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TSA PreCheck: What You Need to Know to Get Through Security Lines Faster

Tired of stripping down and standing in long lines just to get through airport security? This program from the TSA might be the ticket you're looking for.
July 03, 2014

“You’re in the wrong line,” the TSA agent said to me at the airport last year.

I nearly panicked, thinking it would be another 20-minute delay at the back of some equally long line like the one I’d just shuffled through. Instead, she pointed out that my boarding pass said “TSA PreCheck.” I should have been over in the almost-empty TSA PreCheck line. Oh, and I wouldn’t have to take off my shoes, she added, as she quickly waved me through.

And that's how I first learned about TSA PreCheck.

The Sweet Side of a TSA PreCheck 

The TSA PreCheck program is a bright spot for business travelers who don’t like long security lines. Consider the benefits:

  • Those with TSA PreCheck status get to go through expedited security lanes at 118 U.S. airports.

  • TSA PreCheck travelers can keep shoes, belts and jackets on. Laptops can be left in most briefcases. Your Ziploc bag with small toiletries (called a 3-1-1 compliance bag) can be left in your carry-on. 

  • In many airports, people in the TSA PreCheck line don't have to walk through the full body scanners and are instead screened with less-obtrusive metal detectors.

All positives, right? Many, if not most, travelers would agree that the TSA PreCheck program has lots of positives. But TSA PreCheck has been rolled out in a way that can only be described as confusing to the average traveler.

The Downside of a TSA PreCheck

Part of the confusion lies in the fact that there are several ways for business travelers to participate in TSA PreCheck. One very common way has been through airline frequent flyer programs. Most of the 11 participating airlines, including American, Delta, JetBlue, Southwest and United, let frequent flyers opt in to the program.

Another way is through the TSA directly. The TSA grants TSA PreCheck status on a flight-by-flight basis, based on a risk assessment. You won’t know you’ve been cleared until you get your boarding pass and see a TSA PreCheck designation printed there. And while you may be cleared for TSA PreCheck status on a departing flight, there's no guarantee you'll be cleared on the returning flight. Or you could have it on the flight you took last week but not on the one this week.

Active members of the military or the reserves also get to participate in the TSA PreCheck program. You'll also be included if you're approved for one of three other “trusted traveler” programs run by the Department of Homeland Security—the Global Entry, NEXUS and SENTRI programs.

But the way to participate that’s gaining the most ground is to apply for and enroll in TSA PreCheck for an $85 fee. You can apply online here. Then you must go in person to a local center (be sure you have your ID with you), where you'll be fingerprinted and your ID checked to validate your identity. Once you've been approved, you'll be issued a Known Traveler Number, or KTN, and your eligibility for TSA PreCheck will then be good for five years.

Membership ... With a Few Loopholes

If you think that applying for and paying the fee to enroll in TSA PreCheck and then receiving a KTN will guarantee you the fast lane at airport security every single time, understand something: It won't, according to the TSA website. Per the TSA, what that gets you is a higher “likelihood” of being cleared for TSA PreCheck on any given flight.

In addition, TSA PreCheck lines aren't always open at participating airports. In fact, during off-peak times, they may not be open at all at any airport. So you still may have to dig out that bag of toiletries and remove your shoes and belt.

On top of that, if you haven’t yet input your KTN number into your airline frequent flyer profile—or if you book your ticket through a third-party website—your number may not get connected to your flight. Therefore, you may not be cleared for TSA PreCheck on that particular flight. This TSA blog post describes what steps you should take to improve the likelihood of being cleared for TSA PreCheck screening on your next flight, if you have a KTN. However, it concludes by saying: 

“As always, TSA continues to incorporate random and unpredictable security measures throughout the airport, and no individual will be guaranteed expedited screening.” 

And therein lies one of the biggest drawbacks about the TSA PreCheck program: You can’t count on being cleared for TSA PreCheck for every flight. For business travelers, that makes it hard to plan in advance.   

Another drawback for some are privacy concerns when you enroll in TSA PreCheck. Some privacy experts have expressed concern about providing their fingerprints and other personal information, even for a helpful reason like expedited airport security lines.  

Still, despite the uncertainty of not knowing whether you definitely, positively will have PreCheck status on every flight, it’s nice to not have to undress just to be able to get on a plane. And for most people, that will move the TSA PreCheck program squarely into the positive column.

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Photo: Getty Images