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Airport Security Frequently Asked Questions

If you haven’t flown in a while, you may not be up-to-date 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 about powders?

airport security check officer using metal weapon scanner detector check every passenger
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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 so you can pack liquids of any size in your checked baggage. However, flammable liquids, such as cooking fuel, are not permitted in checked bags. Alcoholic beverages with more than 24 percent but not more than 70 percent alcohol are limited to 5 liters (1.3 gallons) per passenger in checked bags. These beverages must be unopened and in retail packaging. Alcoholic beverages over 140 proof (with 70 percent or higher alcohol) are not allowed in checked or carry-on baggage in any quantities.

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

Passenger Puts Liquids Into Bag At Airport Security Check
Monkey Business | Adobe Stock

A. Yes, but only in limited amounts. Liquids, gels, and aerosols must be in individual containers of 3.4 ounces (100 milliliters) or less and placed inside one clear, quart-size, plastic, zip-top bag. Ziploc bags are TSA-approved. You’ll need to bring your own quart-size bag, as the TSA does not provide Ziploc bags.

The TSA emphasizes that containers should fit comfortably into the bag and that only one bag is permitted per passenger. If you must 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 Does the TSA Consider a Liquid or Gel?

The TSA considers anything that “has no definite shape and takes a shape dictated by its container” to be a liquid and subjected to the 3-1-1 rule. Some surprising items considered a liquid are:

  • Toothpaste
  • Peanut butter
  • Yogurt
  • Makeup
  • Energy gels

However, liquids that are frozen solid can be taken through security. According to the TSA, “If frozen liquid items are partially melted, slushy, or have any liquid at the bottom of the container, they must meet 3-1-1 liquids requirements.”

This means you can take fully frozen ice packs or bottles of water through as long as they have not begun to melt.

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

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.

Medically necessary liquids exempt from the 3-1-1 rule include:

  • Medicine and necessary medical accessories (including ice packs, freezer packs, gel packs, and syringes)
  • Formula
  • Breast milk
  • Toddler drinks
  • Baby/toddler food (including puree pouches)
  • Breast milk/formula cooling accessories (including ice packs, freezer packs, and gel packs)

Note that your child does not need to be present or traveling with you in order for you to bring breast milk, formula, or related supplies through security.

Before you go through screening, notify a TSA officer that you have medically necessary liquids. Put them in a bin separate from your other items. You also have the right to opt out of having your medically necessary liquids screened by X-ray or opened. The TSA can clear you through additional steps, such as AIT screening or a pat-down.

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. The TSA recommends putting large quantities of powder in checked baggage as “Powder-like substances over 12 oz. or 350mL in carry-on that cannot be resolved at the central checkpoint will not be allowed onto the cabin of the aircraft and will be disposed of.”

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

Passenger holding passport against personal Items, liquids, and laptop in container at airport security check..
Chalabala | Adobe Stock

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. There are no limitations as to how much solid medication you can fly with, and Nitroglycerin tablets and sprays are permitted on airplanes.

Always travel with your medicine in your carry-on in case your checked luggage gets lost (or your flight is delayed and you need access to it).

You can request to have a visual inspection of your medication if you don’t want it X-rayed.

Q: What type of shoes should I wear through security?

Consider slip-on shoes that can easily be removed at the checkpoint. Unless you have TSA PreCheck, you’ll have to remove your shoes when going through security. Avoid boots or shoes with lots of metal, which can set off alarms. Don’t forget to wear socks so you don’t have to walk on the dirty airport floor barefoot.

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 mascara, lip stain, concealer, 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, 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. Powders, such as blush or face powder, are subject to the rules noted above.

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 in any size. Spray, gel, liquid, cream, paste, or roll-on 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, sandwiches, or carrot sticks for the plane, but spreadable items like peanut butter or hummus are subject to the 3-1-1 rule. 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.

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. In most cases, yes. However, there are some airports (particularly overseas) where you may face additional screening at the gate before boarding, so you may occasionally have to give up larger bottles.

Q. How does the TSA handle screening for children?

Airport, happy mother and girl at international flight check for plane board or airplane ticket payment. Happy mom, child and family waiting at gate for air travel and security before.
Nina Lawrenson/peopleimages.com

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.

Children will not be separated from their parents/guardians at security. However, you must remove children from strollers and car seats and carry them through the walk-through metal detector. Infants can be carried through security in a sling or carrier, but this may cause additional screening.

Q. Are there any special TSA rules for seniors?

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

Passengers 75 or older who are unable to stand for screening can be screened through other security methods.

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. However, you must ensure that the lighter does not accidentally turn on while on the flight. According to the TSA, “Examples of effective measures to prevent unintentional activation include, but are not limited to: removing the batter from the lighter; placing the lighter into a protective case; and/or using a protective cover, safety latch, or locking device on the lighter’s activation button.”

Torch lighters (which are typically used to light pipes and cigars) are prohibited in either type of baggage. E-cigarettes and vaping devices are only permitted in carry-on luggage, not in your checked bag, and measures must be taken to prevent accidental activation of the heating element.

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 your carry-on as long as the blades are packed in your checked baggage. Only razor blades in cartridges are allowed in carry-ons. 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.)

Ensure that sharp objects are sheathed or securely wrapped so that baggage handlers and inspectors don’t get injured.

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. May I bring CBD oil or marijuana on the plane?

A. That depends. If you’re flying within the United States, it is legal to travel with products that contain no more than 0.3 percent THC. If you’re traveling internationally, you may be better off leaving these products at home unless you’ve thoroughly researched your destination’s laws and know that what you’re bringing is legal.

Since marijuana is illegal under federal law, it is not permitted on airplanes or at airports. Some airports have “safe harbor” boxes where you can dispose of any marijuana before passing through screening.

According to the TSA, “TSA security officers do not search for marijuana or other illegal drugs, but if any illegal substance is discovered during security screening, TSA will refer the matter to a law enforcement officer.”

Q. Are security rules different for international travel?

A. The European Union (E.U.), Australia, Japan, Singapore, New Zealand, Norway, and numerous other countries 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.

Most international airports will require you to remove your shoes before going through security screening, and TSA PreCheck does not apply in foreign countries.

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 under the following conditions:

  • The duty-free liquids were purchased internationally and you are traveling to the United States with a connecting flight
  • The liquids are packed in a tamper-evident, transparent bag by the retailer
  • The bag does not show signs of tampering
  • You have the original proof of purchase for the liquids that shows you bought it within 48 hours

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 clearly marked as dry ice and stored in a package that allows proper venting. Airline approval is required to bring dry ice aboard. Ice in your carry-on must be in a solid state when going through the security checkpoint. That said, a DOT spokesperson recommends 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, wheelchair, CPAP machine, pacemaker, or another 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, 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.

Passengers with non-visible disabilities and medical conditions, such as Alzheimer’s or autism spectrum disorder, can be screened without being separated from their traveling companion.

Q. Can I take my pet through airport security?

cute small dog with his travel bag ready to get on board the airplane at the airport. Pet in cabin. Traveling with dogs concept
Eva | Adobe Stock

A. You can take your pet through airport security (make sure you have approval from your airline to bring a pet onboard). When going through security, you’ll need to remove your pet from the carrying case and put the case through the x-ray machine. Your pet must be leashed and remain under your control.

Service animals and their collars, harnesses, leashes, backpacks, and vests are subject to screening. However, you will not have to remove items that are necessary to maintain control of the service animal. If you need to take your service animal outside for a bathroom break, you’ll have to go through security again. You can request to skip the line upon your return.

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

A. It’s best to arrive 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 (around three hours). For more information, see How Early Should I Get to the Airport?

Q. I forgot my identification, can I still fly?

A. The TSA can confirm your identity in other ways, like searching publicly available databases, so you may still be allowed to fly. Plan for this additional screening to add a significant amount of time. If your identity cannot be verified, you will not be allowed to fly.

Q. What should I expect at the security checkpoint?

Airport security baggage screening. Security man looking at monitor scanning luggage through x-ray scanner
Rokas | Adobe Stock

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.

TSA PreCheck members do not have to remove shoes, laptops, liquids, or light jackets for screening.

Q. Can I keep on head coverings and other religious items on during screening?

A. Head coverings, loose fitting, or bulky garments can be left on during screening. However, these items may trigger additional security screening, including a pat-down. If the alarm cannot be resolved through a pat-down, you may be asked to remove the head covering in a private screening area.

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?

Man Puts Digital Tablet Into Tray For Airport Security Check
Monkey Business | Adobe Stock

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. (It’s best to keep them in your carry-on to reduce the risk of loss or theft.)

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.

You do not need to remove phone chargers or cables at airport security.

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. Baggage 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. What happens if I forget an item at airport security?

A. Contact the lost and found department at your airport if you lose an item at the security checkpoint.

Q. What are the screening procedures for transgender passengers?

The TSA has gender diversity guidelines in place, and transgender persons will be screened as they present at the security checkpoint. “The advanced imaging technology used to screen passengers has software that looks at the anatomy of men and women differently,” says the TSA. “If there is an alarm, TSA officers are trained to clear the alarm, not the individual.”

You can request a private screening if that is more comfortable for you.

Q. Can I film and take photos at a security checkpoint?

A. Photographing, videotaping, and filming are allowed at security checkpoints “as long as the screening process is not interfered with or sensitive information is not revealed.” You cannot hold a recording device up to the face of a TSA officer, block the movement of others while filming, or take video/photos of equipment monitors shielded from public view.

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. If you frequently travel internationally, consider getting Global Entry instead, which includes PreCheck membership. To learn more, see Global Entry vs. TSA PreCheck: Which is Better?

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 who require additional assistance or accommodation.

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

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