Lots of travelers like to bring books with them when they fly.
The question is: will you run into any problems with TSA if you bring books with you in your carry-on or checked bag?
In this article, we will take a look at some of the policies that were tested out (and luckily abandoned) and what the current TSA policy for bringing books on a plane looks like today.
Can you bring books on a plane?
Yes, you can bring books through TSA in your carry-on or in your checked bags.
When traveling with stacks of books or other literature, it might be better to bring books in your carry-on so that you can avoid having your literature damaged or bag delayed when it goes through checked baggage security inspections.
However, be prepared to potentially deal with enhanced screening when bringing books in your carry-on bag as we will explain below!
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What does TSA say about traveling with books?
TSA began a pilot program in 2017 that required passengers to remove books and other paper products along with other items like food and place them in individual security bins for screening.
This caused a lot of uproar among those travelers who carry around lots of books, such as academics, students, and others. In addition to just being a burden to getting through security, this program introduced privacy concerns.
For example, people were worried that if they had a book in a particular language, such as Arabic, they could be deemed more likely to be a terroristic threat.
And then there were concerns that if people had books representing a particular type of political view, they would could be subjected to unjustified targeting.
Perhaps due in part to these concerns (and for other reasons), the program didn’t last long and it was eventually abandoned with no plan to “restore the pilot or to expand it.”
This means that you should not always be required to remove books from your carry-on baggage.
However, you could still be forced to deal with additional screening when bringing books in your carry-on.
“Books often require additional screening. The TSA officer may ask you to remove them from your carrying case to conduct a physical inspection.”
This physical inspection could mean having to take your books out your bag and allowing a TSA agent to flip through them.
Sometimes it could also involve getting swabbed depending on the circumstances.
That means agents will be looking for traces of explosives on your books. This swab testing usually only takes a few minutes (unless they detect something on your books).
Because of the risk pf physical inspection, having easy access to your books will generally be helpful, so keep that in mind when packing your bag.
Also, carrying around huge stacks of books (or ultra large books) may increase the odds of you getting additional screening so keep that in mind.
Carry on or checked bags?
For some people, it might be better to put books in your carry-on baggage. This is particularly true if you have delicate literature. For example, you could have a lot of precious comics or old books that could easily be damages.
In the past, there was confusion about whether or not TSA was requiring books, such as comic books to go into your checked bag or carry-on bag. This was based on a prior TSA blog post. As documented by the NYT, this post stated:
“Pack items such as stacks of brochures and assorted comic books in your carry-on bag… Packing these items in checked bags often causes alarms leading to bag searches which can cause a significant slowdown in the screening process leading to delays and bags possibly missing their flights.”
This led airlines like United to erroneously claim that comic books had to transported in carry on bags but they later clarified, “While T.S.A. is recommending that customers keep their comic books in their carry-on bags, there are no restrictions on packing them in checked luggage. We misunderstood T.S.A.’s instructions and regret any inconvenience this may have caused our customers.”
So while you are NOT required to place books, comic books, or stacks of pamphlets in your carry-on, it might be best to avoid placing them in checked baggage.
Not only can it slow down the screening process but agents rummaging through your bag could cause damage to your more “delicate” literature.
Why does TSA care about books?
TSA cares about books for potentially a few reasons.
They want to make sure that people are not hiding dangerous objects inside of books.
One thing that TSA is looking out for with books is hidden compartments. Books with hidden compartments aren’t banned by TSA but it could be a problem if TSA finds a prohibited items inside them. For example, if you were trying to transport a firearm hidden inside a book you could be subjected to higher fines.
Some say that a book could resemble an explosive such as C4 when viewed through a scanner machine. (This is similar to why fudge is sometimes flagged.)
In other situations, it could just be that the books block the view of the agents trying to monitor the scanners. Essentially, books just make it harder for the agents to view all of the contents in your luggage.
As TSA introduces more advanced screening machines you would hope that books won’t present the security issues that they have in the past.
Does TSA care about what you’re reading?
Some travelers might worry that TSA agents are concerned about the content of their books.
For example, they might determine that you’re reading something too “edgy” or “controversial” and therefore require you to go through more screening.
Perhaps you were doing research on “extremist” groups or Mexican cartels for school and that makes you look suspicious.
I personally haven’t seen any evidence of this.
In the past, TSA was instructed to “fan through” the pages of your book and so they were not necessarily instructed to pay attention to the content, although just a book title could be a give-a-way to the book’s content or message.
It’s not unfathomable that an agent could take a book title into consideration when making judgment calls about the “danger level” of your other items or your need for more screening.
I think that this could also potentially be a concern if you were caught with something that led to a secondary investigation.
For example, if you got caught traveling with lots of unexplained cash and you had a book potentially related to criminal activity that could be associated with that cash. In that case, that could be used as evidence against you.
It’s very possible to bring your favorite books with you when you travel. In some cases, you might have to deal with enhanced screening so you should be ready for that. Typically, that screening should not take very long, so it’s usually not a very big deal.
Daniel Gillaspia is the Founder of UponArriving.com and the credit card app, WalletFlo. He is a former attorney turned travel expert covering destinations along with TSA, airline, and hotel policies. Since 2014, his content has been featured in publications such as National Geographic, Smithsonian Magazine, and CNBC. Read my bio.