Getting Through TSA Smoothly

At the airport security check

Airport security is an important aspect to consider when preparing to board a flight. Getting through the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screening process doesn't have to be a hassle, but there are important requirements to keep in mind when you are packing and making your way through the line. Things can go very smoothly, but only if you know, and comply with, the regulations and procedures.

Carry-On and Checked Baggage

When you're traveling by air, it's important to consider airport security restrictions for both carry-on and checked luggage.

Carry-On Size

The first step in getting through TSA screening is to be sure that your carry-on bags are not too large. Each ticketed passenger is allowed to take up to one personal item (that will fit under an airplane seat) and one carry-on suitcase on the plane. If you get to the security line with too many bags or ones that are too large, you will have to check them.

The exact maximum size of carry-on suitcases varies somewhat among airlines. For U.S. travel, the safest option is to get a carry-on bag that measures no larger than 22 x 14 x 9 inches, as bags of these exact dimensions (or smaller) are allowed on every U.S. airline.

  • A few domestic airlines allow bags that are slightly larger than 22 x 14 x 9 inches. If the bag you want to carry on is larger than this, check with every airline you will be using ahead of time to verify if it qualifies as a carry-on.
  • Some airlines have a limit on total linear size (generally from 45 to 46.5 inches) rather than specifying exact dimensions.
  • Some international airlines have even more stringent size restrictions. It is possible that you could be allowed to carry on a bag when you leave the U.S. but be required to check it when you board a connecting flight in another country.
  • For the major U.S. airlines, there isn't a specific weight restriction for carry-on luggage; bag size is what is critical. Some international carriers do have weight restrictions, varying from 15 to 35 pounds.

Personal Item

In addition to a carry-on bag, airline passengers are also allowed to bring a personal item onboard a commercial aircraft. There is less common agreement among airlines regarding the specific dimensions of personal items.\

  • For example, United Airlines limits personal items to 9 x 10 x 17 inches.
  • Alaska Airlines simply lists a few examples of personal items, "such as a purse, briefcase or laptop bag."

Be sure to verify restrictions directly with your airline prior to packing for your trip.

Checked Baggage Lock Considerations

Any bag or other item that is too large to take on the plane must be checked. Even though you don't carry your checked baggage through TSA with you, it still goes through screening before being loaded on the plane. This means that you should not lock your bags before check-in unless you use a TSA-approved lock. These locks have special codes that allow TSA and other security representatives to open them quickly and easily.

If you place a different kind of lock on your luggage, security has the right to cut it off for inspection. This, of course, destroys the lock, leaves the suitcase unprotected for the flight, and can cause your bag to be delayed.

TSA Carry-On Item Restrictions

What you put in your carry-on luggage is just as important as selecting a bag of the proper size. TSA has very specific prohibited item restrictions, and you need to know what they are before you pack. All bags will go through electronic screening, and many will be searched by hand. Don't try to "get away" with carrying items that are prohibited. Visit TSA.gov for a complete list of restrictions for carry-on and checked luggage. Key restrictions to keep in mind include:

  • Liquids: You may have one resealable quart-sized bag filled with containers of liquids, gels, aerosols, or creams (such as toothpaste, shampoo, lipstick, nail polish, or hairspray), as long as each individual container is no more than 3.4 ounces. Any larger containers with liquid or gel must be packed in your checked luggage.
  • Medicine: You may carry medicine in your carry-on bag. Liquid medicine is allowed in a reasonable amount in light of what the passenger may need during the flight. If any of your medicine is liquid and you are carrying more than 3.4 ounces, you must notify the TSA agent prior to screening. It will have to be screened separately.
  • Hand sanitizer: Due to COVID-19, passengers are being allowed to bring a single container of hand sanitizer up to 12 ounces onboard commercial airplanes. This will be screened separately from other liquids. This special allowance may be suspended after the threat from the pandemic has lessened, but is in effect as of this late 2021 writing.
  • Food: You can carry on a small amount of food to consume on your flight. Liquid or creamy foods such as yogurt, dip, or soup are limited to 3.4 ounces or less. Fresh fruit is allowed, as are pies and cakes. However, you should be mindful of any import restrictions when traveling internationally. Check with your destination country's food and safety regulatory agency.
  • Beverages: You cannot take beverages through security with you-no bottled water, soda, coffee, etc. are allowed. The only exception is for nursing mothers and passengers who are traveling with babies or toddlers, who may carry on reasonable amounts of breast milk, formula, and juice. The 3.4-ounce liquid restriction does not apply. Nursing mothers can carry on breast milk even if they are not traveling with their child.
  • Sporting goods: Some types of sporting equipment are allowed to be carried on, but many cannot. Various types of balls are allowed, as are football helmets, skates (roller and ice), and fishing lures. You can't carry on pool cues, baseball bats, golf clubs, hockey sticks, martial arts equipment, or other similar items.
  • Tools: There are strict restrictions on the kinds of tools you can bring onto a flight. Multi-tools are allowed, as are wrenches, screwdrivers, and pliers that are no longer than seven inches. Hammers and nail guns are prohibited, as are most other tools.
  • Firearms: Absolutely no firearms or shooting supplies can be carried on an airplane. With specific limitations, passengers are allowed to "transport unloaded firearms in a locked hard-sided container as checked baggage only."
  • Smoking supplies: Passengers are allowed to take lighters, one container of safety matches, cigars, cigarettes, and electronic cigarettes in their carry-on luggage. Electronic cigarettes and matches are not allowed in checked bags. Lighters can be checked only if they do not have fuel or are enclosed in a case approved by the Department of Transportation (DOT).
  • Blades: You can carry on a disposable razor, but no other item with a blade or sharp point can be carried on an airplane, though these items can be in checked luggage. This restriction includes scissors, box cutters, meat cleavers, and all knives (including pocket knives).

TSA PreCheck Line

TSA check-in lines

Most airports are now participating in the TSA PreCheck program, which allows people who have been through a specific screening process to enjoy expedited boarding procedures. Participating airports have separate lines for travelers who have TSA PreCheck status. These lines are typically shorter and move faster, but you can go through them only if your boarding pass is marked with the TSA Pre✓ symbol.

Do not get in this line if you should not be there, as you will not be allowed to pass. Travelers are eligible for the TSA PreCheck line if:

  • They have completed screening and received a known traveler number (KTN)
  • Their KTN is associated with their flight (the number is in the airline profile they used when making their reservation)
  • The airport and airline participate in the program
  • They are entering through a gate that has a separate PreCheck line
  • The airline or TSA selects them for TSA Pre✓ for a particular flight

If you travel frequently, you may want to consider going through the TSA PreCheck process, as it can definitely help expedite check-in and airport security. For example, passengers who have this status don't have to take off their shoes, remove their jackets, take out their bag of liquids, or remove their laptops for screening.

Boarding Documentation

All travelers over 18 must present proper, unexpired photo identification (ID) prior to being allowed to go through any TSA screening line. They must also have a boarding pass in their name. Children under 18 don't have to present ID if they are traveling with an adult. If your child is traveling alone, you should contact your airline prior to departure to verify documentation requirements.

Proper ID for Air Travel

See the identification page on the TSA website for a complete list of acceptable ID documents. Examples of proper ID include:

  • Driver's license
  • State-issued ID card (such as a non-driver photo ID issued by the Department of Motor Vehicles)
  • Passport (issued by the U.S. or a foreign government)
  • Permanent Resident Card
  • U.S. military ID

Verification Process

Before proceeding to the initial TSA checkpoint, make sure you have your ID and boarding pass within easy reach. It's best to take them out and hold them while you are standing in line so they are ready when you proceed to the TSA agent. Hand both documents to the agent as soon as it is your turn to avoid causing a delay to yourself and the passengers behind you.

Expediting the Check-in

To expedite your screen-in process at TSA, keep these tips in mind:

  • Double-check the expiration date on your identification documents well in advance of your departure date, as expired documents are not valid. You will not be allowed to travel if you present an expired driver's license or passport.
  • Be sure to get your boarding pass before entering the TSA line. You can pull it up on your smartphone via your airline's app, print it at home, print it at an airport kiosk (at most airports), or get it from the airline's check-in counter.
  • If you have connecting flights, you do not need to show all of your boarding passes at check-in. Only give the TSA agent the boarding pass for your first flight. This way, the agent won't have to shuffle through several items to find what they need.
  • Have a plan for putting the documents away as soon as the agent is finished with them so you don't hold up the line by fumbling around figuring out what to do.

TSA Screening

Once you have been cleared to go through TSA the screening line, move forward and begin situating your items for the X-ray machine.

Removing Items for Screening

Remove items from your bag and person as required for screening, placing them in the plastic containers stacked in front of the conveyor belt. Items that need to be removed and placed in one of the provided plastic containers include:

  • Jacket or coat (Tip: If you are wearing a bulky pullover, such as a hoodie or sweater, wear a lightweight shirt under it and remove it at this point to help expedite the physical scanning process.)
  • Hat
  • Belt
  • Any items in your pockets, including keys and coins
  • Shoes
  • Plastic bag with liquids
  • Laptop computer
  • Tablet
  • Handheld gaming console

There are a few exceptions for young children and senior citizens. For example, kids under 12 and senior citizens 75 and older don't have to take off their shoes or jackets.

Screening Process

Man Puts Digital Tablet Into Tray For Airport Security Check

Place your plastic containers, luggage, and any oversized items (such as kids' car seats or strollers) on the conveyor belt and follow the TSA agent's instructions. Items that are too large to go through the conveyor belt, such as some strollers, will be visually inspected by a TSA agent.

Depending on what shows on the X-ray, agents may need to open and search your bags. If you have any prohibited items, those will have to be removed before you can board the plane. If the airport has lockers, you can rent one to hold the items until you return. Otherwise, you will need to discard any prohibited items.

Going Through the Scanner

All travelers must be screened before being cleared to board, including children and senior citizens. While your luggage is being scanned, you will need to walk through a metal detector or advanced imaging technology (AIT) scanner. This process generally goes by quickly.

  1. Wait for the TSA agent to motion you in, then move quickly into the device.
  2. Follow the signs or agent's instructions. You will need to stand in a designated area, then extend your hands above your head.
  3. The machine will run a quick scan and you'll be instructed to exit and wait while an agent verifies the results.
  4. Depending on scan results, the agent may need to use a wand or pat-down for further detection. Cooperate as requested. Do not argue with the agent or become difficult. This will only slow down the process. Keep in mind that their goal is to ensure everyone's safety, including yours, and there are procedures they must follow.

Once you have cleared, you will be instructed to move to the luggage line, where you will be able to collect your belongings.

Note: Passengers may request to opt-out of being scanned in favor of a physical search. Per Department of Homeland Security (DHS) regulations, such requests are not always approved.

Finishing the Process

Once you and your luggage have been screened, you can gather your belongings and proceed to the gate to board your flight. That's all there is to it!

Preparation Is the Key

For people who don't plan properly, the TSA screening process can be an ordeal, both for themselves and everyone behind them in line. Follow these tips and you won't be responsible for causing avoidable delays the next time you go through security at an airport. The other passengers will thank you!

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