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Jumping the security line: What to know about programs like TSA PreCheck and Clear

Spokeo helped find answers to your most essential questions regarding TSA PreCheck and Clear using details directly from their respective websites.

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Two blue signs with white lettering suspended on a pole at an airport. Large one says "Transportation Security Administration TSA Pre" and the smaller one says

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If you've ever had a flight canceled, lost baggage, or showed up at the airport without your passport, you know how fraught 21st-century travel can be. Today, TSA PreCheck and Clear both offer ways of significantly cutting down on the most burdensome, time-consuming aspect of flying: the security screening process.

While TSA PreCheck, a U.S. government program, expedites the physical screening process, Clear reduces the time it takes to verify your identity. This major difference aside, each membership comes with its own set of pros and cons, and your own needs and budget will determine which one is best for you.

To help you decide, Spokeo helped find the answers to your most essential questions regarding both TSA PreCheck and Clear using details directly from their respective websites. From eligibility requirements to differing costs, this easy explainer will clarify which option is best for every kind of traveler.

Pros and cons of TSA PreCheck

The TSA PreCheck Screening Initiative was started in 2011 to mitigate the high costs of using an "untargeted" approach to security, where every traveler was essentially treated like a potential threat. Today, the program has retained its initial objective: to ease the burden of security measures for people who have been prevetted and deemed low-security risks.

For members of TSA PreCheck who finish the in-person enrollment process, that means access to dedicated security lines that are smoother and faster. You'll also be able to go through security without the usual shoes-off, belts-off routine, not to mention being allowed to keep your laptop and 3-1-1 liquids inside your carry-on bags. As a result of these shortcuts, 99% of TSA PreCheck passengers wait less than 10 minutes in dedicated lanes at airport checkpoints nationwide, according to the TSA.

Some sources contradict that claim, though, citing that TSA PreCheck lines can, in fact, take much longer than the normal queues. That might be partly because TSA set a new membership record in February 2023, with 15 million active members now using their security line privileges.

It might be helpful to see a PreCheck membership as simply something that offers you more options: With PreCheck, you have the ability to choose between lanes instead of being forced to squeeze into the one queue that all travelers use.

In terms of cons, note that the TSA recommends people apply 60 days before traveling to safely guarantee their PreCheck enrollment is completed in time. You'll also be required to finish enrollment in person.

Pros and cons of Clear

If your biggest gripe with airports is the long waiting line to have your identity verified before you even make it to the security conveyor belt, then Clear might be the ideal option for you. With a Clear membership, you can step up to a Clear pod to scan your boarding pass and eyes or fingerprints and be verified. That's right: No more fumbling with your passport or identity cards and suppressing your paranoia about looking different from your ID picture.

Once you've had your biometrics scanned, a Clear employee escorts you to the front of the security line. Unlike TSA PreCheck, though, Clear does not aid you in shortening the physical security screening process—you'll still have to go through a normal line and scanner.

There are a few other benefits that come with Clear: Unlike TSA PreCheck, Clear is also available to use at arenas and stadiums around the U.S., including the Barclays Center in Brooklyn and the SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles. You can also enjoy the added convenience of applying and receiving approval for Clear in any one of 54 U.S. airports on the same day.

As with PreCheck, though, some users have reported issues related to Clear's main offering: bypassing traditional identity verification. For the most part, that development has to do with Clear's expected rollout of NextGen Identity+ technology, which would replace eyes and fingerprints with your face as the primary biometric. According to some user experiences, random ID checks have been carried out—within a service claiming to help you bypass exactly that.

One-off inconveniences aside, the biggest practical caveat is that Clear's annual membership costs $189 per year, making it a little less accessible than TSA PreCheck, which has a flat $78 first-time application fee and lasts five years. Clear is also only offered at about 55 U.S. airports, a fraction of the more than 200 participating airports offered by TSA PreCheck, so you should check whether your local departure point offers one.

Why people are concerned with background checks and airport biometrics

As of early 2024, TSA PreCheck does not save biometrics for identity verification, although it is exploring its usage in future iterations of its program. It does require biometric data, including fingerprints, to complete background checks for all applicants.

While this information is supposed to be private, Gregory Nojeim, a director at the Center for Democracy & Technology, says your data could be stored in databases for 75 years and used as "part of the government's data mining." The American Civil Liberties Union has even argued that PreCheck's creation of a "whitelist" is, in fact, creating an unintentional "blacklist" of travelers who will be subject to disadvantageous circumstances (like headache-inducing lines) by not being a part of the program.

On the other hand, there's no denying that Clear primarily uses biometrics in its technology, which obviously comes with its own set of risks. Some think members of the public are sacrificing their privacy for the sake of a little bit of convenience. Should this biometric information ever be compromised, John Lipford, affiliate professor of tourism at Grand Valley State University, told National Geographic that this would have "dire consequences."

It's safe to say neither of these programs has malicious intentions in creating their technologies or application processes, but it's harder to guarantee that others choosing to abuse their databases might not.

The future of TSA PreCheck and Clear

PreCheck and Clear are both exploring elevated biometric technology to make the screening process increasingly efficient and expedient. For Clear, that means facial recognition technology requiring members to submit photo identification. The result? Even faster transition through the Clear kiosks.

TSA PreCheck members might also see the government program transition into biometric technology, basically letting members pass through security checkpoints using facial recognition tech, just like Clear hopes to do.

With each iteration of the program, it'll become increasingly important for the public to consider the potential risks their convenience affords them.

Finally, remember that neither TSA PreCheck nor Clear might be the best program for you. If you're a frequent international traveler, Global Entry allows you quicker entry into the U.S. coming from abroad. Meanwhile, frequent commuters between the U.S. and Canada could consider Nexus, which allows passengers expedited entry between the two countries.

Story editing by Carren Jao. Copy editing by Paris Close. Photo selection by Ania Antecka.

This story originally appeared on Spokeo and was produced and distributed in partnership with Stacker Studio.