Ultimate guide to airport security options


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TSA Precheck, Global Entry, CLEAR can speed you through the screening process

Allie Johnson

Personal Finance Writer
Award-winning writer covering consumer and small-business credit cards.

The ultimate guide to airport security and getting through the line fast

The content on this page is accurate as of the posting date. Please review our list of best credit cards, or use our CardMatch tool to find cards matched to your needs.

If you fly, you’ve endured the chaos of airport security
screening: long lines, wrestling to take off your shoes and jacket in the
middle of a cranky crowd, and maybe even missing a flight. 

As screening has become stricter to make flying safer, it’s
become a huge hassle for travelers. 

Trusted traveler programs such as TSA Precheck, Global Entry
and CLEAR can speed you through security, and rewards credit cards increasingly
offer credits to cover the costs of this fast-track to your plane. 

If you’re unsure of what these programs offer and which one is
best, you’re not alone. The availability of multiple programs, and the fact
that some can be used together, tends to cause confusion among harried travelers. 

Use this helpful guide to learn the ins and outs of getting
through airport security faster, along with the pros and cons of each major
trusted traveler program. 

Airport security
screening 101

If you use general airport security screening, you’re
probably familiar with the steps in the process. 

First you stand in one line to have your boarding pass and
ID checked. Then you wait in another line for physical screening. You take off shoes
and outerwear and empty your pockets. You remove electronics bigger than a cellphone
and place your stuff in plastic bins on a conveyor belt. 

Your bags get X-rayed, and your body gets scanned. If you are
unlucky, you get pulled aside for a pat down. 

The expedited traveler programs available allow you to skip or speed up some or all of the above steps. Some programs
also allow you to re-enter the United States more quickly after a
trip abroad. 

However, if you don’t travel enough to justify signing up for one or more of these programs,
you can still make general security screening easier and less frustrating by being
a savvy traveler. 

What to know about airport
security screening

“The lines are getting longer and it can be really crazy,”
says Stephanie Miller, founder of the travel site The Scenic Suitcase. “So just be

What’s the best way to be prepared? 

Knowing which items of clothing
you must take off during screening can help to speed the security screening
process and ensure you don’t hold up the line. Here’s a list of requirements
for accessories and clothing: 

  • Take off belts, watches and bulky jewelry.
  • Empty your pockets of all items, including
    coins, papers and your wallet.
  • Remove your jacket and shoes, unless you are a traveler
    age 75 or older
  • Place your items in plastic bins and put them on
    the conveyor belt. 

These items come off and out to avoid setting
off a metal detector and to ease the screener’s job, says Mike O’Rourke, a travel security expert and CEO Advanced
Operational Concepts, a global security consultancy. 

“Ask any
street cop and he will tell you people tend to conceal weapons around the waist
because a belt helps hold things in place,” O’Rourke says. “And jackets have
large pockets to conceal things that shouldn’t go onboard an aircraft.” 

It’s even more important to know what you can and can’t
carry on the plane with you.

Going through screening with a prohibited item slows the line and might force
you to chuck it or check it. For a comprehensive list, see the Transportation Security
Administration (TSA) page on what you
can carry on a plane

Carry-on bags: Some items that are allowed


  • Baby supplies, including carriers, diapers, food
    and wipes
  • Beauty items such as bobby pins, curling irons,
    hairdryers, disposable razors, nail clippers and tweezers
  • Books and magazines
  • Cigarettes, cigars, electronic cigarettes and
    vaping devices
  • Medical items such as blood sugar test kits,
    braces, canes and crutches and prosthetics (some medical
    , such as CPAPs and syringes, require you to follow special
  • Solid foods such as candy and crackers and
    granola bars
  • Clothing, belts and shoes
  • Laptops, tablets and cellphones
  • Some sports equipment, including basketballs,
    bowling balls and soccer balls
  • Some hobby items, including crochet and knitting
  • Some gun accessories such as holsters or scopes
  • Small kitchen appliances including coffee makers,
    mixers and tortilla presses 

Many items, including cymbals, parachutes, scissors and even
cremated remains are allowed but require you to follow special instructions. If
you plan to bring an odd or iffy item, check ahead of time to see if you need
to jump through any special hoops. 

And a cautionary tale for parents: Breast milk may be
carried on in “reasonable quantities” but you may be singled out for special
screening. That added screening could cause a delay, even if you’re a member of
a trusted traveler program. 

Frequent traveler, founder of Business Travel Life, and TSA Precheck
member Kristina Portillo was traveling with her 8-month-old son and a bottle
full of breast milk when she was stopped at security. “It set off their bomb
detector,” she says. 

She had to wait 20 minutes for a TSA explosives expert to
come check the bottle. “He shook it twice and said, ‘You’re good to go,’” she
says. “He told me he gets called down multiple times a day over breast milk.” 

Carry-on luggage: Items not allowed on the plane


  • Any kind of flammable fuel, such as cooking fuel
    or gasoline
  • Other flammable items such as dynamite,
    firecrackers, spray paint and strike-anywhere matches
  • Gel heating pads
  • Sports equipment that could be used as a weapon,
    including bows and arrows, baseball bats, darts and golf clubs
  • Many tools, such as box cutters, drills and
    drill bits, hammers and saws
  • Many sharp objects, including wine corkscrews,
    ice picks, meat cleavers and sabers
  • Weapons such as knives, guns, swords and
    throwing stars 

Liquids and electronics: Rules about what can and cannot fly with you

  • Remove from your bag any electronics larger than a cellphone, including laptops, e-readers,
    tablets and handheld games. Place each one in a plastic bin by itself with
    nothing else under, around or on top.
  • Follow the 3-1-1- Rule
    for liquids
    . This means all liquids, aerosols, creams, gels and pastes must
    be in a sealable quart-sized bag in containers no larger than 3.4 ounces. You
    should remove the baggie from your carry-on and place it in a plastic bin for
  • Be aware that there are exceptions for liquid medications.
    You can carry medically necessary liquids in quantities larger than 3.4 ounces,
    but these must be removed and screened separately. If you’re traveling
    with an infant or toddler
    , you can bring baby food, formula and juice in
    “reasonable quantities.”
  • Be careful with packing
    food in your carry-on
    , especially any items that have a creamy, liquid or
    gel consistency. These foods, including creamy cheeses, liquid chocolate and
    yogurt, are subject to the 3-1-1 rule. Canned food is allowed but could draw
    extra scrutiny because of how it looks on an X-ray. For that reason, the TSA
    recommends stowing it in your checked baggage. 

Many foods can cause glitches in security
lines, and traveling internationally with food is likely to get you snagged at
the point of entry. “I understand budget-conscious travelers don’t want to pay
the high prices for airport or onboard food,” O’Rourke says. “However, my
honest advice is to leave most food at home.” 

Still have doubts about an item you plan to take with you?
Snap a photo and run it past AskTSA on Facebook
or Twitter
between 9 a.m. and 7 p.m. Eastern time daily. 

On Twitter, AskTSA has given its blessing to carrying on an
array of items, including: condoms, fidget spinners and rotisserie chickens.
But AskTSA has nixed other items, such as souvenir mini baseball bats, music
stands and large “massager sticks.” 

Want to avoid snafus caused by unprepared
travelers and security glitches? Keep an eye on the people in line when
choosing which X-ray machine to go to, Portillo recommends. 

“Scan the lines and see which are moving and
which are not,” she says. “Whether there is an extra picky screener, a group of
kids or people with water bottles, one line may take twice as long to get

Don’t get grounded by
the wrong ID

One important part of breezing through general security
screening is having your ID out and ready to show a TSA agent. Now, a law known
as the Real ID Act is affecting
some flyers. 

Congress passed the REAL ID Act in 2005 in response to
recommendations by the 9/11 Commission. The law prevents federal agencies from
accepting IDs that do not meet minimum security standards. The goal? To thwart
terrorists who try to use fake IDs. 

As of June 2018, 32 states are compliant with the REAL ID Act and the
other 18 states, which include California, Missouri and Pennsylvania, have been
granted extensions. All U.S. territories also have been granted extensions,
except for American Samoa, which is non-compliant. Now, travelers from American
Samoa can
no longer use their IDs
at airports. 

Right now, residents of all U.S. states can still use their
IDs, but that
will change
on October 1, 2020, when all air travelers will be required to
carry compliant IDs. 

If you are flying from a state that has been given an
extension and you want to start carrying a compliant
now, a U.S. passport or passport card might be your best options.
However, they’re not your only choices. You can use other types of ID,
including military IDs and the ID cards issued by Global Entry and other
trusted traveler programs. 

But if you arrive at the airport without the proper ID, or
you’ve forgotten your ID, you still might be allowed to fly if you undergo the
TSA identity verification process, which includes filling out a form with your
personal information and extra security screening. 

“The Real ID Act, especially as it relates to
air travel, is about safety and security,” O’Rourke says. 

Fly through the
airport with trusted traveler programs

If you’re eager to bypass some of the hassles of general
security screening, consider a trusted traveler program. Most cost $100 or less
for five years of much less stress at the airport. 

Comparing TSA Precheck, Global Entry and CLEAR

  TSA Precheck
Global Entry CLEAR
Cost  $85 (5-year membership) $100 (5-year-membership, includes TSA Precheck)  $179 a year
Why you should get it TSA Precheck is best if you only fly within the U.S., at least a couple of times a year.  Global Entry is best if you travel internationally or plan a trip abroad CLEAR is pricey, but it is best if you are a frequent flyer departing from airports that have CLEAR
Where is it available? More than 200 airports and 53 airlines are participating in program. Global Entry kiosks are in about 60 airports Available in 24 airports
How does it improve the travel experience? Dedicated TSA Precheck security line with expedited screening. You also don’t need to take off your shoes, belt and jacket, and won’t need to remove electronics from your bag.  On your return to the United States, you get to skip filling out the paper U.S. Customs and Border Protection form. In the airport, you go to a Global Entry kiosk, scan your passport and fill out the form electronically. 

If you have CLEAR, you scan your boarding pass and tap your finger (or, if there’s a glitch, have your irises scanned) at a CLEAR kiosk. A CLEAR employee then escorts you straight to the front of the line for physical security screening.

Passport required? No Yes, or lawful permanent resident card No
Application process? Pre-enroll online, visit an enrollment center, get fingerprinted and verify your ID. Pre-enroll online, visit an enrollment center for an interview, get fingerprinted and verify your ID.

Start the process online, visit a CLEAR location (no appointment necessary), complete your enrollment in 5-10 minutes (all you need is your ID).

Here’s a rundown of the main programs and their benefits: 

1. TSA Precheck

Get TSA Precheck if you
only travel domestically and you fly at least one or two times a year.


TSA Precheck is designed to allow trusted travelers at U.S.
airports to speed through security screening faster. After you become a TSA Precheck
member, you get to use a dedicated TSA Precheck security line, which is
typically shorter than the general security screening line. Your wait might be
as short as five minutes.

 As a TSA Precheck member, you also won’t need to take off
your shoes, belt and jacket. And you won’t need to remove electronics from your
bag. “It’s just a huge timesaver,” Portillo says. 

The application fee is $85, and the downside is that if you
get rejected for any reason, you don’t get your money back, Miller points out. 

More than 200 airports and 53 airlines participate in TSA Precheck.
But you might want to verify that an airline is part of the program before
booking, Miller says. On a recent trip to South Africa, she unknowingly booked a
flight on a non-participating airline. 

She had to go through general screening with five big camera
lenses and a laptop, pulling everything out of her perfectly packed bag and
then trying to shoehorn it all back in. “It was just a massive hassle,” she


Get CLEAR if you’re a
business traveler or other frequent flyer and you often fly out of airports
that have CLEAR.


CLEAR is a service offered by a private company that
complements, but doesn’t replace, TSA Precheck. It’s pricey at $179 a year, but
you might be able to get a discount, and many frequent travelers, especially
business travelers, swear by the program. 

CLEAR uses biometrics, both scans of the eye and fingerprints,
to verify the identity of members. If you have CLEAR, you can skip the initial wait in line
to show your ID and boarding pass to a TSA agent. Instead, you scan your
boarding pass and tap your finger (or, if there’s a glitch, have your irises
scanned) at a CLEAR kiosk. 

A CLEAR employee then escorts you straight to the front of
the line for physical security screening. If you have TSA Precheck, you go through
that screening and get those benefits, such as not taking off your shoes. If
you don’t, you go through standard screening. 

Frequent traveler Jacob Fu and his wife, Esther, who run the
travel blog Local Adventurer,
have had Global Entry and TSA Precheck for years and recently added CLEAR after
seeing it in action at an airport. “It’s this amazing VIP experience,” he says. 

The service is offered only in 24 select
, so it’s important to check which airports have it before you pay.
Airports with CLEAR include those in Atlanta, Los Angeles, Miami and New York. 

In some airports, CLEAR can cut your wait in line down to a
minute or so, says Andy Abramson, a business traveler who averages 200 days a
year of travel and has done two round-the-world trips. 

“The smart travelers are using Precheck,” he says. “The
really smart travelers are using Precheck and CLEAR.” 

3. Global Entry 

Get Global Entry if you
fly at least once or twice a year and sometimes travel internationally or have
plans for a trip abroad.


Global Entry is a program that speeds up your re-entry into
the United States after an international trip. There are Global Entry kiosks at
about 60

And Global Entry comes with TSA Precheck, so you get all
those benefits when you head to the airport to leave the country. Global Entry
costs only $15 more than TSA Precheck alone, so experts say it’s a good value. 

On your return to the United States, you get to skip filling
out the paper U.S. Customs and Border Protection form. In the airport, you go
to a Global Entry kiosk, scan your passport and fill out the form
electronically. You get to skip the lines and avoid getting grilled by a
customs agent. 

“Global Entry is the fastest way to getting back on U.S. soil,”
Abramson says. 

Global Entry also offers benefits in some other countries. 

For example, U.S. citizens with Global Entry can use the
Smartgate expedited traveler system when entering Australia and also can apply
for expedited traveler systems in the Netherlands, Korea, Panama and Mexico.
Global Entry status also is honored in the U.K. and New Zealand, Abramson says. 

Tip: If you don’t
want to pay for Global Entry, you can still get expedited entry into the United
States by using Mobile
Passport Control
, a free app authorized by U.S. Customs and Border
Protection. “The Mobile Passport app is huge, and nobody knows about it,”
Miller says.

The three programs above are the ones most U.S. travelers
would find most useful. But depending on your situation, you might want to
consider either NEXUS or SENTRI. 


NEXUS is designed to expedite travel between the United
States and Canada.

SENTRI speeds up car travel between the United States
and Mexico.

#Global Entry members also can apply
to use both NEXUS and SENTRI benefits
, so Global Entry still might make the
most sense for a majority of travelers. 

“Of all the trusted traveler programs, Global Entry is my
favorite,” O’Rourke says. 

Credit cards can cut
trusted traveler costs

A number of credit cards will reimburse your application fee
for a trusted traveler program. 

Some of these cards are premium cards that have high annual
fees. For example, the Chase Sapphire Reserve card ($450 annual fee) includes a
$100 credit for TSA Precheck or Global Entry and an annual $300 travel credit
to offset that annual fee. 

It’s smart to weight the benefits versus the cost to see if
paying a premium card’s annual fee is worth it to you, Portillo says. 

However, you don’t need to pay a hefty annual fee to get the
perk. The new United Explorer Card, from Chase, has no annual fee during the first year ($95 thereafter) and offers up
to $100 statement credit for your application fee for Global Entry or TSA Precheck. 

And the Capital One Venture card offers up to $100 credit
for the application fee, and the $95 annual fee is waived the first year. 

If you are a Delta SkyMiles frequent flyer or credit
cardholder, you can get a free or discounted CLEAR membership of $70 or $99 a
year, with the cost depending on your status with the airline. 

Don’t apply for a trusted travel program just because you
can get it at a discount. Instead, take the time to weight the cost, the pros
and cons and whether you’ll use the benefits. 

the program that best fits your traveling style,” O’Rourke says. 

See related:

TSA Precheck, Global Entry credits now offered on lower-annual-fee cards, 9 travel-related fees, perks your rewards card may cover for free

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