-for-one for travelers. Not only do you get a fast pass through immigration and customs when returning to the U.S., but you’ll get PreCheck, too. The fact that it only costs $100 for a five-year membership is why we often recommend it for travelers deciding between Global Entry or TSA PreCheck.
The one hitch is that is applying for Global Entry typically takes much longer. Like PreCheck, it requires an in-person interview. While getting conditional approval from the federal government before your interview often takes just a week or so, it can sometimes take several months. And there are fewer Global Entry enrollment centers nationwide, so scheduling an interview can take weeks – if not months.
Thrifty Tip: Keep checking back to the Global Entry appointment calendar to see if you can slide into a canceled slot. Otherwise, try Enrollment on Arrival when you return from an international flight.
Whichever route you go, once you’re approved for PreCheck, you’ll get a Known Traveler Number. Be sure to plug this number into your frequent flyer accounts with the airline(s) you’re flying. Just log in online and pull up your account information to enter it.
Wait, Can I Really Get Reimbursed for PreCheck?
While getting PreCheck will typically run you $85 or $100 for five years, depending on how you get signed up, you don’t actually have to pay it. This is where carrying the right travel credit card can pay off big.
A growing number of credit cards come with a credit of up to $100 that will cover your application for either Global Entry or TSA PreCheck. It works once every four years. Just pay the application fee with one of these credit cards and you’ll be automatically reimbursed.
Thrifty Tip: Already have PreCheck and want to use your credit for someone else? Simply pay the application fee for a family member or friend with your card and it will work just the same.
One of our favorite cards for getting signed up for PreCheck or Global Entry is the Capital One Venture Rewards card. In addition to some other sweet perks – not to mention the 50,000 Venture miles you earn after spending $3,000 in three months on the card – you get this $100 application credit. And you can use it before paying the card’s $95 annual fee, as that’s waived in the first year.
Active members of the military also get PreCheck for free – and there’s no need to apply. Simply enter your 10-digit DOD ID number as a Known Traveler Number.
Will I Always Get PreCheck When I Fly?
Unfortunately, no. A PreCheck membership doesn’t guarantee you access to the faster PreCheck lane. It seems silly, we know.
The biggest variable here is which airline you’re flying. Rather than being an all-encompassing security program attached to your ID, PreCheck only works with select, participating airlines. That’s why you have to enter your Known Traveler Number individually with each airline.
Luckily, a growing number of airlines are joining up to participate in PreCheck. That includes all the major U.S. airlines, most of the smaller ones, and more and more international carriers. All told, 73 airlines currently participate in the program. Odds are that you’ll be able to get PreCheck for your flight once you’re signed up and approved.
But even when you’re flying a TSA-approved airline, the security agency doesn’t quite guarantee it will work for you. TSA takes pains to stress that it can vary, even for travelers who have paid for the service. Here’s a snippet from the agency’s frequently asked questions:
In our experience, those cases are typically quite rare. Just look for the TSA PreCheck logo on your boarding pass – either printed or on mobile. That’s the key to getting into the expedited security lane.
If it’s not showing up, there’s usually a simple fluke that’s easy to fix.
Why Didn’t PreCheck Show Up on My Boarding Pass?
Nine times out of 10, it’s about your name.
The name on your boarding pass and the name attached to your Known Traveler Number have to match. That’s how your PreCheck benefit carries over, and how the TSA knows that you’re trustworthy. So if you’re flustered by not getting PreCheck, it’s worth checking into whether there’s been an issue.
And typically, there’s an easy fix. Message the airline you’re flying with directly on Twitter or Facebook. It’s one of the quickest ways to solve any problem with your flights.
I ran into this issue a few months ago due to an issue with my name not carrying over properly on an award booking. Within about 15 minutes, the issue was fixed and the TSA PreCheck logo showed up on my boarding pass.
But also make sure that your Known Traveler Number is added to your frequent flyer account with that airline. You can’t skip this step, otherwise you won’t get PreCheck.
Will My Kids or Family Get PreCheck, Too?
Sometimes yes, and sometimes no. It just depends.
By the letter of TSA regulations, an adult’s PreCheck membership will apply to minors that are booked on the same reservation, so long as they’re 12 or younger. Just be sure that the TSA PreCheck holder books the tickets, and it should almost always work for kids on the same reservation.
But what about spouses, other family members, or friends? In theory, those benefits won’t pass down. But in practice, airlines will frequently pass it on to an entire reservation. Airlines just have some discretion in deciding whether or not to pass on these benefits to everyone.
In short: Airlines will often give the rest of your traveling party your TSA PreCheck benefits. But you can’t always count on it.
What About CLEAR?
CLEAR and TSA PreCheck are often used synonymously. And while they’re both great ways to cut down on your time in the security line, they’re drastically different.
For starters, CLEAR is a privately run company, while TSA PreCheck is run by the federal government. PreCheck costs as low as $85 for five years, while CLEAR charges an annual fee that starts at a whopping $179 – though you can cut down that cost substantially with Delta or United.
And the programs themselves operate much differently. PreCheck gets you into a dedicated lane. CLEAR cuts you to the front of the line – the PreCheck line, if you’ve got TSA PreCheck, or the standard line if you don’t.
That makes CLEAR and PreCheck a powerful duo to get through security as fast as possible – they’re not exactly duplicative. Just beware you’ll have to pay up for it. Read our guide to signing up for CLEAR for more information.
Thrifty Tip: Want to learn all of our best cheap travel tips and tricks for making your travels smoother? Start learning with our Thrifty Traveler University online lessons.
We mean it: TSA PreCheck is one of the best investments a frequent traveler can make. Your first (faster) trip through security, you’ll kick yourself for not getting it sooner. And now you know exactly how it’s done.