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Fly Through the Security Line at Airports and Border Crossings

Global Entry, NEXUS, CLEAR, TSA PreCheck and SENTRI can help smooth travel 

If you’ve traveled on an airplane or crossed the border by car into Canada or Mexico, you know that the security lines and customs and immigration wait times can be long.  

This can be stressful, especially if you have a tight connection when you land or there’s a grumpy child in the back seat at a border crossing. But there are ways to skip the main security line and make your experience with airport security and land border crossings quicker and less stressful. 

Several pre-check programs are available to U.S. residents travelling at home or returning internationally where you can enter a separate, faster lane through the ID check or security, and get on your way.  

Four of these programs — TSA PreCheck, Global Entry, NEXUS and SENTRI — are government programs that do a background check to identify you as a low-risk traveler. 

Global Entry, NEXUS and SENTRI, all administered by the U.S. Customs and Border Security, offer similar benefits, but each program is designed for a slightly different type of traveler. For example, NEXUS is best for people who are planning many trips and border crossings to Canada, whereas SENTRI is best for frequent travelers to Mexico. The requirements and cost vary by program, as does the time it takes to complete the enrollment. 

A fifth option is run by the private company, CLEAR, which has its own lane at major U.S. airports, including Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SeaTac). As a member, you won‘t need to line up to show your passport and driver’s license to a TSA agent. 

Here’s a roundup of what each program involves, its costs and how you can apply: 

A mom, dad and daughter at the airport, with the girl standing on the suitcase cart.
Travelers have several options to skip the security line at airports and border crossings. Photo: AdobeStock

TSA PreCheck 

The TSA PreCheck program, administered by the U.S. Transportation Security Administration “TSA,” is designed to make it easier for low-risk, pre-screened domestic travelers to pass through the security line. Enrolled members enter a TSA PreCheck lane, where they also receive expedited security. For example, you won’t have to take out your laptop or liquids from your carry-on, or remove your shoes, belt and coat. 

How do you apply?

TSA PreCheck is a two-step application process. You first complete an online registration to ensure that you qualify. You’ll be asked to provide your address, contact information and answer some basic questions. 

How long does it take?

The online screening takes less than five minutes, and you’ll receive instant feedback on whether you can schedule the in-person appointment to complete the process. The in-person appointment takes roughly 10-15 minutes from start to finish. 

Most people will receive a known traveler number by email within a few days of the in-person appointment (once you have this number you are officially enrolled and can now start using the program). However, the number must appear on the boarding pass for you to use a TSA PreCheck security line. You’ll enter this number when booking a flight or checking in, so it appears on your bordering pass. 


TSA PreCheck members bypass the main security line and receive expedited security. This can shave considerable time off security checks at more than 200 U.S. airports, including SeaTac. 


$78 for five years payable at your in-person interview 

Who needs it? 

All travelers over age 12 need their own separate TSA PreCheck known traveler number in order to use TSA PreCheck (check the age guidelines here). You can bring children 12 and under through this lane with your own membership, however. 

A man and a woman are heading to the airport, to illustrate precheck programs that enable you to skip the line at airports and border crossings.
Global Entry, NEXUS and SENTRI offer similar benefits for international travelers, but each one is tailored for a particular type of traveler. Photo: AdobeStock

Global Entry 

Global Entry gives members access to the same TSA PreCheck and expedited security line at U.S. airports, with the extra perk of expedited security when entering the U.S. from international destinations. For example, you can use Global Entry when you land on your return to SeaTac on a flight from France. With a Global Entry membership, you will bypass the general customs lines, and check-in at a Global Entry kiosk. In most cases, you won’t have to report to a customs agent to verify your information. 

You can also use Global Entry for expedited entry in the NEXUS lane at a border crossing into the U.S. from Canada. (But note that you do not receive expedited entry into Canada from the U.S. Also, there is no designated Global Entry lane at land border crossings from the U.S. into Canada—you are in the general lane.) 

How do you apply?

Global Entry is a two-step application process. To apply, you need to first establish an online trusted traveler account and pay a non-refundable $100 fee. After a successful background check, you will be invited to set up an in-person interview at a Global Entry Enrollment Center. 

How long does it take?

The enrollment process can take up to six months. Global Entry requires filling out a more extensive online application than TSA PreCheck. (It can take up to 45 minutes to set up the trusted traveler account.) 

Once you have set up an account and paid the fee, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security will do the background check. (You can be notified as soon as the next day if you qualify.) On successful completion, you can schedule an in-person interview with a U.S. customs agent. The wait time to set up the interview can be lengthy. However, it is possible to complete the in-person interview without an appointment at an international terminal on arrival back in the U.S. from an international destination.

The in-person interview itself takes about 15 minutes. Your photo and fingerprints will be taken. Once you are approved, you will receive a known traveler number that will also give you access to the TSA PreCheck security line at U.S. airports. Within about 30 days, you will receive a Global Entry ID card. 


Global Entry memberships can reduce wait times at U.S. airports and when arriving in the U.S. from international destinations, enabling you to bypass the general line and providing expedited screenings. Global Entry also provides access to the TSA PreCheck security line at U.S. airports, as well as bypassing the general lane at a U.S. land border crossing when returning to the U.S. from Canada and Mexico.


$100 for five years payable at the time of the initial application prior to the background check

Who needs a membership?

To use Global Entry, you must have a Global Entry membership. Unlike TSA PreCheck, all children regardless of their age are required to have their own memberships. 

A woman enjoys a view of the Chateau Frontenac Castle and the St. Lawrence River in Quebec City
NEXUS members have access to their own lanes at border crossings to and from Canada, as well as expedited security at U.S. and Canadian airports. Picture is the majestic Château Frontenac in Québec City, Canada. Photo: AdobeStock


NEXUS offers similar benefits of Global Entry and TSA PreCheck but is the best option if you are making frequent trips between the U.S. and Canada. Members can use designated lanes at northern land border crossings and also get the benefit of expedited screenings of the TSA PreCheck and Global Entry programs.

How do you apply?

This is a two-step application. You first must set up a trusted traveler’s account online (this is an identical process as the Global Entry application). Once background checks are completed by U.S. and Canadian authorities, you can schedule an in-person appointment. 

For Washington residents, this normally means an in-person appointment in Blaine, Washington, on the U.S.-Canada border, where you will be interviewed both by U.S. and Canadian authorities. There are 14 centers located along the border throughout the U.S. 

Alternatively, you can complete an interview with the Canadian customs agent at one of eight Canadian airports, then do an interview with the U.S. authority at a U.S. preclearance location also located in a Canadian airport when departing Canada. 

How long does it take? 

The entire process can take a year to 14 months. The background check is more extensive than Global Entry. Both the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Canada Border Services Agency perform background checks (you apply only one time, however). A drawback with NEXUS is the enrollment process must be completed either at a border location or at a Canadian airport where there’s also a U.S. preclearance location.


NEXUS greatly facilitates travel between the U.S. and Canadian borders. NEXUS members can also use TSA PreCheck and Global Entry lanes at airports. The program is also half the cost of Global Entry but provides the additional benefit of expedited travel into Canada from the U.S. (Global Entry only facilitates crossings into the U.S.) 


$50 for a five-year membership payable at the application prior to the background checks

Who needs a membership?

All people must register with NEXUS if traveling as a family regardless of age. The program is free for children under the age of 18. 

SENTRI can make it easier to make border crossings and travel internationally to Mexico, including to guanajuato
SENTRI is designed for travelers who make frequent trips to and from Mexico. Pictured is the beautiful city of Guanajuato in central Mexico. Photo: AdobeStock


SENTRI won’t be the choice for some Washington or Idaho residents — except for those who are planning to make frequent land crossings at the U.S.-Mexico border. However, SENTRI is worth mentioning as one of the options available to travelers generally. 

With a SENTRI membership, you can avoid the main traffic lanes at land border crossings into the U.S. from Mexico. Its members also gain the same benefits as NEXUS members for crossings into the U.S. from Canada (but not expedited travel into Canada from the U.S.); as well as the use of the TSA PreCheck and Global Entry lanes at airports. 

How do I apply? 

SENTRI is a two-step application process. Just as with Global Entry and NEXUS, you need to first establish a trusted traveler account, and pay a non-refundable application fee. After a successful background check, you would need to schedule an in-person appointment with a customs agent at a SENTRI Enrollment Center. All SENTRI Enrollment Centers are located in one of four states on the U.S.-Mexico border. Once accepted, you will receive a known-traveler number and later a SENTRI ID card. 

How long does it take?

The application process takes roughly 10 months to a year. SENTRI is the least convenient option for Pacific Northwest residents due to the geographic distance. To complete the enrollment, you need to travel for an in-person interview at the southern border. 


$122.25 for five years payable at the initial application prior to the background check 


While SENTRI is designed for frequent travelers to Mexico, it provides the same benefits as TSA PreCheck and Global Entry, as well as expedited border crossings into the U.S. from Canada. 

Who needs a membership?

All people must register with SENTRI if traveling as a family regardless of the age. 

Travelers have several options to skip the security line at airports and border crossings.
Travelers have several options to skip the security line at airports, including via the private company, CLEAR. Photo: AdobeStock


CLEAR has its own ID check lane in more than 50 U.S. airports. With a CLEAR membership, you can avoid the main ID check line and fumbling around to take out your passport and driver’s license to show a TSA agent prior before going through the main security line. 

You enter a separate lane and scan your boarding pass at a kiosk and verify your ID using biometrics (a fingerprint or imagery of your eyes). You will then be escorted to the front of the TSA lane to pass through security. 


A CLEAR membership literally brings you to the front of the security line, often shaving minutes off the wait time for an ID check (or much longer wait times on holidays and busy travel days). However, you will still have the same security requirements once you enter the TSA security line (removing laptops, taking off your shoes, etc.). Note that CLEAR can be used in tandem with one of the government pre-check programs that provide expedited security clearance. 

Bonus: If you’re traveling with your children and they’re under age 18, they can enter the CLEAR line with you. They don’t need a separate membership or registration.

How do you apply?

CLEAR is a two-step application process. Typically, you apply online first to set up an account (but you can also do this at the airport in person). You must then complete your security profile in person at a CLEAR pod by adding your fingerprints or eye imagery. (Normally, you would do this the next time you fly.) 

How Long Does It Take? 

CLEAR can be used the same day you complete your security profile at the airport. 


The cost is $189 annually, but you can add up to three people for $60 each. Discounts are also available through some credit cards and airline frequent flyer programs. Anyone 18 and over needs a CLEAR membership. Children under 18 can use the CLEAR lane if traveling with their parents. 

Should I consider any program? 

Yes, each of these programs is worth exploring. Airports and border crossings are getting busier every year. You never known when security will get busy, turning a once comfortable airport arrival into a mad sprint to the gate. And have you crossed the border in a car lately? The wait time can run well past an hour on any given day. 

Precheck security programs can make the process go much more smoothly. So, check these programs out. You don’t necessarily have to be a frequent flyer. You can gain some benefit even if you travel just once or twice a year.

—Written by AAA Washington staff

—Top photo: AdobeStock

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