Sailing Through Security
Pick the best option to save you time and stress at the airport.
By Tim Neville

You can get to your flight much quicker if you sign up for the right service.

So there you are at the airport, passport in your pocket, tickets in hand. At long last you’re about to embark on a lifelong-dream trip to chase bonefish and giant trevally on the sparkling flats of Christmas Island, and you’ve thought of everything. Your rods are slotted away snuggly in their tubes, your reels in their cases are neatly bundled in your bag, and you have enough flies to start your own shop. 

But, then, uh oh. The security line is longer than you’ve ever seen. People creep along like sludge through the belt-barrier maze. The queue snakes out the door and along the sidewalk as the crush of summer travel continues. According to a 2018 survey, security delays cause about 15 percent of people to miss a flight, and you don’t want to be among them. So what can you do?

Fortunately, cracking the security-line code isn’t a mystery, though it does take some planning and money. You basically have three services to choose from to expedite the process, both when leaving and coming home, and here’s how they shake out. 

TSA PreCheck lines at airport security are always shorter and move faster than others.

PreCheck Option

Probably the simplest way to quickly make your way through airport security is to jump into the Transportation Security Administration’s PreCheck line, which is always shorter and faster than the regular security queue. 

The service is available at more than 200 airports across the United States, and the screening itself tends to be more streamlined, too. You won’t need to take off your shoes or remove your laptop from your carry-on. Your toiletries can also stay packed away. Often, you’ll just pass through a standard magnetometer instead of the millimeter wave scanners, which do take longer. Plus, in my opinion, the agents running the PreCheck line seem more experienced and tend to recognize odd carry-on choices, like fly rods, reels, and even hemostats and fishing pliers, though I try to put those in my checked bags because, even if TSA regulations say only tools longer than seven inches must be placed in checked baggage, they can still get flagged. 

To get PreCheck, you need to be a US citizen or permanent resident, at least 13 years old and with no criminal record. Kids 12 and younger don’t need PreCheck as they can simply hop in the line when accompanied by a parent or guardian with PreCheck.

The application first takes place online with a few forms that cover the basics — hair color, eye color, weight, etc. — and confirm your eligibility. You’ll then need to schedule an in-person appointment with a TSA agent at one of the 400 enrollment centers throughout the country. There, you’ll get fingerprinted, show the required documents (like your passport), and submit to an interview and criminal background check.

Once the process is complete, you’ll get a “Known Traveler Number” that you can keep with your airline frequent-flier accounts and provide whenever you buy plane tickets. If you book online, by the way, don’t forget to enter that number before completing the purchase or you might not get your TSA privileges. 

Is It Worth It? 

All told, the process costs $85 and affords you five years of PreCheck. If you are wondering whether or not what you get in return makes it worthwhile to jump through hoops and shell out the money, consider that TSA says more than 90 percent of travelers with PreCheck typically get through security in less than five minutes. That’s also true for travelers switching from an international flight to a domestic one when returning home. In addition, some credit card companies will reimburse the fee if you use their card to pay it, so be sure to check with yours. 

Global Entry provides the benefits of TSA PreCheck and makes it a breeze to clear US customs and immigration when returning from abroad.

Going Global

If you travel internationally at least a few times each year, I can say from personal experience that Global Entry is definitely the best way to go.

A few years ago, I was on my way home to Oregon from a fishing trip to South America when I hit a snafu. My international flight had been delayed, and my layover time had dwindled from a reasonable two and a half hours to less than one. I hadn’t planned on checking a bag, but you couldn’t fly with reels in your carryon in Argentina, a fact I didn’t learn until I was actually going through security. So now I had to fetch a bag I’d been forced to check, get it through customs, recheck it, and still get to my gate in time for boarding. 

Judging by the length of the line, just getting through immigration would take at least 30 minutes. Luckily, I had recently received my Global Entry credentials, a service that let me sail right through US Customs and Immigration, and get my bag the moment it hit the carousel.

Instead of waiting in line, I simply walked right up to a computer kiosk, scanned my passport and fingerprints, answered a few simple questions about what I was bringing back, and had my picture taken. The machine then spit out a receipt that I showed to immigration and customs officers, who quickly waved me through. The whole ordeal took about five minutes. I barely broke stride and easily made my connection. 

Global Entry may cost a little more but, for people who travel to foreign destinations, it’s like a pass to drive on the express lane.

More Money, More Benefits

The Global Entry application process is similar to PreCheck’s. There are online forms and an in-person interview, but the questions go a little more in-depth. For instance, you’ll be expected to answer what countries you have been to recently and why you want to be in the program. You’ll also get fingerprinted and photographed. And there is no minimum age requirement, but kids need an adult to sign off.

The cost of Global Entry is higher, but only by $15, and you get TSA PreCheck baked in. So for $100 (many credit card companies also reimburse this fee), you get the benefits of both for five years. That includes a Known Traveler Number that lets you access the PreCheck lines when going through security, both on the outbound and the return. In essence, you’ll be able to glide through at about 75 US airports, and even some overseas, like Nassau, Bahamas, where you clear customs and immigration before you actually land in American soil. Keep in mind, nevertheless, that no one without Global Entry, not even your spouse or children traveling with you, can use the airport kiosks. 

As far as the customs inspection goes, typically there isn’t one when you have Global Entry; you just hand over your receipt and move on. But even if you are bringing back fish —an item you must declare at the computer kiosk— the secondary screening process it triggers tends to go fast, too. Agents will likely just X-ray your bag, often without even asking what’s actually in it. 

Like TSA PreCheck, the program is exploding in popularity. U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the agency that runs Global Entry, says enrollment has more than doubled in the past five years, going from 4.5 million people in 2017 to 10.2 million today. It’s no wonder, taking into account the considerable savings in both time and stress.

The Clear Choice

Have you seen those Clear kiosks at the airport? I have, all the time, and often wondered if I should get it. Well, after looking into it, the answer was NO! It’s not really right for me. For one, it costs $190 a year, and it only lets you speed through the identification check at security by having your eyes and face scanned to confirm who you are. While that can save you time, even more than the TSA PreCheck line, you’re still going through the regular security-check line, taking off your shoes, removing any liquids from your bag, etc. So Clear is clearly not for me! 

Tim Neville

Tim Neville is an avid fly angler who grew up on the shores of Chesapeake Bay before venturing West, where he fell in love with the mountains, streams, and the magnificent creatures they hold. As a correspondent for Outside and a frequent contributor to the New York Times for 20-plus years, Tim has traveled to more than 80 countries, all 7 continents and 49 states (damn you, Michigan!), often with a fly rod in hand. His work has been included in The Best American Travel Writing, The Best American Sports Writing and Best Food Writing series, as well as other anthologies. He currently lives in Oregon with his wife and daughter.