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airport security

Airport Security Frequently Asked Questions

SmarterTravel

If you haven’t flown in a while, you may not be up on the latest airport security changes from the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA). Most travelers are aware that the TSA has instituted strict regulations about the amount of toothpaste, bottled water, and other liquid and gel items that travelers are permitted to bring in carry-on luggage. But what exactly are the rules? Just how much of your favorite shampoo can you bring? Are the rules different if you’re flying overseas? And what’s this new rule about powders?

I’ve gathered answers to these and other common airport security questions to help you figure out your packing strategy under the TSA’s carry-on rules. With air traffic soaring, it’s more important than ever to follow the guidelines—that way you won’t be the fool holding up your entire security line.

Q. Are liquids and gels permitted in my checked baggage?

A. Yes. The liquid/gel restrictions only apply to carry-on baggage.

Q. May I bring liquids and gels in my carry-on?

A. Yes, but only in limited amounts. Liquids and gels must be in individual containers of 3.4 ounces (100 milliliters) or less and placed inside one clear, quart-size, plastic, zip-top bag (such as this option from Ziploc). The TSA emphasizes that containers should fit comfortably into your bag, and that only one bag is permitted per passenger. If you need to bring more than 3.4 ounces of any liquid or gel substance, it should go into your checked luggage or be shipped ahead.

Q. What about prescription medications, baby formula, or milk?

A. These substances are exempt from the rules above. As long as you declare them at the security checkpoint, you may carry more than 3.4 ounces, and they do not need to be placed in a plastic bag. The TSA recommends but does not require that prescription medications be in their original labeled containers to expedite the screening process. The TSA also makes exceptions for other medical necessities such as insulin, eye drops, or syringes. Just make sure to present these items to the security officer when you reach the checkpoint. (You may even want to consider printing out the TSA’s medical notification cards.)

Q. May I pour shampoo and other liquids or gels into unmarked, travel-size containers?

A. Yes, refillable travel-size containers are acceptable.

Q. Can I bring powders on a plane?

A. As of June 2018, powdered items such as coffee, spices, and baby powder in excess of 12 ounces will be subject to additional screening. You may be asked to remove them if they’re judged dangerous or unidentifiable. Learn more here.

Q. Do solid vitamins and medications need to be packed in their original containers?

A. While keeping medications and vitamins in their original labeled containers may expedite the screening process, it’s fine to transfer them into more convenient smaller containers such as daily pill minders.

Q. Can I take makeup on a plane?

A. Makeup is subject to the same liquid and gel rules as all other substances—so if you’re bringing liquid mascara, lip gels (such as Blistex ointment), or other liquid- or gel-like items, they will need to be placed in your quart-size plastic bag in 3.4-ounce or smaller containers. Lipstick, powders, solid lip balms (such as ChapStick), and other solid beauty products are not subject to the rules, and may be carried in your hand luggage without restriction.

Q. What are the TSA rules for deodorant?

A. Standard stick deodorant is fine to bring on a plane in either your checked or carry-on bag. Gel or spray deodorant is subject to the liquid/gel restrictions and may not be carried on in excess of 3.4 ounces.

Q. Can I bring food on a plane?

A. The same liquid and gel restrictions apply when you want to bring food through airport security. Even though a TSA representative once told me to “try not to over-think” the guidelines, that can be tricky when it comes to food. Does a cheesecake count as a gel or a solid? What about pecan pie? And can you bring your holiday leftovers like turkey, stuffing, and mashed potatoes?

A TSA rep told me that turkey and stuffing should be solid enough to pass muster, but mashed potatoes are a bit too gel-like. As for baked goods, the latest word from the TSA is that travelers can take pies, cakes, and other bakery products through security—but be prepared for additional screening.

You may bring solid snack foods such as pretzels, potato chips, or carrot sticks for the plane, but you might want to hold the peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Single-serving packages of condiments are permitted as long as they fit within your single zip-top bag. All food must be securely wrapped or in a spill-proof container.

Gel packs to refrigerate food are permitted for medication, but otherwise must be completely solid when you go through the checkpoint. If your freezer pack is partially defrosted and there’s any water in your container, the TSA may confiscate the item.

My advice? If you have any doubts about a particular food, either check it or leave it at home. After all, you can always buy food or drinks after you pass through the security checkpoint if you need some munchies for the plane.

Q. If I purchase beverages or other liquids/gels beyond the security checkpoint at the airport, may I bring them on the plane?

A. Yes.

Q. How does the TSA handle screening for children?

A. Children 12 and under do not need to remove shoes, light jackets, or headwear before going through the checkpoint. If the metal detector or full body scanner finds anomalies, the screener may choose to let the child go through again and/or swab the child’s hands for explosives in lieu of a pat-down. Children age 13 and up are subject to the same screening processes as adults.

Q. Are there any special TSA rules for seniors?

A. Yes. Seniors 75 and older can leave their shoes and light jackets on during screening (although they may have to remove them if the screener finds any anomalies).

Q. What are the TSA rules for lithium batteries?

A. Loose lithium batteries are not permitted in checked bags. If your batteries are installed in a device (such as a camera), you may pack the device in either a checked bag or a carry-on, but loose lithium batteries may only be transported in your carry-on luggage. Certain quantity limits apply to both loose and installed batteries; for more information, see these FAA guidelines.

Q. May I bring a cigarette lighter on a plane? What about e-cigarettes?

A. Common lighters without fuel are permitted in carry-on or checked baggage, while torch lighters (which are typically used to light pipes and cigars) are prohibited in either type of baggage. E-cigarettes are only permitted in carry-on luggage, not in your checked bag.

Q. May I bring tweezers, razors, or scissors on the plane?

A. Tweezers are permitted, as are electric razors, disposable razors, and their cartridges. Straight razors are only permitted in checked baggage. Scissors are allowed on a plane in your carry-on bag as long as the blades do not exceed four inches; otherwise, they should go in your checked bag. (For travel, consider small folding safety scissors such as these.)

Q. May I bring needlepoint or knitting needles on the plane?

A. Yes. However, circular thread cutters, scissors longer than four inches, and other needlepoint tools with blades must be packed in checked luggage.

Q. Are security rules different for international travel?

A. The European Union (E.U.) as well as numerous other countries such as Australia, Japan, Singapore, New Zealand, and Norway have adopted similar security restrictions to those in the U.S. You are permitted 100-milliliter containers of liquid and gel substances, packed within a clear, resealable, one-liter plastic bag.

If you’re not sure which airport security rules will apply in the country you’re visiting, contact your airline or the local tourist board for advice.

Q. May I bring duty-free liquids in my carry-on bags?

A. Duty-free liquids, such as perfume or alcohol, are permitted in excess of 3.4 ounces as long as they were purchased at a duty-free shop and placed in special tamper-evident bags. Liquids not in these bags must be stowed in your checked suitcase if you have more than 3.4 ounces. Be sure to retain your receipt for the item.

Q. May I bring dry ice on a plane?

A. Passengers may bring up to 5.5 pounds of dry ice in either their carry-on or checked bag as long as it’s stored in a package that allows the venting of carbon dioxide gas. Airline approval is required. That said, a DOT spokesperson suggests that travelers avoid packing dry ice in carry-on luggage, as individual TSA agents unfamiliar with the regulations may confiscate the substance.

Q. I have a hearing aid, C-PAP machine, pacemaker, or other medical device. How will this be handled during my security screening?

A. Although there have been horror stories about the TSA’s treatment of flyers with disabilities and medical conditions, most security officers are discreet and professional. As soon as you approach the TSA agent, you should disclose your medical issue so that he or she can determine the best way to screen you and any equipment you may be carrying. The TSA does not require travelers to carry a doctor’s note describing their condition, but having this written description may help expedite the screening process. Again, consider carrying the TSA’s medication notification cards.

Q. How early should I arrive at the airport to allow for screening?

A. We recommend arriving at the airport two hours before a domestic flight, especially if you’re traveling during the summer, the holidays, or another particularly busy time of year. If you’re flying internationally, you should allow yourself even more time. For more information, see How Early Should I Get to the Airport?

Q. What should I expect at the security checkpoint?

A. You will have to put your shoes, clear plastic bag of liquids, jacket, jewelry, cell phone, keys, and metal items into a bin for screening before you step through the metal detector or the full body scanning machine. (If you opt out of the full body scan, you will face an “enhanced” pat-down, which is performed by a security officer of your gender and covers all areas of the body, including the groin, buttocks, and breasts.) You might also need to remove your belt if it has any metal parts. (Consider a belt with a plastic buckle to avoid this.) Laptops, tablets, and other electronics larger than a cell phone should be removed from their cases and screened individually.

Save time by putting metal items into your carry-on before you get to the checkpoint, taking your electronic items out of their cases and wearing easily removable footwear.

Q. If I go through the full-body scanner once and it brings up an alert, can I request to go through again before having a pat-down?

A. According to a TSA representative, you may request to be rescanned before submitting to a pat-down, but it’s up to the individual TSA officer to decide whether to grant that request, based on whether the situation meets security protocols.

Q. I’m bringing birthday or holiday gifts. What’s the best way to pack them?

A. Do not pack wrapped gifts in either your carry-on or checked baggage, as the TSA may unwrap them for inspection. Your best bet is to wrap your gifts once you arrive at your destination, or ship them ahead of time. You can also put items in gift bags that are easy for the TSA to examine.

Q. May I bring electronic items on the plane or in my checked luggage? If so, how should I pack them?

A Laptops, cameras, tablets, hand-held video game consoles, e-readers, and most other standard electronic devices are permitted in both checked and carry-on luggage. As noted above, you should be prepared to remove most of these devices from their cases at the security checkpoint. Because electronic items tend to be frequent targets for security screening, you might want to pack these near the top of your bag so that inspectors don’t need to unpack your whole suitcase to get to them.

Q. Can I lock my checked suitcase?

A. Yes, but you’ll need to use a TSA-approved lock so that screeners can open it if your bag is selected for inspection. TSA screeners will simply cut off non-approved locks if they need to get into your bag. For more information, see Luggage Locks: Should I Lock My Suitcase When I Fly?

Q. Is there a faster way to get through security?

A. Yes. Consider signing up for TSA’s PreCheck program, which offers access to expedited security lines. To learn more, see TSA PreCheck: 10 Things You Need to Know. If you frequently travel internationally, consider getting Global Entry instead, which includes PreCheck membership.

Q. Where can I find more information about airport security?

A. Check TSA.gov for packing tips, a searchable list of permitted and prohibited items, and information for travelers with special needs.

More from SmarterTravel:

Follow Sarah Schlichter on Twitter @TravelEditor for more travel tips and inspiration.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2017. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.

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