Travel tips and tricks about navigating the airport with TSA PreCheck. It’s easy to get approved if you meet the criteria, and this 5 year verification makes travel so much easier when you can go through the PreCheck line.
The TSA PreCheck program has been around for awhile now, although the big push has been in the past couple months. I live in Chicago, and we started having newspaper articles back in January warning us how awful the lines would start becoming. Couple that with Illinois drivers’ licenses not being secure enough so that secondary screening will be required shortly (though this is now slowly and painfully being remedied), and lines are atrocious. All this week, there have been news stories about the length of lines and people missing their flights.
Don’t let this be you.
I’ve heard three main arguments against getting TSA PreCheck. First, it’s expensive. Well… it’s $85. For five full years, which works out to $17 per year. Single flight fares vary more than that. If you’re truly worried about an upfront $85, the financial planner in me might suggest you cancel your vacation plans and save up a little longer for your own peace of mind. The pain of going through the application process exists, but you can complete the actual interview in well under ten minutes. And then there’s the privacy concern. It’s legit, and I get that. But when I think about all the other government agencies that already have my information – and the information I have to share when I book a flight anyway – it’s not enough to stop me.
So You’ve Decided to Get TSA PreCheck. What is it anyway?
Does everyone need TSA PreCheck?
Well, technically, no. If everyone had TSA PreCheck, those lines would be almost as long. Even still, TSA PreCheck lines move faster because laptops don’t have to come out, shoes and jackets don’t have to come off, etc. Those security measures slow things down. Anyone over 12 years old who flies needs their own TSA PreCheck. If you are traveling with your own children under the age of 13 on the same reservation, they can go through the TSA PreCheck line with you. And yes, this means my 12 year old will have to get his own come October when he turns 13.
How much is TSA PreCheck?
The cost is $85 paid at the time of your interview. If your application is denied, you do not receive a refund of this fee.
What does TSA PreCheck get me?
Because those with PreCheck status have been prescreened and deemed low risk, some of the recent security measures will no longer apply when your ticket is marked with PreCheck status and you are flying in an airport that offers PreCheck benefits. You can leave laptops and liquids in your suitcase (though the amount of liquid you are allowed to carry does not change). Make sure you keep your liquids in the quart size bag, as well. And you can leave your jackets, shoes, and belts on when going through security. This alone makes the line move faster, but because (at this point) there aren’t that many people who have TSA PreCheck, the lines also tend to be shorter than standard lines.
Can I use it anytime I fly?
That depends on what airlines you fly and where you travel. If you travel internationally, you can use it when you leave the States, but when you fly from the foreign country back here, you will not have special accommodations. If you travel internationally with any regularity, get Global Entry instead. The cost is marginally higher at $100 and offers the same benefits as TSA PreCheck with the addition of international travel.
Within the States, airlines have to be a part of the program, too. Most major airlines are, but check the list to verify. Air Canada, Alaska Airlines, Allegiant Airlines, American Airlines, Delta Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines, JetBlue Airways, Southwest Airlines, Sun Country, United Airlines, Virgin America, and WestJet participate. Note that there are some common airlines missing like Frontier and Spirit. If you fly with them, your PreCheck won’t benefit you.
TSA has also put out a heads up that you are not guaranteed expedited screening every time you fly, as they will use “unpredictable security measures” at airports, but I have yet to experience this. Even when I flew to Jamaica and Delta wouldn’t let me check in online because my passport expires within a year, I still retained my TSA PreCheck when I arrived at the airport the day of my flight.
Does every airport have PreCheck?
Unfortunately, no. Most airports do, but there are some that do not yet have this capability. Even flying from John Wayne (Orange County) a few weeks ago, and their PreCheck was not open at that time. In that instance, I received a card from TSA that meant I didn’t have to remove my shoes or jacket. This line didn’t offer all TSA PreCheck benefits because it was the regular screening line otherwise. I still had to remove my laptop and liquids from my suitcase. Some airports have expedited screening lines closed from time to time, as well, even if they regularly offer it.
You can also check to see what airports do and do not currently offer TSA PreCheck.
I’m Sold. So how do I get qualified for TSA PreCheck?
What is the first step?
Fill out an application online. Even if you choose to do a walk in meeting rather than an appointment, fill out the application. This saves you a ton of time in information you otherwise have to provide (and verify) in person during your interview. Once you fill out your application, you have 120 days to complete your enrollment in person. If you don’t complete the process within 120 days, you will have to fill out a new application. There is no cost to the online application, as you pay when you have your meeting to review your application and background.
Do I need an appointment?
Technically no, but they help. If you have an appointment, you have first priority at the facility. Conceivably, you could show up at 11:25 for an 11:30 appointment and be out of there by 11:40 or even earlier.
The soonest appointment is really far out….
I feel your pain. When I filled out my application in early April, all locations near me had no appointments until late May. I had travel at the end of April and found a location that took only walk-ins (so the website said – it lied) and one I figured would be less busy given its location. Walk-ins receive a TSA PreCheck interview only once those with current appointments finish. At 11:35, all 11:30 appointments receive priority. 11:45 appointments wait until 11:45 unless there are no walk-ins waiting.
I lucked out and waited only an hour and a half before there was a break for me to interview. I had just six walk-ins ahead of me, which shows the benefit of appointments. At least at this location, they schedule 2 appointments at the hour and half hour. They also offer just one appointment at :15 and :45, which gives some time to get walk-ins interviewed if everyone has all their ducks in a row. Don’t count on people having all their ducks in a row, however.
If you can wait for an appointment because you haven’t yet booked travel or it’s far enough away, go ahead and book the appointment to save yourself the stress of waiting. You may find limited appointment availability with appointment times showing more than a month or two before the first opening. The wait times at many locations mean they limit walk-ins each day or prohibit them entirely, but that may change again.
What should I bring with me?
The big thing you need is appropriate identification. A passport is US government issued and makes the process go the fastest, so if you have one, bring that. If you don’t, you will need your Driver’s License and your birth certificate. Those are the easiest sets of documents and the ones more people tend to have. If you don’t, you can check out other acceptable documentation here.
Can I speed this up at all?
Yep. First, even if you are doing a walk in interview, fill out the TSA PreCheck application online. Once completed, you will receive an email confirmation with a Universal Enrollment ID. Write it down. One of the things that took the longest for other people was either filling out the application information with the interviewer or the interviewer trying to find their application via search. Having the UE ID at hand makes it a few seconds to dig up your application. You cannot to use your phone in the interview room, so don’t count on being able to search for that email and ID in the room.
What Happens Once I’ve Applied for TSA PreCheck?
How long does it take to get my KTN?
My interviewer told me it would take about 3 weeks (at that time) to find out the status of my application. That said, you can check your TSA PreCheck application status online at any time. When I checked, I received approval less than 48 hours after visiting the center. I knew only because I checked online. I did not receive a letter (dated 2 days after I completed my enrollment in person) with my KTN for more than two weeks afterwards. Don’t wait for the letter if you have travel coming.
How does the airline know that I have PreCheck?
When you make your reservation, there is a place to add your KTN (Known Traveler Number) in the reservation, just like you do your frequent flier number. I recommend that you save it in your profile on the airline’s website. This automatically populates your KTN for future travel if you book that way. You can also add it to your profile on other travel sites like Orbitz or Expedia so that when you make reservations, it will populate. Always check to verify that it is in your reservation before you check in for your flight, however!
If you check in without adding your KTN, you cannot add it and receive your PreCheck benefits.
What if I have travel already booked?
You can add your KTN into your reservation up until the point that you check in for your flight. If you already made your flight reservations, simply update your reservation on the airline’s website with your KTN. You can also call the airline and have them add it for you. As with most self-sevice, it’s just as easy to do it yourself (and you avoid the hold time).
I forgot to put my KTN into my reservation, and I already checked in for my flight. Now what?
Unfortunately, you won’t be able to use your PreCheck status. Once you officially check in for your flight, you cannot add it. Going back to your reservation and checking in again doesn’t help. The ticket agents at the airport can’t help. Consider it a great life lesson, and you’ll never forget again.
TSA PreCheck won’t solve all your travel woes. You’ll still have bad weather, missed flights, cancellations, long delays, and – yes – even long lines for security screening at the airport. This isn’t a complete solution. Even so, it’s the best opportunity to reduce travel headaches that we have at the moment, even if you aren’t a super frequent traveler.