What Exactly Is TSA PreCheck, Anyway?

Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images.
Of the many indignities of modern airplane travel — Checked bag fees! Overpriced bottled water! — airport security might be the worst. You’ve got to remove your shoes, coats, and belts; dig your laptop out of your carry-on; discard all your liquids; and then, find enough bins to hold everything. And even the most seasoned traveler, who has the process down to a science, can get caught between infrequent fliers who can’t keep it all straight. It may be for our safety, but it can also start a trip out on a bad (bare) foot.

Enter TSA PreCheck. While there's no way to skip the security line entirely, PreCheck allows qualifying travelers access to an expedited line where they don’t have to remove their laptops, belts, or light coats; and can keep their shoes on. Since it’s a program fliers have to opt into (and pay for), in theory, the lines are also shorter and further speed up the process.

To join the program, you have to be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident who is considered a "low-risk" traveler. There’s an $85 non-refundable application fee, plus you'll have to be fingerprinted and provide documentation proving your identity. After that, you’ll be assigned a known traveler number (KTN) that will be printed on future airline tickets to indicate your status. Once you’re approved, you’ll be good for up to five years — as long as you remain low-risk. That should be fairly easy, provided you follow the rules and refrain from harassing TSA agents (and if you're caught carrying a weapon at the airport, even a legal one, your status can be revoked).

So, is it worth it? We asked Kelly Lack, content and community lead at Spot, to weigh in. Lack has been to 35 countries and nearly every state in the U.S. — so, she knows a thing or two about flying. Her verdict: a resounding yes. “If you fly more than once a year, or are like me, always tempting fate and getting to your gate just as the last people are getting on the plane, TSA PreCheck is totally worth it,” she says.

It all sounds pretty good, but before you start your application, it's worth considering Lack’s last piece of advice. “If you fly internationally — even, say, once every five years — I'd suggest you pay the $15 extra bucks and spring for Global Entry.” With Global Entry, you pay $100 for all the same benefits of PreCheck, plus “you get to breeze through customs when you’re returning back to the States.” Global Entry also requires a brief in-person interview and a background check, but Lack says it’s not a big deal. She found time in her regular schedule to go to the airport, though some friends of hers scheduled their interviews before flights or during layovers to avoid that. Still, skipping all the forms and lines? Priceless.

So while commercial air travel may never be completely painless, for as little as $17 a year, it can be vastly improved. Now, if we could just figure out a way to avoid buying those $4 bottles of airport water, we'd be golden.

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