Travelers from, to, and through the United States are no strangers to the endless requirements of airport security. Shoes off. Laptop out. 3 oz. liquids bagged. Belt, watch, and jacket in the bin.
Next up: Step through the full-body scanner (hands up, look straight ahead, and you took the gum wrappers out of your pocket, right?). If you’re lucky, you may even be given an additional pat-downs (hold out your hands while we swab them and make sure there’s nothing explosive).
Finally, you’re declared safe for transit and rush over to the conveyor belt, hurriedly shoving your electronics, liquids, and clothing items back where they belong, hopping on one foot while you try to return your shoes to their proper place on your feet, and pray that you didn’t accidentally leave anything behind.
Airport security is a bit of a nightmare. And that’s without the lines. Add in the sometimes absurd wait times, and getting past the scanners becomes the ultimate test of patience and sanity.
Being the frequent traveler that I am, I decided recently to give TSA Pre-Check (also known as TSA Pre✓) a go. With promises of line jumping, keeping my shoes attached to my feet (no one wants to smell that), and an overall easier process I figured I couldn’t go wrong, even with an $85 price tag.
So, was it worth it?
Let’s break it down.
TSA Pre-Check application process
To qualify for TSA Pre-Check you need to be declared safe by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). To do this, you have to pass a background check. Overall, it’s a pretty painless process, though it does require you to go, in person, to have your fingerprints taken.
The general process is as follows:
Step One: Go to https://www.tsa.gov/tsa-precheck/apply and determine which option works best for you: Apply Online or Schedule an Appointment.
Keep in mind that you will need to meet with someone face-to-face regardless. The online application simply expedites the process.
If you aren’t sure where the nearest application center is, click on Find an Application Center. I highly suggest selecting Apply Online so that everything moves more quickly.
Step Two: Fill out the Pre-Enroll informtion. The forms ask basic information, such as your name, address, passport number.
Step Three: Sign up to visit one of the application centers near you.
Step Four: Bring your passport or your photo ID and birth certificate to the application center. If you completed the Pre-Enroll form this will be a quick trip. They will make a copy of your passport, fingerprint you and charge you the $85 required to process your application.
If you didn’t complete the Pre-Enroll form it will take a little more time, as they gather all of the necessary information.
Step Five: Check online in 3-5 days for your Known Traveler Number (KTN). This is a different number from the identifier number you’re given at the interview. You’ll receive a paper copy of your KTN in the mail in about 3-4 weeks.
Step Six: Enter in your KTN when you book airline tickets, or add it to your account information with the airlines you regularly fly.
Step Seven: Get through those security lines like a boss.
Your status as an official Pre-Check flyer will be valid for five years, at which point you will need to pay for a renewal.
The advantages of TSA Pre-Check
The biggest benefit of having TSA Pre-Check is, of course, the fact that you’re able to get through airport security much faster. Simply show your boarding pass (which will have the TSA Pre-Check logo on it) when entering the security area. You will be directed to a special line for Pre-Check members that is typically far shorter and quicker moving than the regular line.
In addition to faster lines, your Pre-Check status also lets you go through security without any hassle. There’s no need to remove any of the following items from your person or bags:
- Jacket (light jackets only — heavy winter jackets still need to be removed)
- Liquid bags
Because of this, you literally just set your bag on the conveyor belt, step through the scanner, and pick your bag up again. No need for bins, lost items, or emptying and refilling a million different pockets.
The Downsides of TSA Pre-Check
Of course, TSA Pre-Check isn’t perfect. It has its downsides too.
For example, the first time I used it my flight was late enough in the evening that they had shut down the special line. I had to wait in the (admittedly short) regular line before passing through the security screening. They did, however, allow me to keep my shoes and jacket on still.
Another downside to TSA Pre-Check is the fact that it is only recognized by certain airlines. Several discount carriers, like Spirit and Frontier, do not honor TSA Pre-Check status. This means that you will be stuck in the longer lines if you’re flying with them. For a full list of participating airlines, visit their website.
Finally, TSA Pre-Check, is only valid domestically, so don’t try to use it when you’re in London. Even if you’re flying a participating airline, like United, your Pre-Check status won’t be honored. International airports simply aren’t set up to participate in the U.S. program.
The Final Consensus
For someone who takes a number of domestic flights each year, and who typically flies one of the big U.S. carriers (United, Delta, US Airways), TSA Pre-Check is definitely worth the $85 price tag. For me, five years of being able to avoid stressing about long security lines provides me with peace of mind.
That said, if you tend to fly internationally, or if you often choose budget carriers that aren’t a part of the Pre-Check program, you may be better off holding onto your $85. That’s a lot of money to spend for something you won’t ever use.
My advice? Take a look at your past travel history. Would your last year of travel have been easier with TSA Pre-Check?
If the answer is yes, then I think it’s definitely worth taking the plunge.