CLEAR is a private airport security program that uses a background check to offer expedited security screening at select U.S. airports. I’ve taken advantage of short-term free trials in the past, but it just never made sense. You see, CLEAR only works when departing from Denver, Orlando, San Francisco, Dallas, and Westchester, NY. That’s a pretty limited list. Even if you lived in one of those cities, you would be unlikely to use CLEAR on the return journey.
Today CLEAR announced that it will be expanding to Houston-Bush Intercontinental (IAH) and Houston Hobby (HOU) this fall. San Antonio is also on the list. While I think they need at least another 10 airports before they become a competitive option for expedited security, at least they’re trying. They also need to lower the price, which remains an astronomical $179 per year.
For most passengers, the best option remains to enroll in PreCheck, an expedited security option run directly by the TSA at over 40 airports nationwide. I’ve found that in most cases, the only times I’m not able to use PreCheck are at smaller airports where the option isn’t even necessary, though of course it can be annoying early in the morning and late at night when the PreCheck line may not be operational even at participating airports. When it is available, it’s like airport security circa 1995. I just put my bag through the conveyer belt and take out my keys and cell phone.
Eligible participants use dedicated TSA Pre✓™ lanes at participating airports for screening benefits which could include no longer removing the following items:
- 3-1-1 compliant bag from carry-on
- Laptop from bag
- Light outerwear/jacket
If TSA determines a passenger is eligible for expedited screening, information is embedded in the barcode of the passenger’s boarding pass. TSA scans the barcode at designated checkpoints and the passenger may be able to receive expedited screening.
Note that unlike CLEAR, your eligibility requires you to fly with a participating airline, and the name on your ticket must match your registration details exactly. On a recent Avios booking made with Alaska Airlines, my PreCheck didn’t succeed because of an error with my middle name. (Confirm the name the agent uses when issuing the ticket.) Some airlines have begun including a mark on boarding passes that are eligible, but this is rarely necessary if you sign up for some of the programs mentioned below because of the high success rate. Participating airlines include:
- Alaska Airlines
- American Airlines
- Delta Air Lines
- United Airlines
- Hawaiian Airlines
- US Airways
- Virgin America
There can also be a chance that you won’t be selected for PreCheck on a given itinerary. I found about 50% success when I enrolled as an elite frequent flyer with United Airlines, but the odds approach 99% once I enrolled directly with the government and completed a background check. It’s a fairly harmless process, and there are four ways to join:
You will soon be able to enroll directly with PreCheck, and only for PreCheck, this fall by paying an $85 application fee and undergoing a short background check and registration process at a variety of PreCheck enrollment centers. Your eligibility will last for five years, which averages to a cost of $17 per year. I actually don’t recommend this method as there are other options that are either cheaper or more comprehensive.
Global Entry is a program operated by Customs and Border Patrol that allows you to get both PreCheck and expedited customs processing when you arrive from an international flight. It’s incredibly convenient. I’ve seen lines of two or three hundred people at immigration, yet I can walk to the side to scan my fingerprints and be out in under five minutes. You’ll need to provide a history of all the countries you’ve visited in the past five years and visit one of several CBP enrollment centers for a short interview before they take an unflattering picture for an ID you’ll never show to anyone. The cost is $100 for five years, which averages to $20 per year.
If you sign up for the American Express Platinum Card, American Express Platinum Card for Mercedes-Benz, or American Express Business Platinum Card you’ll receive a credit to cover the cost of a Global Entry application each year (I used mine for Megan). You can also add up to three additional cardholders for $175 and they’ll get their own Global Entry application credits. Some airlines, like United, may offer a fee credit for their elite members.
NEXUS and SENTRI
NEXUS and SENTRI are intended for frequent visitors to Canada and Mexico, respectively. NEXUS costs only $50 for five years, which averages to $10 per year (SENTRI is over $120). The interesting thing is that you still get access to Global Entry kiosks and PreCheck, so it’s like you get more benefits while paying half as much. The catch is that you can only complete your interview at a limited number of locations. For NEXUS, the only U.S. airports that offer interviews are at Seattle-Tacoma (SEA) and Boeing Field (BFI), both near Seattle. Fortunately you don’t need to actually live in Seattle and can complete the interview the next time you pass through the airport.
While it’s nice to see that CLEAR is stepping up its game, the government, of all people, seems to be making progress even faster with more locations and cheaper options to get expedited security. PreCheck is the one thing the TSA has actually done well, and I continue to be impressed every time I use it. Maybe that’s because my standards have slipped, but either way I’m very glad to have my Global Entry card to facilitate my domestic travel even though it’s primarily marketed as a service for international travelers.