How to leave the US and return as quickly as possible

31 May 2024
How to leave the US and return as quickly as possible

The quicker you get through security, the faster you can settle down to enjoy a snack before your flight. Wouldn’t you agree?

My parents (both in their 80s) traveled to Italy and back last month. They haven’t traveled abroad in a while, so I encouraged them to apply for the expedited programs.

The first thing they said when they called?

“Those security services you had us sign up for were amazing! We sped right through and there were no lines!”

Whether you’re traveling domestically or internationally, you must go through security, immigration, and customs. Sometimes called ‘passport control’ or ‘border control, ’ the officers are there to ensure that you’re entering the country legally and not bringing in anything nefarious. 

The lines for both, especially at busy airports and certain times of the year (hello summer!), can be frustratingly long. However, there are some great options for those hoping for a speedier process. If you’re not comfortable standing for a long time or have antsy children, these services can be a great help.

Here’s what you need to know to hack those security lines! 

Security officer checking IDs at the airport

What is the purpose of expedited services?

Expedited services are not only about helping travelers avoid waiting in lines, they’re also about efficiency for both the officers and the travelers.

They’re also about safety. Each of the services requires a traveler to prove their citizenship and legal ability to travel to and from countries. 

Since the administrative tasks are performed by the traveler and confirmed by official offices before reaching the security and customs officers, the inspection time is quicker. Essentially, you already did the steps that would have had to be done manually at the airport.

Expedited services for entering the US

There are two expedited services used to enter the US, and they’re quite different:Global Entry is an expedited, or pre-screened security program allowing travelers to move quickly through immigrations and customs at the US border.Mobile Passport Control is an automated system for processing customs declaration forms only.I definitely recommend getting Global Entry. When hundreds of passengers disembark from international flights at once, the immigration lines can quickly become overwhelming and slow.

Global Entry

Run by the US Customs and Border Protection agency and requiring a background check plus an in-person interview before approval, Global Entry lets travelers expedite immigration screenings. Not only is the Global Entry line always shorter (if any at all), but travelers with Global Entry simply look into a camera and speed on their way.

Cost: $100 ($120 after October 1, 2024)

How to get it: Start by submitting an online application. Once the application is conditionally approved, you’ll schedule an in-person interview which involves answering a few questions, taking a photo, registering biometrics, and a fingerprint scan. Once your background check is approved, you’ll get your Global Entry card in the mail.

Where to use it: The Global Entry line at most airports. Stop at the facial recognition kiosk first!

Things to note:Global Entry members automatically get TSA PreCheck for shorter lines on both sidesMembership in both programs is good for five yearsBonus: Many travel credit cards reimburse travelers for the total fee if they use the card to pay for the services.

Mobile Passport Control

Also run by the US Customs and Border Protection agency, MPC allows eligible travelers to submit their travel documents, a photo, and customs declaration through a free, secure app. This can streamline the entry process into the US because travelers who use it don’t have to complete paper forms and can go through a designated queue.

Cost: $0

How to get it: Download the app. The first time you use it, you will enter a headshot, passport details, and set a PIN or fingerprint to log in.

Where to use it: In airports where MPC is supported (not all airports have it) go through the Mobile Passport Control line.

Things to note: MPC is not a substitute for your passport. You’ll still need to show that.You’ll need a WiFi connection to complete the required customs declaration on your way to the mobile passport control line.Once you submit all the required entry documents, you’ll receive a confirmation you can show to the immigration staff.If you’ve traveled overseas and returned to the US recently, you may have noticed that flight attendants no longer hand out those paper declaration forms. Some light research indicates that the forms have gone the way of rotary phones, so the usefulness of MPC is questionable.

Expedited services for leaving the US

There are two expedited services used to leave the US, and they’re also quite different:

  • TSA PreCheck
  • Clear

I recommend getting at least one of these, but which one depends on a few factors.

TSA PreCheck vs Clear

There are some basic differences between these programs:

  1. TSA PreCheck is a government program, and Clear is offered through a private company.
  2. A Clear Plus membership costs $189 per year for individuals and an additional $99 for each family member.
  3. PreCheck costs $78 for new members and lasts for five years.
  4. Clear can be used at select sports stadiums and entertainment venues in the US, while PreCheck is only for airport screenings.
  5. Clear isn’t available at all airports, and PreCheck is almost everywhere now.
  6. Some credit cards cover a portion of the Clear membership cost; most travel cards cover the full cost of TSA PreCheck (or Global Entry, which includes PreCheck).

Which one is best?

It really comes down to what kind of traveler you are, where you’re traveling, and who’s paying for it.

  • Clear members skip the TSA representative checking their ID and are escorted by a Clear Ambassador through the screening process into the PreCheck line (which can lead to some serious side-eye from the PreCheck folks already in that line).
  • Also, as TSA PreCheck becomes more popular, those lines may get a little longer/slower, then Clear may have a distinct advantage.

In my opinion, TSA PreCheck is a zero-cost no-brainer. Clear might be helpful if you’re traveling often through airports that have Clear available or visiting venues requiring security screening—especially if your employer is picking up the cost.

Bottom line

If you want an affordable way to reliably skip the long security lines, get Global Entry and you’ll automatically receive TSA PreCheck. This combination will help you speed through security coming and going from the US for the next five years.
Damian Tysdal

Damian Tysdal is the founder of CoverTrip, and is a licensed agent for travel insurance (MA 1883287). He believes travel insurance should be easier to understand, and started the first travel insurance blog in 2006.

Damian Tysdal is the founder of CoverTrip, and is a licensed agent for travel insurance (MA 1883287). He believes travel insurance should be easier to understand, and started the first travel insurance blog in 2006.