What Is the Difference Between TSA Precheck and CLEAR at Airport Security?

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Once the airline industry gets back to normal, travelers can expect longer and longer lines to get through airport security checkpoints. Luckily, there are two programs that can help travelers skip the longest waits and get to their flight much faster—TSA Precheck and CLEAR.

It's easy to confuse the two, but they are, in fact, quite different. Participating in either program, or both, can shave precious minutes off your airport experience and get you where you're going that much faster. So if you've been wondering about TSA Precheck and CLEAR, here is a handy guide to tell you everything you need to know.

What Is TSA Precheck?

TSA Precheck is a program run by the U.S. government's Transportation Security Administration. First launched in 2013, the program now extends to over 10 million members who can use expedited security lines at over 200 airports when flying one of 73 participating airlines. The TSA estimates that 99% of travelers with Precheck have screening wait times of five minutes or less on average.

To join, you must be a U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident and submit an online application. Next, you must schedule a follow-up appointment with a TSA officer at one of the over 380 enrollment centers around the country. During the interview, your identity and personal information will be verified, and your fingerprints taken, then you must pay the non-refundable $85 application fee. Afterward, you can check the status of your application online. If you are approved, you can find out your Known Traveler Number at that point.

Once you have a Known Traveler Number, you must enter it into your various airline frequent-flier accounts to be designated as a Precheck passenger when you fly. When you check in for flights, you should see the TSA Precheck logo on your boarding pass, which will allow you to use the TSA Precheck security lines at the airport. If you do not see it, you can ask a check-in agent at the airport to add your Known Traveler Number to your reservation at that point, and this should add the designation to your boarding pass.

Unlike regular travelers, those with TSA Precheck usually do not have to take laptops and liquids out of their bags, or remove shoes and belts when going through security, which speeds up the process. TSA Precheck membership lasts five years and can be renewed up to six months before it expires. You have to pay the $85 application fee again each time you renew.

How to Save on TSA Precheck

If this application fee causes you to wince, know that several of the top travel rewards credit cards offer statement credits toward the cost of TSA Precheck applications. To take advantage of this benefit, you usually just have to charge the application fee to your card. Keep in mind that this benefit is usually applicable to either TSA Precheck or Global Entry (a similar program that covers international flights entering the U.S.) periodically, but not to both programs at once. Cards that offer this benefit typically will provide a statement credit of up to $100 for Global Entry or $85 for TSA Precheck.

You might want to apply for Global Entry instead since many travelers who participate in that program also receive access to TSA Precheck security. As you decide which of these programs is best for you, consider applying for a travel credit card. Some travel cards cover your program fee for you or provide a statement credit to help cover the cost.

What Is CLEAR?

CLEAR is a biometric identity verification platform you can use to skip the line to have your I.D. looked over. The program is available at over 30 airports (and over 20 stadiums) around the U.S. To join, you must be a U.S. citizen or permanent legal resident 18 years of age or older with a valid form of I.D. You can sign up in minutes right at the airport. Children under 18 traveling with an adult who has CLEAR can use the lanes for free. Membership is valid for one year, but can be renewed automatically or canceled online.

A representative will ask you a few background questions, take your photo and scan your fingerprint and eyes when you sign up. On subsequent visits to the airport, you can use one of the CLEAR kiosks to verify your identity this way instead of flashing a form of I.D. like your passport or driver's license to a TSA agent.

Once your identity has been confirmed, a CLEAR representative will escort you to the security screening area. CLEAR membership does not grant you access to TSA Precheck lanes. It only means you get to skip the conventional identification part of the security process and head right to the screening area. So if you have TSA Precheck, you can use that checkpoint, but if not, you have to use the regular screening checkpoint.

How to Save on CLEAR

CLEAR membership costs $179 per person per year, and you can add up to three family members for $50 per person per year. However, there are several easy ways to get a discount.

If you are a member of Delta's SkyMiles frequent-flier program, you automatically get a discounted membership rate of $119 per year, and if you have elite status with the airline at the Silver, Gold or Platinum Medallion levels, that fee drops to $109. If you're a top-tier Diamond Medallion elite, you can get CLEAR for free by presenting your credentials when signing up.

Likewise, if you're a member of United's MileagePlus program, you can get CLEAR for $119 per year, or just $109 if you have Premier Silver, Gold or Platinum status. If you are a top-tier Premier 1K member, you are eligible for a free annual membership.

Which One Should You Get?

Now for the big questions—which program is better for your needs, and should you get both? CLEAR members get to shortcut the identification portion of airport security, which gets them around potentially long lines. Those with TSA Precheck have a much more streamlined screening process since they don't have to take off clothing items or open their bags.

Joining either program can save you a ton of time when traveling. But given that there are tremendous discounts available for joining both programs—even if you're just an occasional flier—it might be worth signing up for both and giving yourself access to the best possible (and least stressful) experience at the airport.

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