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How to use TSA Precheck and Global Entry

by Larissa on January 11, 2015

Any American citizen or legal resident that flies more than once a year should consider TSA Precheck and Global Entry. They are two of the Trusted Traveler programs established by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to allow expedited security processing for low-risk travelers.  With them you are essentially pre-screened, allowing you to breeze through airport security in the TSA Precheck line and bypass the lines at immigration upon reentry to the US.

TSA Precheck and Global Entry: the difference between them

Domestic vs. international travel. That’s it in a nutshell. TSA Precheck gives you access to a dedicated security line at US airports. Global Entry entitles you to expedited processing at US immigration upon returning from an international destination, PLUS all the benefits of TSA Precheck. In addition, Global Entry members may have expedited processing privileges with Canada, Mexico, Australia and others. (Check the Global Entry website for the most current international program information.) There is a handy comparison chart  on the DHS website you can use as well.

TSA Precheck: travel like it’s 1999

Cost: $85 for 5 years ($17/year) TSA Precheck Website

Remember those (relatively) “carefree” days of airport travel in the 90’s . . . when all you had to do was thump your carry-on bag on the conveyor belt and walk through the metal detector? That’s basically what it’s like to use TSA Precheck. You receive a Known Traveler Number (KTN) unique to you. Input this KTN when you purchase your ticket (or any time prior to printing out your boarding pass) and the nifty little “TSA Pre√™” logo appears on your boarding pass. Present it to TSA at airport security and you are directed to the designated line.

Passing through TSA Precheck security is easier because:

  • Lines are typically shorter than regular security
  • Liquids can stay in your bag (although you are still subject to the 3-1-1 limit)
  • You don’t have to take off your shoes
  • Computers stay in their cases
  • Light coats/jackets/sweaters can stay on
  • No removal of belts (Apparently this is a big one for guys, who are in danger of dropping their trousers midway through the metal detector. For my female hips it’s always been more of an inconvenience.)

NOTE: TSA Preê is available at most major US airports; however smaller regional destinations may not have the program in place.

***Order a nifty passport cover. ***

Global Entry: travel like it’s 2099 

Cost: $100 for 5 years ($20/year) Global Entry Website

Global Entry speeds up the immigration process upon returning from an international flight. In addition to bypassing potentially long lines of weary travelers waiting to surrender their passports for inspection, you get to feel like a character in Star Trek. Walk to the kiosk, scan your passport, scan your fingerprints (very Sci-Fi!), answer a few questions, and that’s it. The kiosk prints out your customs declaration receipt, so you don’t have to fill one out on the plane prior to landing.

Keep in mind that you’ll still have to wait for your baggage if you checked it, which might gobble up any time you saved by avoiding the immigration lines. You’ll also have to wait in line for customs like everyone else. But if you’ve breezed through immigration, you’ll be first to the baggage carousel (or you can bypass it altogether if you went the carry-on route), then you’re likely to beat the crowd to customs and have no line at all.

Remember that you also have the benefits of TSA Precheck as a member of the Global Entry program, so you get to save time at the beginning of your trip as well as the end. You’ll receive the same type of Known Traveler Number as with TSA Precheck. NOTE: your KTN is entered via the airline you are flying; most international carriers don’t participate in the program, so you might not be able to use it for that particular flight, unless your ticket is on a US airline. Many international flights operate as code-shares with US airlines, so keep that in mind, as you may be able to use the TSA Precheck service even if you’re flying a foreign carrier.

Man using a new Global Entry kiosk at Newark Liberty International Airport.The Global Entry kiosk is both futuristic and fast. (Photo by John Denmark, courtesy of the US Office of Customs and Border Protection)

TSA Precheck and Global Entry: the application process

Application for each program is similar, although there are different sites for TSA Precheck enrollment and Global Entry enrollment. At each you fill out a detailed online form and, upon approval, attend an interview where you will also be fingerprinted and have a photo taken. This step intimidates many travelers and prevents them from enrolling in the program, but it shouldn’t. It’s somewhat tedious, but it’s not particularly difficult (assuming, of course, that you are an upstanding citizen).

Allow yourself some time to fill out the form, and be sure to have information about prior addresses handy. Remember the Department of Homeland Security wants to be certain that you are who you say you are. The application will be reviewed and, assuming there are no issues, you’ll receive an email—usually within a few days—that you’ve been pre-approved and can now schedule the interview.

The payment structure differs for the two programs. For TSA Precheck you pay the $85 at your interview, whereas with Global Entry your $100 enrollment fee must accompany your application. NOTE: the Global Entry application fee is non-refundable, so if you have any questions about your eligibility, be sure to check the website or contact the DHS to discuss your concerns.

TSA Precheck and Global Entry: the interview process

The interview is the time-limiting step, partly due to location and partly due to available appointment times. Don’t leave it to the last minute. (Of course, not having either one of these cards is not going to prevent you from taking your trip; it will just make it more time-consuming at security and immigration.)

Interviews are scheduled online, and each website has a complete listing of available locations and times. Note that the locations are not identical for both programs. Global Entry interview sites are located at approximately 35 major US and Canadian international airports (the Canadian locations are airports where you actually pass through US immigration before you even board the plane to the States).  TSA Precheck interviews are available at more than 300 locations nationwide, including most of the US airports used for Global Entry. 

TSA precheck sign

Appointment availability can vary from a few days to several months in advance. Locations that have limited personnel and opening hours—meaning fewer appointment slots—can take months. However busy airports are often open longer hours with more staff and can provide an appointment relatively quickly—sometimes even in a few days. At New York’s JFK Airport, for example, the facility is open from 8am to 8pm, 7 days a week.  Facilities at airport locations are outside of airport security, so you don’t need to take off your shoes to get to the interview.

You can schedule an appointment at whatever location is convenient; it does not need to be the site closest to your residence. I actually scheduled mine at JFK prior to an overseas flight (I built in plenty of extra time). Michael chose an appointment at an airport out west when he knew we’d be staying in that town for a few weeks. In both cases our appointments were prompt and took 10-15 minutes.

The interview itself was fairly straightforward, verifying identity and confirming some questions that were asked on the application form. Remember that you are speaking to a Federal Officer and be sure to answer truthfully. The officer will then take your photo and fingerprints and explain some of the rules of the program (which are also available on the website). And YOU’RE DONE!

Assuming there were no hiccups during your interview, you’ll receive an email within a day or two that you’ve been accepted into the program, which will include your Known Traveler Number. Although a card will be mailed to you about two weeks later, you can start using the program immediately upon receiving notice and your KTN. I left for Iceland a few hours after my interview at JFK and was approved while still on my trip, so I was able to use that super-cool Global Entry kiosk on my return just five days later!

TSA Precheck and Global Entry: Are they worth it?

That depends on how much you like standing in line at airports. When evaluating the two programs, travelers should consider how often they travel outside the US, as well as proximity to appointment locations. Global Entry is certainly a better value than TSA Precheck alone. But if your travel is largely domestic, and you live some distance from a major international airport, TSA Precheck will more than meet your needs.

As a self-confessed travel junkie and airplane geek, the airport is definitely one of my “happy places.” I love the thrill of seeing my name on the boarding pass and seeing my flight listed on the departure board. I get a kick out of browsing through duty-free, and even shopping at the newsstand for a pack of gum or something to read. And I could watch planes take off and land all day long.

But none of that fun starts until I’ve passed through security and can relax. And once I’ve returned, I just want to get home. Anything that can help me focus on the fun parts of travel and minimize the tedious procedures associated with it bears serious consideration. For me Global Entry is an investment that’s worth the price, and the time it takes to go through the process.

Don’t take my word for it. Check out this guy’s experience:

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JessieV January 11, 2015 at 11:20 am

Excellent tips! I’m all in for less waiting in lines…

Larissa January 11, 2015 at 11:54 am

I agree, Jessie. Let’s get to the FUN part of traveling!

Cat of Sunshine and Siestas January 11, 2015 at 12:37 pm

Really great info. I hadn’t been in the US for several years, so all of this was new to me (and jet lag didn’t help) when I flew this past year. I somehow got put in the pre-check line last week at O’Hare and it was, in short, THE GREATEST THING.

Larissa January 11, 2015 at 1:25 pm

Yes, Cat, the government is trying to encourage people to sign up for the program, so occasionally they randomly designate travelers to the TSA Precheck line. (You must have an honest face 😉 ). Next time you plan to head back to the US, sign up in advance for Global Entry. You can schedule your interview to coincide with one of your trips through O’Hare and then you’ll be good to go!

Larry January 11, 2015 at 9:49 pm

Good to see that they’re speeding up things at the airport … lines are way too long these days!

noel January 12, 2015 at 9:40 am

What an excellent overview of both programs, thanks for sharing this wonderful explanation.

Irene S. Levine January 12, 2015 at 10:01 am

I think Global Entry is the next best thing after sliced bread!

Betsy Wuebker | PassingThru January 12, 2015 at 5:25 pm

Super tips! We’ve been randomly selected for TSA Precheck several times before we left Hawaii for this RTW trip. If we were going in and out of the US more frequently than we plan, I’d probably get Global Entry.

Carole Terwilliger Meyers January 12, 2015 at 8:22 pm

I’ve had TSA Precheck several times now for free. I’m not sure how that happened. I believe it was on United only but don’t recall for sure. Anyone know what’s up with that?

Tawanna January 14, 2015 at 5:38 pm

I’m so happy that I got Global Entry in September which afforded me pre-check also. I had two international trips coming up at the end of the year and a couple of domestic flights. It worked well for the international flights but it was annoying to go into some airports and they not have TSA pre-check for a particular airline.

Lillie January 14, 2015 at 9:54 pm

Very interesting! I’ve always wondered about these options. They seem sort of too good to be true, but I suppose they really do work!

Charles McCool January 16, 2015 at 11:16 am

Nice summary of the various entry programs.

Larissa January 16, 2015 at 4:56 pm

Fortunately, TSA recognizes this and has offered an alternative!

Larissa January 16, 2015 at 4:57 pm

I agree, Irene. I love that sci-fi fingerprint scanner!

Larissa January 16, 2015 at 5:00 pm

Yes Betsy, that random selection is part of the TSA’s program to encourage more people to sign up. I have to admit, it’s what got me interested in signing up

You might want to consider Global Entry anyway . . . it’s good for 5 years and gives you the TSA Precheck benefits as well–a better value!

Larissa January 16, 2015 at 5:03 pm

TSA is assigning Precheck to random travelers to familiarize them with the program as an inducement to sign up. It worked for me–one time through the “1990’s-style” security line and I was hooked 🙂

At $20/year, it’s a fee I’ll gladly pay for the simplified process!

Larissa January 16, 2015 at 5:05 pm

Agreed, Tawanna. It’s a good–and convenient–program, but it’s not perfect. However, I think it continues to grow in popularity–it seems that every few months you read about yet another location/airline that’s come on board.

Larissa January 16, 2015 at 5:06 pm

Me too, Lillie. I was actually pleasantly surprised at how simple the entire process was.

Larissa January 16, 2015 at 5:07 pm

Glad you found it useful, Noel. I was very confused by the entire process prior to going through it, which is what prompted me to write about it.

Larissa January 16, 2015 at 5:08 pm

Thanks, Charles

Keith Shadle (@KeithShadle) January 17, 2015 at 2:00 am

Good detailed article. Really shows the benefits of GE. Less headache!! 🙂

Lloyd January 17, 2015 at 5:07 pm

Can Canadians participate in Global entry? Do we have our own program?

Marilyn Jones January 17, 2015 at 5:59 pm

This is the best and most comprehensive article on TSA Precheck and Global Entry I’ve read. Thank you for all the excellent information!!!

Lex @ LeX Paradise January 17, 2015 at 7:54 pm

The TSA Precheck just make it much more simple and easy! Now a day, there are more and more people are travelling! Such system just makes life a lot easier! I wish this will be implemented in all other countries! 😉

Larissa January 17, 2015 at 8:29 pm

Thanks, Keith. Glad you found it useful.

Larissa January 17, 2015 at 8:30 pm

I don’t know the answer to that, Lloyd. I would check with whatever government organization in Canada handles passports and/or border control.

Larissa January 17, 2015 at 8:33 pm

Thanks Marilyn. I remembered what info I was seeking before I applied, and everything I found was confusing or incomplete. Now that I’ve been through the process, I hope I can help ease the way for others 🙂

Larissa January 17, 2015 at 8:33 pm

It really does, Lex. Do they have something similar in Asian countries?

Lloyd January 17, 2015 at 10:31 pm

Thank you Larissa!

Cathy January 18, 2015 at 11:34 am

I’ve had global entry for about 4 years now. and I must admit it is absolutely THE BEST $100.00 I’ve ever spent. When returning to the US, I can be at my car in no time and on my home to my own comfy bed. When I travel with my husband – I have to unfortunately wait for him as he does not have Global entry….
As I travel domestically the majority of the time, I have found TSA pre-check the greatest thing!! My travel tip? When you decide to cheap out on an airline ticket to fly super economy, take those savings and apply them towards this program – worth its weight in gold!

Dan January 18, 2015 at 7:30 pm

Thank you so much for sharing this info!! With how much we travel we will definitely need to look into the Global Entry. Sounds super convenient 😀

Larissa January 18, 2015 at 10:23 pm

Thanks Cathy! It’s good to have the perspective of someone who has been in the program for several years . . . Nice to know it’s a benefit that doesn’t fade after the initial novelty wears off.

Now we’ve just got to get that husband of yours signed up!

Larissa January 18, 2015 at 10:24 pm

I absolutely recommend it, Dan. I cannot believe how long it took me to get off my duff and do it, but now I’m so glad I did! 🙂

Sandra Foyt January 28, 2015 at 9:36 pm

This is definitely on my To Do list, thanks for demystifying the process!

Larissa February 2, 2015 at 12:56 pm

A bit of red tape, Sandra, but definitely worth it in the end!

Mike | VagabondingMike February 21, 2015 at 5:06 pm

After spending OVER AN HOUR in a TSA line last month, I am now reconsidering my decision to pass on the Precheck & Global Entry card(s).

After all, if its god enough for Santa Claus, its good enough for me!

Cindy January 3, 2016 at 10:23 am

One quick point about the 5-year term for the Global Entry card. It is actually good 4 years from the date you get it until your next birthday. My husband received his in December and his birthday is in January, so his card’s term is 4 years and 1 month. Not a big deal, but if you plan to apply and your birthday is coming up soon, it might pay to wait.

Michael January 3, 2016 at 12:04 pm

Thanks for the tip.

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