Should you get TSA PreCheck or CLEAR — or both?

With airports getting busier and security lines growing longer, it makes more sense than ever to join a program that gets you expedited screening at airports.

MIAMI, FL - OCTOBER 04: Passengers wait to clear security next to the newly opened TSA PreCheck lane which the Transportation Security Administration launched to cut down the time prescreened passengers need to stand in the traditional security line at Miami International Airport on October 4, 2011 in Miami, Florida. The pilot program launched today for fliers to use the expedited security screening in Miami, Atlanta, Detroit and Dallas/Fort Worth.The lane has a metal detector rather than a full-body imaging machine and passengers will no longer no need to remove shoes, belts, light outerwear, and bags of liquids that are compliant with TSA restrictions. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Time to get expedited security screening to avoid longer and longer airport lines. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

In the U.S., that means joining either TSA PreCheck or CLEAR. Though many travelers confuse the two –- how many times have you seen someone choose the wrong security lane in the airport? -– the programs are actually quite different.

CLEAR’s biometric identity verification process will get you to the front of the security line faster. TSA PreCheck ensures a speedier, easier screening process after your identity has been verified by an agent. Many travelers might assume that if you have CLEAR, you can also use the TSA PreCheck lane for the carry-on and personal screening process, but this is not the case. That’s why you might want to consider getting both.

Neither program is free to join. However, if you have the right credit card or elite status with certain airlines, you can significantly cut your cost.

As a side note, Global Entry is yet another expedited security program. With it, pre-approved, low-risk travelers can take advantage of mostly automated customs and immigration processing when arriving in the U.S. If you’re accepted for Global Entry, you are given a trusted traveler number that usually also grants access to TSA PreCheck lines. We’ll be covering Global Entry in a separate post.

For now, let’s just concentrate on the first two programs since they are the ones that will get you through security lines in the U.S. faster. Here is a snapshot of how the two compare.

  TSA PreCheck CLEAR
Regular Application Fee $85 $179
Membership Period 5 years 1 year
Total Members 7 million+ 3.8 million
Age Restriction 12 years+ 18 years+
Application Process Online form, then in-person background check Five-minute enrollment at airport with valid ID
Credit Card Discount Yes No
Elite Status Discount No Yes

TSA PRECHECK

Launched in 2013, TSA PreCheck allows travelers who are deemed low-risk by the Transportation Security Administration to use special security lines at airports. Travelers do not have to remove their shoes or belts or take out things like laptops or liquids from their bags. Travelers are also usually screened with old-style walkthrough machines rather than full-body scanners.

Availability: The program currently counts over seven million members and works with 73 airlines in over 200 airports. That means folks who are traveling through those airports on a participating airline should be able to use the special PreCheck lanes. According to the TSA, 93% of travelers who used TSA PreCheck lanes in July 2019 experienced wait times of five minutes or less.

tsa-precheck-desk-biometric-atlanta-delta-atl-airport-security
TSA security at Atlanta’s international terminal. (Photo by Darren Murph/The Points Guy)

Eligibility: To apply for TSA PreCheck, you must be a U.S. citizen or a foreign citizen who meets specific citizenship and residency requirements. There is no age restriction to apply, but children 12 and under can use PreCheck lanes when traveling with a parent or guardian who is a member of the program.

Applying: To apply for TSA PreCheck, you must submit an online application and pay an application fee of $85. Once the application is conditionally approved, you can schedule an in-person appointment at one of several hundred enrollment centers around the country. This step includes a background check.

Once you are approved, you will be given a Known Traveler Number. You must enter your KTN into your various frequent-flyer profiles so that it is automatically attached to any reservations you make. Barring that, you can always add it at check-in for a flight.

Expiration and renewal: TSA PreCheck membership is good for five years. You can renew your membership online up to six months before your current TSA PreCheck status expires. All you need is your name, date of birth and KTN, though some members may be directed to renew in person at an enrollment center.

TSA PreCheck lines are usually shorter and move faster.

How to get PreCheck discounted or free: The good news is that many credit cards now include a statement credit for the TSA PreCheck (or Global Entry) application fee as part of their benefits, so you can essentially apply and renew for free. Among the popular cards that feature this benefit are The Platinum Card® from American Express, the Chase Sapphire Reserve, the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card, and the Bank of America Premium Rewards credit card.

Pros: There are many reasons to apply for TSA PreCheck: the wide availability of TSA PreCheck lanes at hundreds of airports around the country, the ease of applying and the fact that many credit cards include a statement credit that covers the application fee.

Cons: Because of the program’s popularity, some travelers have noted that TSA PreCheck lanes can be longer than the normal security ones. However, an extra few minutes of waiting here and there might be worth it to avoid having to strip down and “assume the position” in a scanner every time you fly. TSA PreCheck members are not guaranteed access to expedited security every time they fly and can be randomly excluded.

CLEAR

You might have noticed a line for CLEAR members at more airports around the U.S. We have a full guide here, but let’s look at a rundown of CLEAR, its benefits and how you can apply.

Customers user CLEAR kiosks at New York JFK airport. (Courtesy of Delta Air Lines)
Customers user CLEAR kiosks at New York JFK. (Courtesy of Delta Air Lines)

CLEAR is a secure identity platform, which means it collects biometric data on members, including fingerprint and eye scans, and then uses them to automate the identity verification step in the security screening process. Travelers who enroll in CLEAR can use a separate lane with dedicated kiosks for this part of the airport experience rather than lining up to wait for a TSA agent to glance over their license or passport.

Once your identity has been confirmed, a CLEAR representative escorts you to the security screening machines. Now for the caveat. If you are enrolled in TSA PreCheck, you can head to the PreCheck screening lines and not worry about removing your shoes and belts or items from your carry-on. However, if you do not have TSA PreCheck, you have to use the normal screening lines.

Availability: CLEAR is currently available at 31 airports across the country as well as at 19 stadiums.

Eligibility: To join CLEAR, you must be a U.S. citizen or permanent legal resident 18 years of age or older. You must also present a valid form of unexpired ID such as a U.S. driver’s license, a U.S. passport or passport card, a U.S.-issued Permanent Resident Card, a state-issued ID, a U.S. military ID or a Global Entry card.

Applying: Enrolling in CLEAR takes as few as five minutes. You can start by registering online, or just complete the entire process with a representative at the security checkpoint the next time you fly. You will need to answer a few identifying questions, scan your fingerprints and the irises of your eyes at one of the machines, snap a profile photo and hand over your identification card or document for another scan.

Once you belong to CLEAR, you can add up to three family members for $50 per person per year. Children under 18 years of age can use the CLEAR lane for free when accompanied by a CLEAR member.

Expiration and renewal: CLEAR membership is only good for a year. You can set it to renew automatically, or cancel it before your renewal date by logging into your account online and changing your settings.

How to get it discounted or free: CLEAR membership costs $179 per year, but there are ways to reduce that figure. First, you can take advantage of a two-month free trial to see if you like it and use it.

Also, the program has a partnership with Delta so that SkyMiles members can enjoy a reduced annual membership fee of $119 per year. Silver, Gold and Platinum Medallions as well as folks with a Delta credit card like the Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express and the Platinum Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express get it for $109 per year. Diamond Medallions can enjoy CLEAR for free.

United has a similar partnership with CLEAR. General MileagePlus members only have to pay $119 per year. Premier Silver, Gold and Platinum elites and flyers with a United cobranded credit card like the United Explorer Card or United Club Card can get CLEAR for $109 per year while top-tier Premier 1K elites get it for free.

Finally, TPG readers can use the promo code TPG149 to get a discounted membership of $149 for the first year, or use the promo code TPG2M to get a two-month free trial membership. You can enter either code manually or use the above links to get the discount.

Pros: Unlike TSA PreCheck, if you’re an active CLEAR member, you will not be randomly excluded from using the kiosks. Likewise, even if you’re not flying an airline that participates in TSA PreCheck, you can still use the CLEAR kiosks.

Cons: If you want to use TSA PreCheck security screening, you have to join that program separately. Joining CLEAR requires handing over your biometric data.

Reasons to get both

The advent of TSA PreCheck shortened security wait times for millions of flyers who either joined the program or were occasionally granted access to the expedited security lanes. It continues to be a great way to improve the process of getting through an airport for many frequent travelers.

For its part, CLEAR cuts down your wait time even further by automating the identity verification process and whisking travelers to the front of security lines. However, having CLEAR does not automatically confer TSA PreCheck status, as Global Entry usually does. It’s also available at far fewer airports than TSA PreCheck.

Some flyers might not feel the need to join both programs, but if you spend a lot of time in airports where CLEAR is located, it would allow you to skip the ID line and perhaps use PreCheck screening lanes where you won’t have the hassle of removing clothing items or belongings from your bags. You can reduce the expense with credit cards that reimburse cardholders for TSA PreCheck (or Global Entry) applications. Just joining a frequent-flyer program significantly cuts down on CLEAR membership fees.

Featured image by Robert Alexander/Getty Images.