If you’re a TSA PreCheck member and have noticed more company in the line at airport checkpoints lately, you’re not imagining things. New numbers show the TSA is seeing interest in its expedited security screening program like never before.
Just this month, TSA PreCheck surpassed 15 million active members. That’s a notable milestone not just because it’s a program record, but also because it represents a 50% spike in membership from just 3 years prior, when the program announced its 10 millionth active member.
Interest isn’t dying down, either. Take February 21 of this year: The TSA reported more than 19,000 people applied for membership that day alone—a single-day record.
Launched in 2013, TSA PreCheck allows members who have paid a fee of $78 and completed a prescreening process to access fast-tracked security lanes at participating airports, with shorter lines (usually) and fewer requirements for passengers (always).
The program has become a lifeline for frequent travelers, but with the influx of new members, even prescreened passengers might want to take a few extra steps to ensure the speediest possible route through airport security.
Why the recent surge in TSA PreCheck applications?
For starters, plenty of flyers let their memberships lapse during the pandemic and may be trying to reenroll now, joining first-time applicants. (Members must reenroll every 5 years.)
Also possibly driving new applications: Late last year, the TSA made PreCheck slightly more affordable, dropping the first-time enrollment fee from $85 to $78.
On top of that, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has been actively encouraging some would-be applicants to its own Trusted Traveler Program, Global Entry, to apply for TSA PreCheck instead.
Global Entry is the more comprehensive of the two, granting members TSA PreCheck access as well as expedited passport control. But CBP has been dealing with a backlog of applicants for Global Entry dating back to the pandemic and wait times for some new applicant interviews could be 6 to 18 months, according to the government.
The simplest reason for PreCheck’s current high demand, though, is the high demand for travel in general right now. Four of the 10 busiest days for air travel since the start of the pandemic fell during this month alone, according to TSA data. On March 19, the agency screened a whopping 5,592,384 people at U.S. checkpoints—more than on any day since the 2019 holiday season.
TSA press secretary Carter Langston believes the inundation of applications is a sign that travelers want to remove as many pain points as possible as they head to the airport en masse to make up for lost time. “They want to do so with the greatest convenience possible,” Langston told Frommer’s.
Amid the record enrollment, can frequent flyers expect more crowded PreCheck lines?
TSA data doesn’t suggest any notable inconvenience—at least not yet. Nationwide, 92% of flyers with TSA PreCheck still wait less than 5 minutes, the agency reported in a March statement.
But with PreCheck membership on a sharp upswing and plenty of roadblocks still present for Global Entry, here are some smart ways you can prepare for the larger share of passengers heading for the expedited lanes.
Use technology to your advantage.
Download the MyTSA mobile app to see where TSA PreCheck lanes are located at your airport, when they’re open, and in which terminals they’re available so that you can plot your route in advance.
You can also view current and typical wait times at specific airports for right now or a particular day of the week or time of day.
Watch out for Fridays and Sundays.
Fridays and Sundays continue to be the busiest days of the week for air travel—by far.
If you’re traveling on either of those days, you might want to allow for more time to get through airport security, even if you have PreCheck.
Know the rules!
Just as in the standard airport security line, the TSA PreCheck lanes move faster when all flyers know the rules.
With PreCheck, that usually means knowing what not to do. You don’t have to take off your shoes, belt, or light jacket. You don’t have to take your laptop out of your bag. And those liquids and gels can stay in your bag, too (though they are still subject to the TSA’s 3-1-1 rule).
If you fly a ton, consider CLEAR.
Available at dozens of participating airports, CLEAR is a program that verifiies members’ identities via biometrics, speeding things up considerably because participants don’t have to show IDs.
At $189 annually, membership in CLEAR is considerably more expensive than TSA PreCheck, so you’ll want to evaluate whether you fly enough each year to make the investment worthwhile. (Be sure to look into whether your travel credit card will offset the enrollment fee for TSA PreCheck, Global Entry, or CLEAR).
But think twice before enrolling in Global Entry.
There was a time, not too long ago, when choosing between TSA PreCheck and Global Entry was pretty easy. TSA PreCheck gets you fast security screening, while Global Entry gets you that plus fast-tracked customs at just a marginally higher cost: $100 for 5 years vs. $78 for TSA PreCheck.
Advantage Global Entry? That’s not necessarily the case at the moment.
While Customs and Border Protection deals with the aforementioned processing delays, the agency itself encourages travelers who fly internationally once a year or less to bypass Global Entry and apply instead for TSA PreCheck, which, Langston says, has “not experienced those issues.”
In contrast to the monthslong waits for Global Entry processing, government estimates put wait times for a PreCheck interview at less than 2 weeks, with full PreCheck lane access typically approved within days of an interview.
Don’t forget to add your Known Traveler Number to your reservation.
Whether you enrolled in TSA PreCheck or Global Entry, you’ll need to follow one additional step to actually get expedited lane access.
You’ll receive a “Known Traveler Number” (or KTN) once approved. Be sure to add this number to the “secure traveler” line when filling in the details of your airline frequent flyer profile and all existing reservations.
This is how the airline will know to add “TSA PreCheck” to your boarding pass. You certainly don’t want to go through the enrollment process without getting any of the benefits.
Ultimately, the TSA considers the record number of active PreCheck members a positive sign, arguing that having a higher portion of the traveling public prescreened makes air travel more efficient and secure.
“This is a win-win program,” Langston said. “For the TSA, we [can] focus on higher-risk passengers … And then for the traveler, they get the benefit of traveling with greater ease, and faster.”