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TSA PreCheck, Global Entry, CLEAR: How these 'valuable memberships' for faster airport screening compare

"For most folks, getting Global Entry and PreCheck is the sweet spot in value."

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At a busy airport, the typical wait time to move through a security checkpoint can easily top 20 minutes, and that's before you have to remove your shoes, chuck any liquids of more than three ounces, and step into the full-body scanner.

Yet for many folks, signing up for a service that allows you to skip the line is often something that you only remember to do once it's too late.

So before your next flight, take some time to research your options for getting through security faster — a move that has become especially smart for pandemic-era travel, says Jordan Staab, CEO of SmarterTravel.

"I don't think it's ever been more important to not be in a crowd," he says. "These are very valuable memberships. Your friends and family will thank you. The faster you're in and out of lines, the better."

Of course, depending on which airline you fly, you may have access to a priority lane at security if you're flying first class or if you have elite status with the airline. Otherwise, read on to find out how the three major services for everyday fliers compare.

Get into the fast lane with TSA PreCheck

Signing up for TSA PreCheck allows you to get into that shorter, faster-moving line you look over longingly at while you wait in your endless, snaking line at the security checkpoint. To get it, you'll have to pay an application fee, submit your fingerprints, and pass a background check.

After that, you'll be given a Known Traveler Number, which you can add to your airline reservation. That number gets you into the fast lane at more than 200 U.S. airports and while flying 73 airlines, with the added advantage that travelers don't have to take off shoes, belts, or light jackets, or remove laptops or toiletries from their carry-ons.

You're not always guaranteed a shorter line in the PreCheck lane. "I've flown out of certain airports during busy times for business travel, and the PreCheck line was significantly longer," says Scott Keyes, founder of travel newsletter Scott's Cheap Flights. "But that's the exception, not the rule. In the vast majority of airports, the line will be shorter and move quicker."

The cost to apply is $85 (whether you're approved or not), but once you have it, your membership is good for five years. And if you own an annual fee credit card — especially a travel rewards card — you may be able to apply for free membership through your card issuer.

Popular cards such as the Chase Sapphire Reserve and the Capital One Venture Rewards card will cover your application fee, for instance. Earning a certain amount of points at certain travel loyalty programs, such as United Mileage Plus and Marriott Bonvoy could also earn you a free application.

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Adding Global Entry: 'The sweet spot in value'

Have a foreign vacation on the horizon? Global Entry may be for you. "If you travel internationally at all or think you might travel internationally at all, get Global Entry," says Staab.

This service helps you avoid another pesky line: the one at U.S. Customs when you return home. "Global Entry gives you the fast-pass lane when you return home from international travel," says Keyes. "Rather than standing in the long line, there's a kiosk where you put in your information, such as whether you're bringing anything back, and you get a receipt. The process only takes a couple of minutes."

To get Global Entry, you'll have to submit a $100 application fee and submit an online application before completing a background interview. One drawback here is that the wait for interviews in a convenient location near you can be long. In order to alleviate this, U.S. Customs recently announced a pilot program for remote interviews, but it will only include some renewing Global Entry members to start.

The good news for travelers choosing between Global Entry and TSA PreCheck is, you don't have to. Global Entry members receive TSA Precheck benefits as part of their membership, which also lasts for 5 years. The dual membership costs only $15 more, and the same credit cards that offer TSA PreCheck application coverage typically cover the $100 fee for Global Entry. "For most folks, getting Global Entry and PreCheck is the sweet spot in value," says Keyes.

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Meanwhile, if you're just worried about breezing through customs and don't want to wait for Global Entry's often weeks- to months-long approval process, Staab suggests downloading the Mobile Passport app. Users of the app send their information remotely to Customs and Border Patrol.

If you want the app to save your information, there's a $14.99 annual fee. Otherwise the app is free. You'll get a QR code that you'll scan at the agent's booth at the end of a separate line for app users. "You can do it on your phone on the plane, and for me, it's been an even faster line than Global Entry," says Staab. "Sometimes the line is empty — you don't even break stride."

Incorporating CLEAR for 'the ultimate power duo'

Depending which airport you fly out of, you may have noticed kiosks urging you to sign up for a service called CLEAR, which currently exists at 50 airports. The conceit behind this private service is simple: You get to cut the line.

Here's how it works. You sign up for CLEAR at one of their kiosks, where the company collects biometric data about you, such as your eyes, face, and fingerprints. Unlike the other services, which can come with a lengthy signup process, you can sign up for CLEAR on the same day as your flight. "It's immediate and on the spot," says Melanie Lieberman, senior travel editor at The Points Guy. "You walk right up, and someone at the airport can help. It took me a matter of minutes."

From then on, you'll scan yourself at a kiosk every time you fly at a CLEAR-supported airport, and a representative will escort you to the expedited security lane — essentially to the front of the line, depending if other CLEAR members are there — without having to show ID, regardless of which airline you're flying.

But which line? If you're not enrolled in Global Entry or PreCheck, you'll cut the regular line, meaning you'll have to go through the rigmarole of the shoes, the belt, and the laptop. "If you have CLEAR and PreCheck status, that is going to really speed you through the process," Lieberman says. "Those two programs together are the ultimate power duo for getting you through to your gate the fastest."

The big drawback of CLEAR, as you may have guessed, is the price. The service costs $179 per year, which may be steep for infrequent travelers. Owners of premium credit cards and high-status members of certain travel rewards program may be able to get their annual membership fully or partially covered as a benefit.

"We can all agree that travel is a little more stressful right now," says Lieberman. "If you're looking to reduce stress, do the math to see what you might have to pay for and what you might be able to get covered."

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