TSA PreCheck Might Be Worth the $85 Fee, Even During a Pandemic

Photo to accompany story about what to know about TSA precheck. Getty Images

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If you’re traveling during the pandemic, you might want to look into TSA PreCheck.

With a PreCheck boarding pass, you get a dedicated line at airport security, and it tends to move faster. 

“You don’t have to remove as many items from your carryon bag, so there are fewer touchpoints and fewer avenues for cross-contamination,” says TSA spokesperson Lisa Farbstein. While she emphasized all security lines are socially distanced right now, she also adds that with PreCheck, “you’ll be standing in that line with others for a shorter period of time.”

But it comes at a cost: $85 for five years, or $17 a year. 

Is it worth it? 

What Is TSA PreCheck?

TSA PreCheck is a program run by the TSA, or Transportation Security Administration, which is a component of the Department of Homeland Security. The PreCheck program aims to vet passengers before they get to the airport. As Farbstein explains, “it allows TSA to focus more on the passengers we know less about.”

Enrolling in PreCheck costs $85. Once approved, you get a known traveler number, or KTN, which is valid for five years. That means the annual cost for TSA PreCheck breaks down to $17. 

You then use your KTN whenever you book a flight, assuming you’re flying with one of the 73 participating airlines and into and out of one of the 200+ participating airports. In the vast majority of instances, using your KTN when booking means you get a boarding pass with “PreCheck” on it. 

That boarding pass is your ticket to the PreCheck line at the airport. It’s pretty much a fast pass at the airport. “You’re funneled into a totally separate security line, which typically cuts down on the wait for an ID check,” says Zach Griff, frequent flyer and travel analyst with The Points Guy. Passengers aren’t required to take out as many things from their bags, which speeds up the screening process, Griff says. 

“It makes travel a more pleasant experience.”

With your KTN, you get to head to the PreCheck line at airport security. In this line, you don’t need to remove:

  • Your shoes
  • Your electronics
  • Any light jackets (like a blazer or windbreaker)
  • Your belt
  • Your 3-1-1 bag (which most people use for toiletries)

Because you don’t need to do any of this, the airport PreCheck line moves faster than standard security lines. 

Pro Tip

Unless you don’t plan to fly in the next year, consider TSA PreCheck. For $17 a year, it helps you save a lot of time at airport security.

Think: much more quickly. “During the pandemic, TSA PreCheck passengers have typically waited four minutes or less. Standard lane waits are around ten minutes,” says Farbstein. Pre-pandemic, wait times averaged five or six minutes, she says.

It’s worth noting, though, you’re not guaranteed PreCheck status. To ensure the safety of all flyers, Farbstein explains, “there has to be a random nature to the system.” Every once in a while, you might book a flight and not get PreCheck status on your boarding pass. 

Is TSA Precheck Worth it?

Deciding if PreCheck is worth it comes down to analyzing the $17-a-year cost and process of enrolling in the program against the benefits. 

As we’ve mentioned, more people might consider PreCheck a worthwhile investment right now because it means you’ll likely spend less time in security and with fewer touchpoints.  

Yes, It’s Worth it

Even if you’re only taking one round-trip flight a year, it might be worth $8.50 per airport visit to minimize your hassle and time spent in line. 

“Peace of mind is well worth the cost,” says Griff, a frequent flyer. “I don’t like to spend too much extra time in airports. With PreCheck, I can nearly guarantee that I’ll be cleared through security in minutes.” Security lines for regular boarding are more of a wildcard, he says. 

It’s not just about the time savings, though. You avoid the hassle of taking out liquids, electronics, and your shoes, says Griff.  

Since travel has declined worldwide, regular security lines are shorter. But PreCheck lines “are the emptiest I’ve ever seen them,” Griff says. “On a recent flight from New York to Los Angeles, I was the only passenger in the PreCheck line, whereas the regular security checkpoint was backed up to the line’s entrance,” he says. 

If you’re a business traveler and you can expense TSA PreCheck, even better. 

What’s more, there are some travel credit cards with perks that include PreCheck membership reimbursement as a credit. The American Express Platinum and Chase Sapphire Reserve are two cards with this benefit. Check the benefits of your existing cards to make sure. 

No, Not Worth It 

That said, will you travel at all in the next year? With vaccines and herd immunity still feeling far off, many people aren’t willing to participate in air travel. And waiting a year to fly would mean essentially tossing $17 in the trash. 

If you don’t plan to fly again in the near future, you may want to wait to apply so as not to waste time in your membership.

PreCheck might also be worth skipping if your local airport isn’t a PreCheck participant. Use the TSA’s map to find out. 

Another thing to consider: kids. If your children are 12 or under, they can breeze through PreCheck with you. But if they’re 13 or older, they’ll need to get their own PreCheck status to join you in the expedited line. 

Finally, if you travel internationally, you’re better off getting Global Entry. This program costs $100, and it helps you get back through customs more easily when returning from traveling anywhere abroad. And it includes PreCheck, so you won’t need to get it separately. To learn more about Global Entry, visit the U.S Customs and Border Protection website to start an online application. Once your application is approved, you will need to visit an enrollment center. 

One more caveat: as we mentioned before, enrolling in PreCheck doesn’t necessarily guarantee you a PreCheck boarding pass, either. You may get a standard boarding pass to ensure the TSA can properly randomize their screening processes.  

How to Apply 

So, how do you get TSA PreCheck status? If you fall into any of the camps that can benefit from TSA PreCheck, you need to make sure you’re eligible. 

To become a TSA PreCheck member, you need to be a U.S. citizen, U.S. national, or lawful permanent resident. Past violations of transportation security regulations, false application information, or some criminal offenses might disqualify you. 

Assuming you’re eligible for TSA PreCheck, you can start the process online. Wondering how to apply for TSA PreCheck? Here’s a step-by-step guide. 

  1. Fill out the initial application
  2. At the end of the online application, you’ll be prompted to make an appointment at one of the 380+ TSA PreCheck enrollment centers
  3. Head to your appointment. You’ll need to bring certain documents with you. Those requirements vary depending on your citizenship status, so use this tool from the TSA to find out what to bring. Your appointment should take about 10 minutes, during which time you’ll be fingerprinted. Have COVID-19 concerns? “We’re making sure there’s enough time to allow for social distancing and disinfecting any touchpoints between appointments,” Farbstein says. 
  1. Wait for approval. You should get your KTN in writing within two to three weeks. 

Next up, it’s time to use your KTN to get airport PreCheck benefits. 

If you have a frequent traveler profile with an airline, you can give them your KTN, so they have it on file to make booking easier in the future. 

Each time you book a flight, make sure your KTN is entered in along with your other information (like your name and gender). You won’t be guaranteed PreCheck status because, as we’ve mentioned before, the TSA has to randomize the process for security reasons. But more often than not, booking with your KTN will score you a PreCheck boarding pass.