Speeding through security: obtaining a 'known traveler number'

After writing a post about ways to expedite one's journey through airport security, I decided to apply for the credentials that would enable me to use TSA's Pre-Check line consistently rather than occasionally being chosen for Pre-Check because of my frequent flier memberships.

If you’ve been lucky enough to be assigned to TSA’s Pre-Check line during recent air travels, you know first-hand how much easier and faster it is to get through airport security as compared to the general security lines. There is no need to remove belts, shoes or light outerwear. Computers and tablets need not be removed from their cases and bags containing 3-1-1-compliant liquids need not be removed from carry-on luggage, making for "quicker transit through airport screening lines," according to TSA.

While travelers who are members of the frequent flier programs run by any of the nine North American airlines that participate in the Pre-Check program might be chosen at random for the expedited screening, obtaining a “known traveler number” (KTN) from the TSA will enable air travelers to use the Pre-Check lines consistently.

However, applying for the number, clearing the necessary background screening and actually getting that coveted identifier require dealing with a government agency and – let’s be honest here – they don’t generally have a reputation for being the most efficient. So I decided to find out for myself how easy - or difficult - the process would be.

One recent Tuesday morning, I visited TSA’s Pre-Check web site. There, on the right-hand side of the page, was a box that said, “How to Apply – Eligibility Requirements and Documents to Bring.” Clicking on the “Learn More” button took me to a separate page: TSA’s Pre-Check Application Program.

To my pleasant surprise, the webpage was very straightforward, was written in simple English and provided instructions with just the right amount of detail.

Included were sections on “How it Works,” eligibility requirements, identification documents that are considered valid, a list of more than 280 application locations and a link to start the application process on-line to save some time over completing the application at the office.

Completing the application on-line took between five and 10 minutes and asked for only the most basic information: Name, address, date and place of birth, gender, and contact information. Once I’d completed eight quick steps, I was presented with a selection of offices near me where I would go with my ID and $85 in hand to complete the process. Clicking the one nearest me, I was offered an appointment at 3:15 p.m. on Friday of the same week – only three days later.

I showed up at the assigned location about 15 minutes early and was greeted by a very helpful lady who took my name and promised that someone would be right with me. A few moments later, a gentleman called me over -- by name -- and processed my application quite efficiently. While I had not brought my "UE," or Universal Enroll number, he assured me that was not a problem. He scanned in the passport I brought as identification, verified the information I had submitted in the on-line application (we found one typo that was quickly corrected), and took my fingerprints.

Fingerprinting today is not like the old days when they actually used ink and paper fingerprint cards. Today, fingerprints are simply scanned in as one would scan a document. No muss, no fuss, no messy and tedious clean-up afterward.

After paying the fee, I was given a receipt, told that TSA would mail me a notice with my status and (hopefully) KTN within 21 days. I was also given the URL of a website I could check to learn the results more quickly.

Total elapsed time in the office: seven minutes.

My wait for the results was minimal. As of shortly after noon on the Monday following my screening, I checked the TSA website and learned I had been issued a KTN. Total time from start of the process to getting the number: less than a week. And the number is good for five years.

Part of the reason for the quick turn-around may have been that I have worked behind security at a major airport and a background investigation was completed before I could be credentialed for and begin that position. However, my wife's experience a few months later was similar, though there was a longer wait for an appointment at the center nearest her office. It took several weeks to get an appointment but, once completed, she had her KTN about three days later -- in time to use it for a last-minute trip.

The lesson there is that, if an applicant can be flexible about appointment times and how far they are willing to drive, there will be more options that may result in a quicker turnaround than waiting for the next appointment at the office that is closest and most convenient.

Kudos to the TSA for its timely action. I sincerely hope that the process for others who apply for a KTN will be just as smooth as it was for my wife and me.

One final note: if you anticipate traveling to any other country by air in the next five years, consider the Global Entry program. While is fee of $100 for five years is slightly higher than for the KTN, the additional $15 will help ensure a speedy return through U.S. Customs lines at your airport of reentry, and members are eligible for TSA Pre-Check.

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