TSA Rules for Vapes and e-Cigarettes [2023]

As people return to traveling, a lot of passengers will be asking about the TSA rules for vapes, mods, and e-cigarettes.

The rules are relatively straightforward but there are some specific requirements that you need to be aware of when it comes to things like cartridges and batteries.

In this article, I’ll break down everything you need to know about bringing your vape pens or e-cigarettes through airport security.

What are the TSA rules for vapes and e-cigarettes?

TSA allows passengers to bring electronic cigarettes and similar devices (vaporizers, vape pens, mods, atomizers, and electronic nicotine delivery systems) through airport security as a carry-on.

However, these devices are prohibited in checked baggage.

The FAA banned e-cigarettes in checked luggage in 2016 after there were reports of small fires that broke out in the cargo holds. So this restriction is for the safety of all passengers and crew.

Please do not attempt to get around this restriction as it will put everybody at risk.

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Bringing vapes and e-cigarettes through airport security

When taking your vapes and e-cigarettes through the airport, you can bring them inside your carry-on or inside a personal item (such as a backpack) no problem.

(I don’t recommend putting them in your pocket while in the airport because you might forget as you go through airport security scanners.)

Some airlines, such as American Airlines and Delta, recommended that you store them in a designated carry case that may have come with the original vape packaging.

If your mod/vaping device has multiple parts then it is recommended that you disassemble your vaporizer prior to entering the security line.

Even better is if you have all of the parts (atomizer, tank, mouth piece, batteries, etc.) neatly placed within a carrier for easy inspection.

When you are actually going through security, it’s recommended to remove your e-cigarette/vape, place it in a tray/bin, and put it through the x-ray scanner separately from your carry-on bag.

If you keep it in your bag, it could look suspicious and cause you to undergo additional screening.

Generally speaking, the larger your device the greater your chances of a TSA agent wanting to take a closer look.

If they want to take a closer inspection, just let them do their thing. If you don’t have any illegal substances, you don’t have anything to worry about.

Note that if you are bringing special pods or packs that contain liquid vape you need to comply with the liquids rule which I will talk about below.

Related: Bringing a lighter through airport security

Remove your vaping device from your carry-on when going through security for a smooth experience.

Liquid vape cartridges

Liquid cartridges such as JUULpods that click into the top of the JUUL devices and other similar containers that contain e “juices” are considered a liquid and, therefore, they will be subject to the TSA liquids 3-1-1 rule.

The liquids 3-1-1 rule requires all liquid containers to be 3.4 ounces (100ml) or smaller and for them to be stored in a quart sized bag (preferably a clear Ziploc bag).

This means that if you are transporting JUULpods or other juice packs, you need to transport them in a very specific way.

First, the vape cartridges need to be smaller than 100ml.

Many vape juice cartridges are much smaller than 100ml so it should not be difficult for you to find TSA compliant vape cartridges.

In some cases you may need to remove your vape cartridge from your device so that the device has no attachments containing liquid.

Second, you need to place these cartridges in a quart sized Ziploc bag.

The key thing here is that the cartridges must fit “comfortably” inside the bag which means the bag cannot be overstuffed or almost bursting at the seams.

If you do not have TSA Pre-Check, you will need to remove your liquids bag from your carry-on as you make your way through the airport screening process.

Because of this screening process you might be better off just transporting your pods in your checked baggage where you can transport unlimited quantities.

There are reports of the pods leaking at high altitudes so having them in a sealed bag is highly recommended. It is also better to transport a partially used cartridge that has room for the liquid to expand to avoid leakage.

Related: TSA Checklist (Tips & PDF)

Checking your bag at the gate

Sometimes your plane may not have room for your carry-on, especially if you are towards the back of the boarding process.

If this happens to you and you are traveling with your vape, be sure that you remove your vape and batteries from your carry-on bag that they are checking because they will not be allowed as a checked item.

Related: Can You Take Cigarettes on a Plane?

Vape pen chargers

If you are bringing a power charger or power bank that contains a lithium ion battery it must also be packed in your carry-on bag.

This is because such battery packs can cause risks of explosions and fires in the cargo hold. So to be on the safe side, bring your spare batteries with you on your carry-on.

Keep in mind that TSA can apply extra scrutiny when traveling with multiple spare batteries because the batteries can pose a risk. This is especially true if your lithium batteries have more than 100 watt hours.

For that reason, you may want to only travel with one spare battery or pack your multiple batteries delicately so that they cannot come in to contact with each other.

Related: Bringing Batteries on a Plane: TSA’s Rules for Staying Charged Up

Flying with marijuana/THC vapes

With the growing legalization of marijuana in different states, a lot of travelers are now curious as to how they can legally fly when carrying marijuana on them.

The first thing to note is that marijuana is still illegal on the federal level which makes it illegal to fly with.

Reportedly, regardless of what airport you are departing, TSA’s response to finding marijuana will be the same.

“It is important for me to note that TSA’s response to the discovery of marijuana is the same in every state and at every airport – regardless of whether marijuana has been or is going to be legalized,” TSA spokesperson Lorie Dankers explained. 

“This also covers medical marijuana.”

But in practice it’s not clear that this is the case.

If you are flying from a state that has legal marijuana, such as Colorado, and you were caught with marijuana at the airport, it is possible that they will simply request for you to dispose of the cannabis.

But if you were traveling from an area where marijuana is not legalized, the response could be much different.

The bottom line is that this is still a bit of a gray area that is still developing and so there are basically no guarantees as to how TSA will react upon finding marijuana in your possession during the security screening process.

The second thing to note is that TSA is not actively looking to discover marijuana or other illegal drugs that might be in your possession. The TSA website states:

TSA’s screening procedures are focused on security and are designed to detect potential threats to aviation and passengers. Accordingly, TSA security officers do not search for marijuana or other illegal drugs

However, they do note that if illegal substances are discovered during the security screening process the TSA will refer the matter to a law-enforcement officer.

Many vapes containing THC are pretty discreet so they may not always be easily detected.

So if you are traveling with (small amounts) of marijuana/THC vape pens you may not encounter any problems but you should be prepared to have to dispose of your marijuana if it is detected by TSA and in a worst-case scenario, be prepared to explain why you have it in your possession to a law-enforcement officer.

Related: Can You Smoke Weed in a Hotel Room?

Related: Can You Bring Food on a Plane?

The back up plan

Some travelers who are weary about losing items when going through security will bring a self-addressed envelope with postage so that they can mail off any item that would be confiscated.

I’ve personally never tried this before but I have seen reports online of people doing it successfully. While a rare occurrence, it could come in handy when a TSA agent uses discretion to confiscate your vape due to some unknown reason or suspicion (TSA agents have discretion to prevent you from bringing items through security).

I don’t see any reason why the self-addressed envelope route could not work in many instances but if you are trying to mail off illegal substances such as marijuana then it could obviously be very problematic (and illegal).

TSA rules for vapes FAQ

Can you vape in an airplane?

No, you are not allowed to vape inside an aircraft. This is to protect people from the devices’ second-hand vapor and to reduce the risk of a device malfunctioning. If you are caught vaping on a plane you could be subject to a large fine up to $4,000.

Do I need to turn my vape off during flight?

Many airlines require your vape to be turned off or to be placed in safety mode during flight.

Can you vape in an airplane lavatory?

No, you are not allowed to vape anywhere inside an aircraft.

Can I bring an e-cigarette as a carry-on?

Yes, e-cigarettes are allowed to be brought on a plane as a carry-on.

Why are vape pens not allowed and checked baggage?

Vape pens are not allowed in checked baggage because they present a hazardous risk. The batteries could be prone to exploding and catching fire in the cargo compartment.

Can you charge an e-cigarette in an airplane?

Many airlines will not allow you to charge an e-cigarette during flight and may require it to be powered off.

Can I bring an e-cigarette on an international flight?

Some countries have banned e-cigarettes from flights and from importation so before attempting to travel with an e-cigarette on an international flight you should first verify that possession of the e-cigarette in the country is legal.

Can I travel with a vape containing THC?

While TSA does not actively seek out vapes containing THC, it is possible that if it is detected they will request for you to throw it out or refer you to airport authorities. This can even occur when departing from a state with legalized marijuana.

Do I have to declare my electronic cigarette?

No, you do not have to declare your electronic cigarette or vape. However, you should remove it from your carry-on and comply with the liquids rule if needed.

Do vapes leak on airplanes?

Cartridges containing liquids tend to leak at high altitudes as the liquid expands under the decreased air pressure. So it is recommended to not carry cartridges that are full with e-liquid.

Can vapes set off the smoke alarm in a plane?

Yes, vapor can set off the smoke alarm on a plane which is another reason why you do not want to vape on a plane.

Final word

Traveling with an e-cigarette or vape through airport security is permitted so long as you comply with the liquid rules.

You want to pay extra attention to make sure you do not leave your cigarettes in your checked baggage because that could present major risks to the flight and also get you into legal trouble.

What is a Redress Number? (And Do I Need One?) [2023]

If you’ve ever been slowed down at the airport by additional screening measures you know how frustrating (and even anxiety-inducing) it can be. Now imagine this happening just about every single time you make your way through an airport!

That’s what some people experience because the government has mistaken them for a nefarious actor or there has been some other hiccup with checking their background information.

Luckily for these people, there is something that they can do about this. It’s called getting a redress number and it’s actually pretty easy and straightforward to do. In this article, I’ll tell you everything you need to know about getting a redress number, including what the meaning is and when you should consider applying for one.

What is the meaning of a “Redress Number?”

A redress number is a case number issued by the Department of Homeland Security that allows individual agencies like the TSA to properly identify travelers that may have been misidentified as those who require additional screening.

Your name can also end up on a list requiring additional screening if you travel through certain countries, such as those in the Middle East.

The Department of Homeland Security set up a program to remedy these situations called the DHS TRIP and here’s what the DHS states about it:

Traveler Redress Inquiry Program (DHS TRIP) is a single point of contact for individuals who have inquiries or seek resolution regarding difficulties they experienced during their travel screening at transportation hubs—like airports and train stations—or crossing U.S. borders

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Do I need a redress number?

As you can imagine, not everyone has issues getting through airport security and other ports of entry so not everyone needs a redress number.

One of the most common reasons for getting a redress number is when you’ve been subjected to secondary screening on multiple occasions. For example, you might constantly receive “SSSS” on your boarding pass and be forced to be searched in a special security area (likely receiving a pat down) before boarding.

Here are a few other situations, based on DHS recommendations, when you might need a redress number:

  • You were not able to print a boarding pass online
  • You had issues getting a boarding pass from the ticket kiosk
  • You were denied or delayed boarding
  • A ticket agent called someone before handing you a boarding pass
  • You are on the “No Fly List”
  • You were denied entry back into the US
  • You were told your fingerprints were incorrect or of poor quality

Basically, anything related to getting access to boarding or making your way through an airport or port of entry that happens on a repeated basis may mean that you should look into getting a redress number. But the key here is that it happens on a repeated basis — if it’s an isolated event you probably don’t need a redress number.

SSSS on boarding pass

How to get a redress number

To get a redress number, you need to go through the DHS TRIP process and submit an application form. You can submit an application form online or you can print one out and submit it via mail. You might also print out your application, scan it, and then send it via email.

Filling out these applications is easy and will not require much of your time. 

There are two ways you can fill out the application.

Here’s what filling out the application form will entail.

Travel details

You’ll first be asked to provide details related to your travel issues on your application.

If you had issues with a flight you’ll fill out your flight information, such as:

  • Travel dates
  • Airport
  • Airline
  • Flight number

You’ll also be asked to check the type of issue you had, such as if you were denied boarding or subject to additional screening, etc.

(If you had multiple flights, provide that information in the Incident Details box.)

You can also provide information about your trip through ports of entry, immigration, customs, or border control. You’ll include relevant details like:

  • The date of entry
  • Name of airline or vessel
  • Port of entry into the US
  • Flight or cruise ticket number
  • Date of departure from the US
  • US Airport

Finally, be sure to describe the incident or incidents related to your boxes checked in the Incident Details at the bottom of the page (up to 5,000 characters).

Identity information

Next, you’ll need to provide your identity information. This is very basic information. Just provide your name and other names if you have used other names in the past along with your contact information.

They also ask you to submit information about your travel frequency (questions like: “On average, how often do you travel each month?”).

Government-issued document

Next, you’ll need to provide information for the type of government-issued document that you’re going to send in. Make sure that it is legible and that it is NOT expired.

If you do not have a passport, you’ll need to provide a copy of at least one legible, unexpired copy of a government-issued photograph bearing travel document, such as a:

  • Passport Card
  • Birth certificate
  • Certificate of Citizenship
  • Drivers License
  • Government ID Card
  • Immigrant/Nonimmigrant Visa
  • Military ID Card
  • Naturalization Certificate
  • Global Entry
  • Alien Registration
  • Petition or Claim Receipt
  • I-94 Admission Number
  • FAST
  • Border Crossing Card
  • Additional Supplemental Documents

Also note:

  • For children under the age of 18 who do not possess a photograph-bearing travel document, a copy of a birth certificate may be submitted
  • Do not provide copies of Social Security Cards, Tax Information, or Personal Financial documents

Once you’ve entered in all of your information and submitted your application, you’ll need to print out the next screen and sign that page and send it in along with a copy of the ID you’re sending in as well.

You must send in your documents within 30 days of completing your application. 

Note that on that page you’ll see your Redress Control Number.

Related: REAL ID Act: Explained with Detailed Timeline

Sending in your documents

You can submit documents via mail or e-mail.

For expedited service, e-mail all requested documents to TRIP@tsa.dhs.gov.

If your attachments exceed 10 MB, they will be rejected due to size limits so they suggest that you send separate e-mails with attachments using the same subject line.

You can mail in your documents to the address below:

DHS Traveler Redress Inquiry Program (TRIP)
601 South 12th Street, TSA-901
Arlington, VA 20598-6901

Submitting documents via mail will result in slower processing. In fact, due to federal government mail screening requirements it could take 10-15 business days for the government to receive your submission. 

How long does it take to get a number?

After your application and documentation have been received and verified for completeness, DHS TRIP will process your request and they state that the minimum length of a review of a request for redress is 30 business days.

The processing time can be much shorter than that though and some get their request approved in a matter of a couple of weeks or even days. However, the DHS has sent out emails telling others to expect processing times of 50 days or longer.

So the processing time can vary and it might depend on the nature of your request.

How to check your redress status

You can check on the status of your redress case application here.

Here are the different statuses your application might be in:

  • “In Progress”- required documentation has been received and the redress process is underway.
  • “Closed”- Any corrections or updates have been made, and a final response letter was mailed to you.
  • “Pending Paperwork” or “No Paperwork,” – DHS TRIP has sent you a letter describing the additional information needed to complete your case review.

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How to use a redress number

When you go to make a flight reservation, you should see a field to enter in your redress number. This is often close to the field for your Known Traveler Number. You can also add your redress number to your frequent flyer profile when you log-in as shown below with Southwest and United.

Alaska Airlines

Sign in and click on your profile located at the top right. Then click “Overview and Elite Status”. From the drop down menu under Account select “Profile and Settings”. To the right select “Travel Documents”.

Delta Airlines

Sign in and click on your profile located at the top right. Then click “Profile” and to the right, click on secure flight info.


Sign in and click on your profile located at the top right. Click “Profile & Settings” and scroll down to the bottom.

Southwest Airlines

Sign in and click on My Account and then click “Profile” at the top right and the Redress Number is located under Travel related info.


Sign in and click on “View My United” and then click “Profile” on the left and from that drop down select TSA PreCheck and travel documents. You will see the option to add your Redress Number.

Redress number vs Known Traveler Number

A redress number is different from a Known Traveler Number (KTN).

Known Traveler Number, also called your “KTN,” is a 9-digit number used to link your TSA Pre-Check enrollment to your travel itinerary. This is the same number used for other trusted traveler programs, such as Global Entry, NEXUS, and SENTRI. However, for these latter programs, this number is known as your “PASSID.”

TSA Pre-Check will allow you to make your way through security in a breeze by going through an expedited line and by not taking off your belt, shoes, light jackets, and keeping your liquids and electronics in your bag.

Global Entry will grant you expedited entry through US Customs and Immigration at ports of entry. Also, if you get Global Entry, it comes with TSA Pre-Check as well.

(By the way, there are several ways that you can get TSA Pre-Check /Global Entry for free and if you want to find out more about those options click here.)

The only relationship between a KTN and a redress number is that if you need a redress number and don’t have one, your KTN benefits like TSA Pre-Check and Global Entry might be affected.

Once you are given a redress number, you are still able to use your Global Entry and TSA-Pre Check benefits.

Redress Number FAQ

How do I know if I am on a Government Watchlist?

According to the DHS, the U.S. government does not reveal whether a particular person is on or not on a watchlist and the selection criteria is largely a secretive process.

Am I on a terrorist watchlist if I need a redress number?

Ninety-nine percent of individuals who apply for redress are not on the terrorist watchlist, but are misidentified as people who are.

Also, there are two subsets of the terrorist watchlist which are the “No Fly” list and “Selectee” list:

The “No Fly” list includes individuals who are prohibited from boarding an aircraft. You are NOT on the No Fly list if you receive a boarding pass.
The “Selectee” list includes individuals who must undergo additional security screening before being permitted to board an aircraft.

What if I lost my redress control number?

You can still get it retrieved by sending an email to TRIP@dhs.gov/Redress_Number_Inquiry and providing your full name (including your middle name), current home address, and date of birth.

Do I have to be a US citizen to apply?

No, you do not have to be a US citizen to apply.

Do families send in one application?

No, each person in a family or other traveling group seeking redress must submit a separate application.

Final word

If you’ve been burdened by extra security measures and you have repeatedly struggled to make your way through airport security, through the boarding process for planes and trains, or when getting back into the country, there’s a chance that you might need a redress number. It’s very easy to get if needed, so there’s really no reason why you shouldn’t give it a shot.

TSA Approved Locks Guide (Worth It?) [2023]

Nobody wants potential criminals or strangers having access to personal items in their travel luggage. One way that people add an extra layer of security to their baggage is to place a TSA approved lock on their bag.

But how exactly do these TSA approved locks work? And can they really be trusted?

In this article, I’ll break down everything you need to know about TSA approved locks including the pros and cons of using them.

You’ll see exactly when it’s worth it to use them and also get some recommendations for finding the best locks. But most of all, you will see why they might be a security risk in some cases.

What are TSA approved locks?

TSA approved locks are special locks designed by Travel Sentry and Safe Skies that TSA agents can easily unlock with a master key. They provide travelers with an additional layer of security while also allowing TSA agents to inspect bags when necessary.

However, there are some major security concerns with these locks. Keep reading below to see when you should and should NOT use TSA approved locks.

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How to know if a lock is TSA approved

It’s very easy to quickly identify a TSA approved lock because they will have a red diamond (Travel Sentry logo) on the lock that is pretty hard to miss.

Check out the four locks below. Notice how they each have a red diamond icon in the top right for easy recognition.

In addition to the red icon, you can also often find etched lettering indicating the type of TSA lock such as “TSA-007” (but more on that below).

TSA approved locks can come in a lot of different forms including:

  • Three number combination
  • Four number combination
  • Cable Locks
  • Pad Locks
  • Built-in luggage locks

These locks, which can come in all sorts of different colors, shapes, and sizes, can also come from quite a few different brands including:

  • Anvil
  • Forge
  • Master Lock
  • Sure Lock
  • Samsonite

In total, the Sentry Lock system is licensed to over 500 companies worldwide!

So don’t be surprised if you encounter a lot of locks from brands you have never heard of — they may very well be legitimate companies.

It’s worth noting that there are also TSA approved locks designed by Safe Skies. Their website is a bit more old school so I think they are a smaller player in the space but as far as I can tell, you can still order their locks.

Why should you use TSA approved locks?

You should use TSA approved locks so that you can keep your belongings a little bit more secure while not wasting money on travel locks.

Keep your belongings a little bit more secure

One use for TSA approved locks is that these locks provide one extra hurdle for thieves.

Even if the locks could be easily picked or removed, the fact that a thief would have to take one extra step to get into your bag could deter them and cause them to choose a different bag.

It’s similar to using a hotel safe — they are not full-proof but could force a thief to look elsewhere.

This probably works best against pick pockets that you could encounter around the airport, on shuttle buses, trains, and in hotels.

But consider that some thieves may be attracted to a suitcase that has a lock on it because they could view it as a sign that there is something extra valuable on the inside!

Keep your luggage zippers from coming open

Personally, I think TSA approved locks are most useful for making sure that their luggage zippers do not come undone while traveling.

Cheaper bags and bags that have been used a lot could be more prone to this because they lack sufficient tension in the zipper slider to keep the teeth connected.

The result could be a disaster where your wardrobe and luggage contents are spilled all over the place! So placing a lock on your luggage can help you avoid worrying about this scenario.

Avoid wasting money on travel locks

To understand how you might be wasting money, it helps to first understand how the screening process works for checked bags and what TSA’s liability policy is for damaged locks.

TSA screening process

TSA screens about approximately 1.4 million checked bags per day.

Contrary to what many believe, during the screening process, TSA is not actively looking for drugs. So if you have marijuana in your checked baggage it’s not like TSA agents are trying to catch you with some bud.

Instead, TSA is much more concerned with things like explosives and other dangerous items.

The exact screening process that your bag undergoes can vary based on the airport since TSA and airports are constantly testing out new technologies.

But typically, your checked bag will go through an x-ray machine after it is checked in with the airline.

There could be someone watching the x-rays in real time or more likely the x-ray machine could be utilizing some kind of algorithm that detects prohibited items.

If the algorithm is tripped then your bag may go to a TSA inspection room where an agent will perform a physical inspection of your luggage (only about 5% to 10% of checked bags are physically inspected).

In this room, all of the contents of your bag could be removed and swabbed for traces of explosives.

The good news is they do keep cameras in these inspection rooms so if something goes missing, there should be a proper investigation to check the footage.

Your bag could also be inspected if an airport sniffing dog alerts a TSA agent to your bag or perhaps agents see something suspicious on CCTV.

Finally, there are also random inspections.

The bottom line is you never know if your checked bag will be inspected by a TSA officer and will need to be opened. So you should always prepare for the possibility.

No liability if damaged

If your bag needs to be inspected and you have a non-TSA approved lock on it, then agents will cut away that lock in order to inspect your baggage.

They will not be responsible for the damage to the lock, so you’ll be out of luck on having a lock for your luggage.

This is one of the major reasons why you would want to use a TSA approved lock — you can avoid the risk of wasting money on a lock.

Something else to be aware of is that many times locks get stuck in the conveyor belts and break.

So just because your bag comes back missing its lock, that does not mean that your bag was physically inspected. It could have just been bad luck.

Some TSA approved locks have lifetime warranties so you could always file a claim and potentially get a free lock replacement.

Notice of baggage inspection

If your checked baggage is opened and physically inspected, TSA will place a notice of baggage inspection inside your bag (which you can view below).

If this happens to you, you should check your bag to see if you are missing anything.

It’s possible that you could be missing prohibited items that were removed from your baggage. For example, if you had excessive cans of hairspray or vape batteries, a TSA agent could find those and remove them.

If that’s the case, then you should just be grateful that you were not tracked down for a violation of bringing prohibited items in your luggage. Many prohibited items could land you with a big fine!

In some cases, you might find that you’re missing a valuable item.

It’s recommended to put your electronics and other valuable items in your carry-on bag so that they don’t leave your side but that is not always possible.

If you find that some of your items are missing or maybe even just damaged, you can file a complaint with the TSA.

Note that you need to file your complaint within 180 days of the events in order to get the matter properly looked at.

TSA Notice of baggage inspection

Why should you NOT use TSA approved locks?

There are a couple of reasons why you do not want to use TSA approved locks in certain instances and they both come down to a lack of security.

Universal master keys are widely available

Something that a lot of people don’t know is that it’s very easy for people to get access to a TSA master key.

TSA approved locks come in different versions.

You can usually see which version the lock is by looking for a number etched on the lock ranging from: TSA001 to TSA008.

These numbers tell the TSA agent inspecting your bag which TSA master key to use in order to unlock the lock.

The problem is that master keys have been available to the public for quite some time.

One can easily go online and purchase a TSA master key for under $20.

There’s no guarantee that the key will work but I’ve seen instances online of people successfully using these master keys for their own TSA locks.

Then there is the 3-D printer issue. In 2014, the Washington Post published an article with photos of the TSA master keys.

It did not take very long for people to create templates for the TSA master keys and start 3-D printing their own TSA master keys that also successfully unlock the locks.

This has been going on for over almost a decade. And even before that, it’s speculated that people were able to reverse engineer the keys starting back in 2011.

What does this mean?

This means that TSA approved locks offer a minimal level of security and should never be seriously relied upon outside of the context of an airport.

Remember, TSA approved locks also come with bright red diamond indicators on them that basically scream, “Hey I’m easy to open!”

If you were a thief with a master key, you could easily spot them and target them for your next criminal act.

TSA Master Keys
Image via Reddit.

TSA approved locks can be picked

TSA approved locks can easily be picked.

One quick YouTube search will yield several videos showing how easily these locks can be picked.

But even if someone does not have a master key or the ability to pick a lock, they could easily just use a writing pen to pop open the teeth of the zipper.

The zipper could still be used and the bag won’t even be ruined if done properly. See this video for how it could be done. This means that baggage handlers could still easily get into your bag and potentially even use your bag to transport illegal substances like drugs.

At lots of airports, the baggage handlers don’t have to go through normal security.

So they could easily bring drugs into the baggage loading area and slip them into luggage. If they have connections where the airport is landing, those people could then pick up the drugs. Or, there could be passengers who are in on it and simply pick up their checked baggage at the destination.

What does TSA think about all of this?

TSA doesn’t really seem to care about the ability of others to open these locks judging by the statements they made to The Intercept that:

“The reported ability to create keys for TSA-approved suitcase locks from a digital image does not create a threat to aviation security. These consumer products are ‘peace of mind’ devices, not part of TSA’s aviation security regime.”

And that makes sense.

The primary concern of TSA is to ensure dangerous items are not getting through security screening.

The fact that members of the public could open up these locks does not really change anything about what TSA is doing — the screening process remains the same.

Not really needed for carry-ons

If you never check your bag, there’s a good chance you will never need a TSA approved lock.

The reason is that your bag is always within reach and you should be able to keep a close eye on it at all times.

If you are worried about your zippers busting open then a cable lock might make sense but even in that case you can often get away with using something else.

Some people like to put locks on their smaller bags to prevent pick pockets.

This might work but as mentioned placing locks on backpacks and other small bags can also make your item more of a target for some thieves. And we’ve already shown how easy it is to bust through a zipper.

Are TSA approved locks just not that useful?

Considering that just about any member of the public could get their hands on a master key and that these locks can be picked with relative ease, what use do these TSA approved locks really have?

You can narrow down the benefits of these locks to a few things:

  • Helps you avoid wasting money on locks for your travel luggage
  • Helps you keep your zippers closed so contents don’t spill out your bag
  • Helps create an extra barrier for thieves

International travel

TSA rules apply when traveling in the US so TSA approved locks naturally are well-suited for travel within the US.

But what happens whenever you are traveling internationally? Can you still use TSA approved locks and expect the security screening agents to not cut off your lock?

It’s a good question and the answer is: it depends.

Currently, there are over 500 million Travel Sentry locks and luggage in circulation.

As a result, a lot of airports around the world will recognize TSA approved locks and have the ability to use a master key to open them.

If you are traveling internationally, a good idea is to check ahead of time to see if the countries you are traveling through will recognize these locks. You can search for the country of your airport here.

If you have a Safe Skies lock, those also I recognized in different countries but the network seems to be smaller.

TSA approved locks

TSA approved locks are not very expensive and are not hard to find. Whether you were shopping at Amazon, Walmart or Target, you can often buy them in packages so that you can purchase a handful of them at once.

Here are some of the recommended TSA approved locks:

SURE LOCK TSA Compatible Travel Luggage Locks

These type of locks are nice because they have a special indicator that will let you know if your luggage has been opened. If you see your bag has been opened and you don’t have a notice of inspection, something is not quite right. You can get a two pack of them for only $13 which is a great price.

Forge TSA Approved Cable Luggage Locks

With the Forge TSA luggage lock, the TSA agent has to re-lock your suitcase to remove their key so it’s a great way to reduce the chances of your lock being left unlocked. These locks also have the indicator to show if your lock has been opened. Forge is also reportedly one of the more durable brands.

Master Lock 4697D

The Master Lock offers you the ability to input a four digit combination code, which offers a better level of security than the three wheel combination codes.

The three combination code means a bored thief need only make 1,000 guesses to unlock your bag but with four digits, that number jumps up to 10,000. It only requires you to memorize one more digit so you may as well make it harder on the thief.

Anvil TSA Approved Luggage Lock

The Anvil TSA Approved Luggage Lock is another four digit combination code but this type of lock comes with a hardened steel shackle. These should be more durable than a cable lock. They also offer you a comprehensive lifetime warranty.

Lewis N. Clark Mini Brass Square TSA Lock

If you are someone that likes to use a key to unlock your locks rather than being forced to remember a combination, then you also have some options.

Personally, keeping up with a luggage key lock is just one more thing to keep up with when traveling and I’d rather stick with a combination. Still, these are very durable locks with brass and steel construction. 

A word about luggage with built-in locks….

I’m not a huge fan of using the locks built in to luggage bags.

The reason is that if they malfunction and cannot be opened, agents at the airport may cause damage to the lock or your bag in order to open it.

This would likely be more common when traveling internationally if the airport you were at does not have the appropriate master key.

However, if you stick to using external locks, those can always be cut away without the risk of damaging your bag. Therefore, at least when flying internationally, I would try to avoid the built-in locks.

TSA approved locks FAQ

How much do TSA approved locks cost?

TSA approved locks are not expensive and can be purchased for under $10.

Can I use TSA approved locks when I travel to other countries?

Yes, many countries around the world accept TSA approved locks. You can search for the country of your airport here.

Can TSA approved locks be picked?

Yes, TSA approved locks can be picked with relative ease according to many lock pickers.

Are TSA approved locks safe?

TSA approved locks are not very safe when used outside of the airport because they can be picked and virtually anyone in the public can obtain a TSA master key capable of unlocking the lock.

Do you have to use a TSA approved lock?

No, you are not required to use a TSA approved lock. However, there is roughly a 5% chance your bag will be physically inspected and in that case your non-TSA lock will likely be destroyed.

Where can I purchase a TSA approved lock?

TSA approved locks can be found online at Amazon.com and at stores like Wal-Mart.

Final word

TSA approved locks can help add a layer of security to your luggage without causing you to waste money on locks that could be destroyed by TSA. They can also help keep your zippers from coming undone and allowing the contents of your luggage to spill out.

But beyond that, they have limited utility due to the fact that the master keys can easily be reproduced and because it’s so easy to access a zippered bag.

So feel free to use these locks when going through the airport and flying but my advice would be to stray away from using them when in the real world.

TSA Pat Down Rules & Procedures: Everything You Need to Know

When it comes to pat downs, TSA doesn’t have the best reputation and it’s one of the reasons why it’s even earned the nickname of “Touching Sensitive Areas.”

But all jokes aside, getting a pat down by TSA can be a very uncomfortable experience.

The thing is, TSA agents are not free to do whatever they want when it comes to pat downs and they have to abide by some pretty specific rules and policies (that TSA has set).

If you are aware of these guidelines then you can call out TSA if you ever suspect an agent is failing to live up to the standards.

In this article, we will get into detail about the policies for TSA pat downs and provide you with some insight on how agents are required to conduct themselves when performing pat downs at security checkpoints.

The evolution of the TSA pat down

TSA pat downs have not always been done the same way.

A few years ago, a report came out that TSA agents had missed 95% of dangerous items during an internal investigation. That prompted a review of policies which led to some major changes for pat down searches.

In the past, a TSA agent could choose to perform a pat down in one of five different ways. They made the judgment call based on the circumstances and what they believed was required for the individual. But after that report came out, the policy changed.

A few years ago, TSA adopted a new pat down policy that introduced the standard pat down, which is what most passengers get and that is what we will focus on below.

Why you may get a TSA pat down at the airport

One thing about TSA pat downs is that they are often predictable.

There are a few different reasons why you might get a pat down at the airport.

Refusal to go through the metal detector or body scanner

One of the most common reasons you will get a pat down is if you refuse to go through the walk-through metal detector or the full body scanner. For some people going through a metal detector is not an option, while others just may prefer to not go through these.

But regardless of your reasoning for refusing the traditional screening methods, TSA will need to verify that you don’t have objects on you so it’s understandable that a pat down would be necessary.

The scanners detect a foreign object

You can also get a pat down if the screening methods show that you have an object (or anomaly) on you.

If you can simply pull a detected object out of your pocket and then go back through the screening without the alarm going off then you should not require a pat down.

But if the officer cannot determine why the alarm is going off then you may need a pat down or some other type of additional screening. For example, you could have an implant that sets off the alarm (see the section on medical devices below for more details).

Enhanced screening

If you have something like SSSS on your boarding pass, which requires enhanced screening, then that usually requires a pat down in addition to other screening methods like swabbing.

Sometimes this can happen on a random basis but other times your travel habits can trigger SSSS.

Behavior Detection Officers

Behavior Detection Officers look for certain behaviors that could indicate a passenger is up to something.

The efficacy of these officers is in question but if they found that someone was displaying signs of nervous behavior, they could select them for a pat down.

Travel document checker

A Travel Document Checker (TDC) could determine that there is something suspect about your travel documents and recommend that you undergo a pat down.

There also may be a random element to getting a pat down, although I was not able to find much information on random pat downs.

One thing to be aware of is that TSA Pre-Check does not exclude you from potentially getting a pat down.

What happens during a TSA pat down? (rules and procedures)

Based on 2018 training documents, we know a lot about the pat down process.

While a lot of that information is redacted, we know that during a TSA pat down you can expect to encounter the experience detailed below.

First, an agent will let you know that in order for you to get through security, you will have to submit to a pat down. You are not forced to undergo a pat down but you will not be allowed through security if you refuse.

At that point, you should be presented with the option of getting the pat down done in an open area nearby security or in a private area.

If you elect for a private screening, you can bring along one person with you who can act as a witness.

For travelers who are worried about being subject to abuse or mistreatment, they should be able to have the other person record the pat down session so that if anything happens there is video evidence.

Your carry-on luggage should also be brought to the private screening room, although you will not be able to access it until after the pat down is complete.

If you don’t go for the private screening room, your carry-on luggage will likely remain at the conveyor belt.

A TSA agent of the same gender will be performing the pat down and if you go to private screening route, a second TSA agent of the same gender should join the room as well.

According to their training, it’s possible that an agent of the same gender may not be available and TSA could attempt the pat down with an officer of the opposite gender.

As far as what gender is used, the gender is based on what the passenger identifies as.

If you want, you can request the TSA agent to wear a fresh pair of gloves although it appears that this may be a requirement now, especially after coronavirus.

The universal patdown method hits on pretty much every area of your body and before beginning the agent performing a pat down should explain the entire process to you.

To relieve some of the tension and awkwardness, as they go through the pat down they should alert you as to what part of your body is going to be searched next.

If you have any medical issues or have sensitive regions of your body, let the agent know and they should respond accordingly to avoid causing you pain or severe discomfort.

The agents are instructed to use the back of their hand for sensitive areas such as the breast, groin, and butt. However, TSA has mentioned that sometimes the front of the hand may be needed.

You should only be asked to remove outerwear such as jackets and your belt and shoes. Items should also be removed from your pockets .

Other clothing should remain on although there are reports in the past of TSA doing a strip search which does not seem to be in line with any TSA policy.

An agent could request for you to hold up your shirt so that they can check your waist line but if they request for you to remove an article of clothing that should be a big red flag.

When the inspection begins, you will be asked to stand with your legs shoulder width apart and raise your arms.

The agent should verify that you’re able to remain in this position for four minutes before beginning the search. If that’s too difficult for you then make sure that they provide you with a chair.

The pat down may start with your head. If you have a lot of hair or a poofy/tall hairstyle, your hair could also be subject to an inspection.

Next, they will move onto your collar and arms, including your underarms.

The pat down then may move to your sides and back with the agents hands applying firm pressure to potentially detect anything hidden under your garments.

When it comes to your waist line, they will feel around on the inside of your waistband in both the back and the front.

TSA agent doing pat down on waistline
Image via TSA.

They use an up-and-down and side-to-side motion when checking your rear end and groin area.

This is typically the most controversial aspect of a pat down and there are videos out there that look very suspect with some agents really overdoing it. (Link to video w/music.)

But generally, after a couple of swipes in either direction the officer should be able to tell if there is anything hidden.

TSA agent doing pat down on buttocks
Image via TSA.
TSA agent doing pat down on groin
Image via TSA.

The inside of your thighs and legs will also be rubbed with the officer likely to come very close to your groin area.

If you are wearing something like a dress or a kilt the officer will ask you to take one step forward and inspect each leg separately that way.

TSA agent doing pat down on thigh

If an item is found in your garment or on your person, a TSA agent may need to run that item through the x-ray machine or give it a close physical inspection.

If you have a prohibited item it will be handed over to a supervisor and you could potentially face a fine.

It’s possible that the agent may also want to do a swab of your hands, your clothing, and possibly some of the belongings and your luggage. This is typically a pretty quick process that they only take a minute or two if everything goes correctly.

What the officer is doing is looking for traces of explosives and they use a special machine that can pick up on different chemicals associated with explosives.

After all of this is done you can exit with your luggage, breathe a huge sigh of relief, and head out to your flight which you hopefully are not going to miss because of the delay.

The time it takes for a pat down will vary based on the available personnel and how things go during the search. You could be done in around 10 minutes but other times the process can drag out to even longer.

Will TSA perform a pat down on children?

For children 13 years and older, the standard pat down policy described above will apply, so teenagers are essentially subject to the same pat downs as adults.

However, for children 12 and under, TSA states that “officers will consult parents or the traveling guardian about the best way to relieve any concerns during the screening of a child and to resolve any alarms during screening.”

The child will not be involuntarily separated from the parents or guardians and the adult can even hold a child’s hand during the process.

Also, there must be an adult witness during the pat down which could include an aircraft operator escort in the case of an unaccompanied minor.

Reportedly, TSA modified the screening method so that children 12 and under have a reduced odds of getting a pat down.

Pat downs and medical implants/devices

If you have had a hip replacement or knee replacement, or have a metal plate, screws, metal rod, or other types of orthopedic implants, these could cause an issue when going through security screening

But there are different ways you can go about it.

First, some people may want to avoid going through the scanners. For these people, the pat down is inevitable and they will just have to adjust to it.

But if you have one of the medical devices or implants mentioned above, there is a chance you will set off the metal detector or something will alarm in the full body scanner when you go through.

This will often lead to a TSA agent utilizing a metal detector wand to verify that the location of the metal is only in one specific spot. If the agent is satisfied with your explanation and the findings, then you may be able to go on your way.

However, if the agent has some doubts or something does not line up then you may have to undergo a pat down.

Often times you can get a medical card from your doctor that explains your condition and that could help you avoid a pat down in some cases but not always.

X-ray of knee replacement

Final word

Getting a pat down from TSA can be embarrassing and extremely uncomfortable for some people. If there is any good news, it is that you can often anticipate when a pat down is going to happen so you can mentally prepare for it.

It will help to familiarize yourself with the rules and policies above because then you will be able to call out a TSA agent if they are not abiding by the guidelines!

What Fines Can TSA Impose on You if You Bring a Prohibited Item Through Security?

You’ve probably heard of TSA fining people for bringing certain prohibited items through airport security.

But how does that process actually work? Can TSA really slap a fine on you for bringing over-sized liquids through security?

In this article, we will take an in-depth look at how the TSA fining process works.

What fines can TSA charge you with for bringing prohibited items through security?

TSA can fine you for bringing prohibited items through security checkpoints and the range for those fines can vary widely from around $140 to about $15,000. TSA has discretion in how much they choose to fine you and they base the fine amount on a lot of different factors and circumstances.

Keep reading below to find out more details on how the process works!

TSA issues civil fines

TSA issues civil fines which is important for a couple of reasons.

First, if you receive a civil fine it is not a criminal matter and so you won’t have anything on your criminal record.

It is possible that you could get referred to law-enforcement and then there is the possibility of getting something on your record. But even that is not a guarantee.

But another reason why this distinction matters is that you could also get hit with a criminal fine, so you could be fined twice for your infraction.

The civil matter is completely different from the criminal matter. So for example your criminal case could be dropped but you still could be forced to pay the civil penalty (and vice versa).

You’ll notice that the fines have a range that can vary pretty widely.

That’s because TSA considers mitigating and aggravating factors when determining your fine. In other words, they will decide the penalty based on all of the circumstances.

A first time offender will not be treated the same as a second or third-time offender.

Also, TSA will take certain factors into consideration like if the violation was an accident, the experience of the violator, and even their attitude.

When do you know that you are getting a fine?

The tricky thing about getting fined by the TSA is that you won’t know if you’re getting fined at the time of the infraction.

TSA states that they cannot advise passengers at the time of the incident regarding the potential civil penalty.

Instead, the screening agent will pass along all the details about your situation to the TSA regulatory department who will then decide if a violation occurred.

After that, if an investigation determines that you did violate something, you will receive a notice of violation and you’ll have different options for responding to the notice of violation.

In some instances, you may be able to request a formal hearing or an informal conference so that you can present information to a TSA agent for your final decision. Essentially, you can explain why mitigating factors should apply in your case or perhaps why there was a misunderstanding.

If needed, you could hire an attorney for legal representation.

law hearing

The different types of TSA fines

Now let’s talk about the different types of fines that you could face based on the different types of violations.

Keep in mind that for lots of violations, TSA will simply ask you to throw out the item or simply request for you to exit security and find an alternative way to transport your item.

For example, lots of people forget that they have pocket knives in their bag and they don’t face any type of fine or criminal prosecution. Typically, the fines are reserved for more serious infractions that put people in danger.

Related: What Does the TSA Do With Confiscated Items?

A collection of confiscated knives from TSA via public surplus.

Prohibited items at checkpoint/sterile area/onboard aircraft

All of the fines in this section apply when the prohibited item is discovered at a checkpoint, in the sterile area, or even on board the aircraft.


Firearms are one of the most heavily penalized items you can get caught with when going through TSA.

If you bring a loaded firearm through TSA or even if the firearm is unloaded but you have access to ammunition, you could get hit with a fine ranging from $3,000 to $10,700.

On top of that, you could also get referred to law-enforcement.

Firearms is one of the areas that also comes with a much heftier fine if you are a repeat offender. So if you were to get caught with a loaded firearm for a second time, your fine could be closer to $15,000!

If you ever get caught with an unloaded firearm then the penalties are not as bad but they can still range from $1,500 to $5,370. And even if the firearm is unloaded you could still get a criminal referral.

You might be wondering about other types of guns like BB guns and pellet guns or compressed air guns. These type of guns along with replica firearms could still get you hit with a pretty big fine of $390 to $2,250.



As mentioned above, pocket knives are not allowed but TSA typically does not pursue an investigation when someone is caught with these because they are so common.

But they do explicitly mention that fines could be headed down if you were found with certain types of knives and sharp objects like: switch blades, butterfly knives, double edge knives and daggers, sabers, and swords. Also problematic are machetes, throwing stars, and throwing knives.

Flammable liquids and flammable gels

What about flammable liquids and flammable gels?

If you get caught with things like gasoline, lighter fluid, cooking fuels, turpentine, paint thinners, etc., the fine range could be $390 to $2,250.

Taking things like smoke grenades or flash bangs could get you hit with a more serious fine of up to $3,720 along with a criminal referral.


The fines really start to turn up whenever we talk about explosives.

The type of fine you get handed to you would depend on the type of explosive. If you had anything like blasting caps, initiators, dynamite, gunpowder (over 10 ounces), hand grenades, and plastic explosive, all of those could get you hit with a fine of up to $15,000.

And of course, a criminal referral could go along with that.

But you also have to be careful about the replicas that you carry around. For example if you had a replica grenade or even an inert hand grenade, that could be enough for a criminal referral and a fine ranging from $740 to $3720.

Novelty items and other explosives

Another area of concern related to explosives is when people bring novelty items that look like explosives.

The classic example is a bottle of cologne that looks like a grenade or a lighter in the shape of a grenade.

Things like fireworks you brought from a firework stand or small packs of gunpowder under 10 ounces can also be a major problem with fines ranging from $390 to $2,250.

And even though you might think these things are innocent they could still get you in trouble with the law.

Cologne bottle shaped like a grenade

Security violations for items discovered in your checked baggage

Now let’s talk about what happens if you get caught with things in your checked baggage.

The fines are not as bad because these sometimes present less of a danger but you could still get hit with serious fines and get in trouble with the law.


A loaded firearm could cost you up to $3,000 and get you in trouble with the law.

Remember, there are specific rules for traveling with a firearm including storing it in a case. You also have to declare that firearm. And if you fail to declare the firearm or you don’t properly package it up then that penalty could range from $740 to $1,490.


The penalties for getting caught with explosives are pretty much the same as they are for carry-ons. This makes sense considering that explosives can be just as dangerous in the baggage hold as they would be in the cabin.

Trying to circumvent security

You can also get fined if you attempt to circumvent security but the type of fine you would get handed to you would depend on your method of concealment.

For example, let’s say that you were trying to sneak an oversized liquid through security but that it was a non-explosive.

Imagine someone trying to secretly bring a 7 ounce container of hairspray which is above the 3.4 ounce limit. I’m guessing this would be like someone hiding it inside a stuffed animal or inside their pant leg.

That person could get fined up to $300.

Now let’s talk about some devices that are prohibited.

Imagine somebody had a flashlight with a built-in stun gun. Or say that they had a lipstick or pen that had a hidden knife inside.

These are considered to be “ordinary artful concealment” attempts and they could result in some pretty big fines of up to $2,250.

The fines could be much worse if you were trying to bring in a firearm that was concealed such as a cell phone gun. In that case, the hefty amount you could be charged with could range from about $5,000 to over $10,000.

And then TSA has a classification they call “extraordinary artful concealment.”

This is when a passenger takes a pretty extraordinary effort to conceal something.

It’s different from the classification above because you could at least imagine a scenario where someone accidentally brings one of those items like a flashlight with a stun gun and simply forgets about the prohibition on stun guns.

But in these cases, the concealment intent is very much apparent.

For example if you were to wrap up a gun in aluminum foil so that it would not get picked up by the x-ray machine that would be an example of extraordinary concealment.

Another example would be if you had a book with the core hollowed out so that you could hide prohibited items inside. In these cases, the fine could be up to $10,700.

Interfering with screening

Now let’s get into interfering with screening.

This is a big one and it’s one major reason why you don’t want to mess around with the screening agents.

Sometimes people get upset if they have to surrender an item or if they are spoken to in a rude manner by a TSA agent. This can lead to confrontations which unfortunately can result in people getting physical.

If you were to cause an injury to a TSA agent by assaulting them you could be charged with a fine of up to $15,000. Even if you don’t cause an injury that fine could still be up to $11,300.

And then there is the fine for nonphysical interference. This can be a big one for people who want to video record or take photographs at the security checkpoint.

An officer could argue that these people are interfering with the screening (which is a pretty vague concept) and in those instances a fine of up to $5,830 could be thrown down.

And what would happen if you decided to sneak through security and gain access to the sterile area without getting screened?

If you were caught then TSA could decide to penalize you by fining you $740 to $4,480.

There are additional ways to get fined as well such as tampering with security systems and knowingly giving fraudulent information.

For example, if you told TSA that you noticed another passenger had something suspicious going on but there was no evidence for that, you could be slapped with a fine of around $4,000. The security checkpoint is very much a no non-sense zone!

Final word

There are quite a few ways to pick up a civil fine from TSA. Lots of times, TSA will simply throw out prohibited items and send you on your way so you don’t have anything to worry about.

But if you bring certain dangerous items like firearms, explosives, and other potentially harmful devices, you open up the door to getting fined.

In those cases, if there was an honest mistake you may still be able to avoid a big fine but if there is evidence that you are a repeat offender or there are aggravating factors, you might have to deal with a pretty large fine.

What Does the TSA Do With Confiscated Items?

Every day, thousands of items don’t make it through TSA security checkpoints. Whether these are liquids or dangerous weapons, many travelers say goodbye to items for good after going through a screening.

But where exactly do these items end up that TSA confiscates? And also, is there any chance that you could be reunited with an item taken by TSA?

In this post, we will breakdown where these items and up and explore the options that you have to try to get your item back.

What does the TSA do with confiscated items?

If TSA decides to take possession of your item at a security checkpoint, they could hand the item over to the state who could then decide to donate the item, throw it away, or sell it on an online surplus auction or physical retail store.

TSA does not “confiscate” items

TSA does not “confiscate” items. Instead, they get passengers to “voluntarily abandon” property at the security checkpoints.

This is likely because TSA does not have police powers and there would be constitutional issues if they actively seized property from passengers.

So when you go through security and are found with an object that is not allowed through, there are a few different outcomes you can expect.

If you’re dealing with some type of liquid or aerosol that is not allowed then TSA will likely tell you to discard it or get you to agree to discarding it.

If you get caught with something dangerous or illegal then, depending on the severity of the infraction, TSA could refer your item and yourself to law-enforcement.

If it is just an everyday item that is not allowed but does not present a threat, then TSA should give you the ability to exit the security line and then figure out a solution.

I have seen some reports of people feeling like they don’t have the option to exit security so sometimes this option may not be presented to you as clearly as it should.

When you’re trying to figure out what to do with your object after exiting security, there are several different routes you can take including:

  • Putting the item in checked baggage
  • Delivering it to your home or a hotel via rideshare
  • Putting it back in your vehicle or giving it to a friend
  • Utilizing an airside lost and found
  • Mail it back to your house
  • Utilize an airport locker

We did an article on how to handle these situations so be sure to check out that article for more.

Common items handed over to TSA

The most common item surrendered to TSA is probably an oversized liquid.

David Holbrook, a TSA supervisor, said “the most common prohibited items seen are ‘oversized liquids,’ such as bottles of soda, water, bug spray and sunscreen.” I’d venture to guess that other toiletries like toothpaste are commonly taken as well.

Pocket knives and other small knives are also one of the most common items that are handed over (and kept). Many people just forget that they have them in their bags or they think that small knives are allowed (it’s common for other countries to allow blades under 2.3 inches).

Sharp objects like corkscrews and other prohibited tools and multi-tools are also common. Pepper spray is another pretty common object that gets taken although sometimes it gets through and was even once released in the cabin!

Where the items go after they are in TSA’s possession

So what happens to all of the objects that are voluntarily abandoned to TSA? Where exactly do they end up?

Well, first let’s be clear that these items do not end up with TSA officers.

TSA has a strict policy against allowing agents to take these objects home and TSA is not allowed to profit off of them.

Instead, TSA will collect all of the items that are surrendered and and then probably ship them to a warehouse where the ownership is transferred to the state. (Unclaimed Lost and Found items may be included in the shipment as well.)

The state can then choose to do whatever it wants with them. Typically, this would mean donating the items or putting them in some type of surplus auction, where they could be sold at a fraction of the price of their value.

Sometimes, the items to be donated go to a local county police department. For example, things like knives, guns, gun parts, ammunition, tasers, etc. could be given to a local police force or even the military.

I’ve heard that pepper spray could also be given to police but others report that these items are disposed of along with other flammable items, such as hairspray.

Sometimes schools could be in the running to receive certain items like scissors or other supplies that they could put to use.

When donating is not an option or not desired, the object will be sent to a state agency as surplus property and then could end up on one of the auction websites like:

On the Public Surplus website, you can use the category filter for airports to see items taken from airports. You could also use the select region filter to filter down your results to whichever airport you were traveling through. (The few times I’ve checked the website for airport listings, it’s been a pretty short list.)

GSA Auctions also has a similar feature so that you can filter results down by state but note some only use GSA Auctions for federal personal property.

On GovDeals you can search by location or by category including for specific items like knives.

GovDeals screen

Different states may have specific eBay accounts that they use to sell the items. So, for example in the past if you were looking for an item taken from an Oregon airport, the eBay seller account was: oregontrail2000.

Other times, a seller may have purchased items from TSA and could be reselling (flipping) the items so the seller could be just your average eBay user. If that’s the case, then chances are you may not be getting as good of a deal as you could find when buying directly from a surplus account.

To find items on eBay search for things like “TSA confiscated knives” and you should see a lot of different results pop up. Like the other auction sites, lots of times you will find items sold in bulk but you can also find individual items or smaller group listings.

ebay listings

Is it possible to track down your item on an auction site?

These auctions mean that in theory you could check these websites after you have surrendered an item to TSA and possibly retrieve it.

However, I would not count on this working because of a few reasons.

First, as already mentioned, it’s possible your item could be donated to any number of agencies, including the military or different police forces. If that happens, the only way you’re getting that item back as if you have some serious connections and inside knowledge.

Second, it’s possible that the TSA or state agency just doesn’t see value in your item and could have chosen to throw it away. Or, it could’ve just got lost in the process somewhere.

Third, as evidenced by the photos seen above your item could also be sold in “bulk.”

So your single pocket knife could be dropped in a lot of 30+ other small knives. The auction sites usually have photos but your knife may not even be featured (or visible) in the photo of the bulk listing. Or worse, the auction site might just be using a generic photo of knives for that listing.

Sometimes the surplus items could end up offline and in a surplus retail store and in that case, you would have to know what retail stores to look for.

A cluster of airports in a given state may all use the same surplus retail store so you could narrow down your search to a single physical store. But because items can be consolidated to one shop that means you could be forced to drive several hours to get to that store.

For example, in Texas surplus items could end up at a retail store in Austin even if those objects were taken from airports in Dallas, Fort Worth, and Houston. Unless they have inventory available on a real time basis on their website, you could be driving several hours only to waste your time!

How do I know TSA agents are not stealing my item?

In the past, TSA agents have been busted for stealing items.

As disappointing as that is, it should not be a shock given the size of the TSA organization and how many interactions they have on a daily basis. In short, there are always going to be some bad apples.

However, when it comes to items “confiscated” by TSA, I do think that the odds of TSA agents stealing something are probably pretty low. This is mostly because the value of the items taken by TSA security checkpoints is typically not going to be very high.

So the risk to reward ratio would not be worth it for a lot of TSA agents. I mean, I could see someone stealing an iPad for a quick win but risking a job for a $15 pocket knife? That wouldn’t make as much sense. Could it still happen? Of course, but I don’t think it would be very common.

Final word

TSA does not have police powers which prevents them from being able to seize property in the same way that law-enforcement could.

For this reason, they get passengers to voluntarily abandon their property at security checkpoints when the item is not allowed through or the passenger does not have an alternative.

Once the property is in TSA’s possession, they hand it over to the state who then can donate it, dispose of it, or sell it at a retail surplus store or online auction.

While it is technically possible to track down your item after it is confiscated, your odds of successfully doing this are probably very low due to a multitude of factors.

What Happens if Your Item Is Not Allowed Through TSA Security? Can You Get It Back?

Even experienced travelers sometimes find themselves about to go through airport security with something that is not allowed.

If this ever happens to you, you may be wondering what your options are. Is there any way for you to get reunited with your item or will you have to say goodbye to the item for good?

Below, we will break down a few different options that you have whenever you can’t get an item through airport security.

What happens if your item is not allowed through TSA security?

Typically, unless you proactively hand something over, the way you get caught with an item that is not allowed is when your baggage goes through the x-ray scanner or you walk through the full body scanner or metal detector.

If something is flagged, an agent will then search your bags or your person for the prohibited items and if your item is not allowed through TSA security, a TSA agent may take the following actions:

  • Refer the item and possibly yourself to law enforcement (for some dangerous or illegal items)
  • Allow you to discard or surrender the item
  • Allow you to exit the security line with your item and figure something out

There are some reports of TSA agents forcibly making people give things up and not giving them the third option (to exit security). But unless there is something dangerous or illegal about the item, that should not happen in most cases.

Your options for keeping your item

There are different methods that you can use to keep your item or get reunited with it later on.

These methods include:

  • Handing the item over to TSA and then hunting it down on an auction website
  • Sending the item off in checked baggage
  • Returning home or placing the item in your vehicle or in another person’s vehicle
  • Using a rideshare service to deliver your item
  • Turning in your item into the lost and found and hoping for the best
  • Putting your item in an airport locker
  • Mailing the item back to yourself

All of these come with their own pros and cons and we will dive into the risks of each of these below!

Note: The options available to you will depend on the airport you’re at and the type of item you are trying to save but it’s good to be aware of all of these different routes, even if some of them are a bit more risky (and unconventional) than others.

Hand over your item to TSA and then try to hunt it down

Unlike law-enforcement, TSA does not really have the authority to confiscate an item. Instead, when they take (or receive) an item from a passenger they refer to it as “voluntarily abandoned property.”

In reality, the passenger may not have any other choice than to hand over the items so “voluntarily” is a bit of a misleading term in a lot of cases.

But often the only option you will have when an item cannot get through airport security with you is to simply hand it over to TSA.

Once it is in TSA’s possession, they will take different actions depending on the type of substance.

If it’s a prohibited liquid they will probably just instantly dispose of it. If it’s a weapon or some other type of illegal object, it could be referred to law-enforcement (along with yourself).

But if it is just your every day item that is not illegal, TSA will hand it over to a state surplus and it could eventually end up on one of the auction sites like GovDeals.

This means that in theory you could track down your item by browsing new items that fall under that specific category. I wouldn’t count on this working though and would consider this more of a Hail Mary attempt.

Head back to the check-in counter

Another option you have is to head back over to the baggage check-in counter to send your item via checked baggage.

First, you need to make sure that you have enough time to actually get back over to the counter, wait in line, and then go back through security.

Second, you need to think about baggage fees. If you have status or certain credit cards, you may be able to check a bag for free so this may not be an issue but you’ll definitely want to be aware of the prices.

Most likely you will just be asking them to check your carry-on or personal item bag which means that you will want to remove certain items like laptops or other valuables from your carry-on when you do this. You will then just take those items with you through the security checkpoint.

You might be wondering if you can check your item without having to hand over your carry-on bag. In other words, what happens when you don’t have a bag to put your item in?

Let’s say that you had a bottle of contact solution not allowed in your carry-on, could you simply check that bottle by itself?

This actually introduces a pretty interesting question that we don’t necessarily know the answer to because there is not a lot of information published on this question.

There are examples out there of people checking very small items like a single shoe so it does seem possible.

However, if you’re trying to check a single item that could potentially cause damage like a pocket knife or something that could come apart like a blender then that is probably a very different story.

Some airlines may be willing to work with you, especially if they have materials (tape, etc.) that can make it practical to send your item off.

Others might just look at you like you are crazy, though.

Head back home or to a vehicle

Another option is to head back home if you have enough time or just head back to your vehicle or a friend’s car and place the item in a vehicle.

For example, you can have the person dropping you off at the airport simply hang out in the cell phone parking lot waiting for you to successfully get through security.

If you’re not cutting things close with time this is definitely a good option to think about.

Use a ride share service

If you have enough time you could go to the pick up area of the airport and request a rideshare such as an Uber or Lyft.

Sometimes you may have access to something like Uber Connect which is specifically designed for deliveries but you could possibly even use the standard Uber service for this.

Basically what you would do is request a driver and then tell them that you have a package that needs to be delivered back to your home or to another person’s house.

If you were staying at a nearby hotel, especially a quality hotel with good service, you could arrange for it to be delivered to the hotel and they will likely take care of it until you get back. Or, they could even mail it to you.

When using a rideshare for a delivery, you might be able to convince the driver to just leave the item in a mailbox or on the doorstep but it’s probably better to have someone designated to pick up the package.

It’s possible that an Uber driver may not be comfortable doing this, may not know what to do, if it is allowed, etc.

So be prepared to potentially meet some resistance if you try to go this route. The promise of a good tip can work wonders.

Give it to the lost and found

This option is definitely a bit risky and falls into a gray area but it’s pretty clever.

After you are told you can’t bring your item through security, you could exit the airport security area and head over to the airport lost and found and submit the item as lost.

Obviously, if this item is very valuable to you, you may not want to do this method because you may never see the object again.

And if the item is a dangerous prohibited item like a weapon, you almost certainly will not see that object again.

But if you don’t have any other options then this could give you a chance to get reunited with something like a prohibited battery or certain toiletries.

Basically, after you submit the item to Lost and Found then you would contact the airport and tell them that you lost that specific item and file a claim.

If you’re doing a roundtrip then on your way back through the airport you could simply stop by the lost and found and hopefully pick it up free of charge. Other times, you could get the airport to send you the item but you will probably have to pay for shipping.

To increase your odds of being successful you may want to try the lost and found at an airport lounge if you have access to one because they may be looking out for their guests better than the standard airport lost and found.

Related: TSA Lost and Found Guide: (How to Get Your Items Back)

Put it in an airport locker

Some airports have lockers that you can store items in.

Typically, these are for people who are exiting the airport on a layover but I would guess that you may be able to do overnight storage for multiple days.

Even if you only can store an object for a few hours, that could give you enough time to ask someone to come by and pick up the item. These rates can be expensive sometimes so you may only want to go this route for items that are truly valuable.

Mail the item back to yourself

Some airports have a service you can find called Airport Mailers. This allows you to mail items back to your home for only a small-fish postage fee.

Basically, you just fill out a form with your contact and shipping information, provide credit card details, and then submit the form along with your item in a package to be mailed.

There are a few caveats, though.

One, your item is probably going to have to be pretty small and fit within a 6″ by 9″ pouch. So this isn’t going be the time to mail video game systems, blenders, etc.

Certain items are not allowed in postage and these can include things like weapons, ammunition, batteries, flammable liquids, and explosives.

So typically if you use the service you would be mailing things back like:

  • Knives
  • Scissors
  • Leatherman Tools
  • Lighters
  • Liquids

The price for each item is going to change depending on what type of item it is.

The fees for shipping start around eight dollars but can be much higher for liquids which could be around $20. You will be able to send certain items to international destinations but be prepared for higher fees.

Final word

Finding out that you cannot get your item through airport security can be a frustrating and stressful experience. But, you might have hope of getting reunited with that item if you try out some of the methods above.

Some of these will be worth it based on the value of your item but other times it may just be worth departing from your item and paying for a new replacement.

Bringing Lotion on a Plane: TSA’s Rules for Staying Moisturized

It’s not uncommon to get pretty dehydrated when traveling.

It could be because you have limited water intake or because you are traveling into dry environments like the cabin of a plane or perhaps to a low humidity destination like the desert.

Either way, you likely will want to travel with some lotion to keep your skin in good condition.

But is it possible to bring lotion on a plane and are there any risks of things happening like the bottle exploding?

In this article, we will take an in-depth look at traveling with lotion and give some insight into how TSA deals with it.

Can you bring lotion on the plane?

Yes, you can bring lotion on a plane.

If you plan on bringing lotion in your carry-on, you need to abide by the TSA liquids rule. Also, whether you are bringing lotion in your carry-on or checked bag you should take steps to prevent spills in the event your bottles of lotion explode.

Keep reading below for some tips and insight into how to avoid exploding lotion and how to keep the passengers nearby happy!

Someone dispensing lotion from bottle

Important: Getting through airport security with lotion

Before we get into taking lotion bottles through airport security, we should mention something very important about wearing lotion when traveling to the airport.

It’s a good idea to not apply any lotion before you head to the airport. In fact, if you can, try to wait until after you get through airport security to apply lotion on the day of your travel.

The reason for this is that lots of lotions contain glycerin which is one of the chemicals that can set off the alarms whenever you get “swabbed.”

What does it mean to get swabbed?

One way that TSA agents try to keep passengers safe is by detecting whether or not passengers have come into contact with explosive materials. And one of the ways that they do this is by taking samples from the hands of passengers as well as their luggage contents.

If that sample contains traces of explosives, then the passenger will likely be subject to questioning and perhaps even a much more invasive search. That invasive search could involve a pat down and more swabbing which could take an extra 20 minutes or longer.

When going through airport security, you don’t always get swabbed but if you applied lotion containing glycerin on the day of your travels, there is a chance you would test positive if you got swabbed!

You can read more about what it’s like to get swabbed at the airport here.

If you’re curious about what type of brands may contain glycerin, here are some examples:

  • Vaseline Intensive Care Advanced Repair Body Lotion
  • Neutrogena The Transparent Facial Bar
  • Raw + Rare Vegetable Glycerin
  • Cetaphil Moisturizing Cream
  • Vichy LiftActiv Vitamin C Brightening Skin Corrector
  • Aquaphor Healing Ointment
  • Paula’s Choice Water-Infusing Electrolyte Moisturizer
  • Glossier Soothing Face Mist
  • Exuviance Targeted Lip Filler
  • Aveeno Calm + Restore Triple Oat Serum
  • Fenty Skin Hydra’Reset Intensive Recovery Hand Mask
  • Hanni Shave Pillow
  • La Roche-Posay Redermic R Retinol Eye Cream

Just note that this is not an exhaustive list.

Bringing lotion as a carry-on (TSA liquids rule)

TSA allows you to bring liquids like lotion on board as long as they are contained within a container no larger than 3.4 fluid ounces or (100 mL) and all of those containers can fit comfortably inside of one clear quart sized bag.

You will need to remove this bag from your carry-on bag when going through the security checkpoint unless you have TSA Pre-Check.

This procedure for dealing with your liquids is known as the TSA Liquids 3-1-1 Rule

Something super important to know about lotions is that the focus on the 3.4 ounces is on the size of the container and NOT the amount of liquid inside the container.

It’s really easy to find travel bottles of lotion under 3.4 ounces so it shouldn’t be a problem to get a container of lotion that can go with you.

Also, if you’d like you can pour your own lotion into a 3.4 ounce travel container.

One exception I should mention is that if you have medically necessary lotion, that container can be larger than 3.4 ounces due to the medical exception.

It will help if you can bring your prescription or if the prescription is attached to the bottle (although prescriptions are not always necessary to show for TSA).

Sometimes you can still get resistance from TSA with oversized liquids so if it’s possible to just pour some of that prescribed lotion into a smaller container, that might make your life a lot easier when getting through security.

Flying with lotion in the cabin (applying it mid-flight)

If you bring bottled lotion with you on the plane — whether that be hand cream, face lotion, or any other type — you need to be extremely careful about applying that lotion during a flight.

Brad once had a passenger next to him open a bottle of lotion and it actually exploded all over the passengers in his row!

So there are a couple of things you can do to avoid this.

First, while you are still on the ground you can open up the lid of the container and then squeeze the sides so that you let out a lot of air.

Keep the sides of the bottle squeezed as you close it so that the bottle looks a bit “deformed.”

As you increase in altitude and the cabin pressure increases, the air inside the bottle will have room to expand, reducing the odds of an explosion.

The next thing you can do is to use a small bag (probably the same bag you use for your liquids) to cover the lid of that lotion bottle while you open it. You can also place the bottle in the bag down below your seat when you do this.

This way, if you did cause an explosion it would be contained and you would not have to deal with the consequences of shooting lotion all over a bunch of strangers.

Another bit of advice is to try to avoid applying lotion with strong scents on planes.

When on a plane, lots of passengers don’t care for strong smells from things like perfume, lotion, etc. If you can, try to find lotion that has no scent as that is the most considerate option.

This story below kind of contradicts the advice above but it’s kind of funny and worth sharing.

Back to the story about Brad getting lotion spilled on him….

He was flying in a packed economy cabin on that flight and someone had been passing gas very bad for hours whenever the lotion was spilled on him.

That lotion actually did have a strong fragrance and so Brad was actually thankful that the lotion had been spilled on him so that he didn’t have to deal with the bad odor!

So I guess there is a welcomed circumstance for some strong scented lotions.

Amenity kit with lotion bottles
Amenity kits on premium flights often contain lotions, such as eye cream.

Bringing lotion in your checked baggage

Bringing lotion in your checked baggage is much easier to do. Your bottle will not be subject to the 3.4 ounces rule so you could bring a much larger container of lotion.

It would still be a good idea to bag or better yet double bag your lotion bottle so that if it leaks or explodes, all of the mess will be contained. You can also utilize the trick mentioned above about letting air out of the bottle.

And finally, consider putting the bagged lotion bottle into a separate compartment in your checked baggage so that it won’t leak into all of your clothes if the bag barrier was broken.

Related: Can You Bring Shampoo (Liquid or Dry) On a Plane?

Final word

You can definitely bring lotion on a plane but you need to abide by the liquids rule if you are taking it as a carry-on.

Furthermore, you should take precautions to avoid your lotion exploding on the plane by squeezing the air out of the bottle and by bagging the container up.

Be extra mindful when applying lotion in a flight so that you avoid your bottle exploding and you don’t force passengers to deal with strong scents.

TSA Swabbing at Airport Security: What Is It and How to Avoid False Alarms

If you’ve done a lot of flying, chances are that when going through TSA security you have experienced a good swab or two.

Whether it was your hands or baggage that was swabbed, you may have been curious about what exactly is going on and what are they trying to detect?

Is it drugs, bombs, or is it all just a bunch of security theater?

In this article, we will clear up the confusion about swabbing at airport security and give you some tips on how to deal with it and potentially avoid setting off a false alarm.

Why is TSA swabbing your hands and bags at airport security?

TSA will swab the hands of passengers as well as their luggage in order to detect traces of dangerous explosives.

When people are dealing with explosive materials, their body and/or belongings will often have very tiny traces of particles or residue of explosives still on them. So TSA uses different methods to detect those microscopic traces in order to screen out passengers who could have intent to do serious harm.

This is the process known as explosive trace detection (ETD) which unfortunately is not a perfect system. Below, we will go into more detail and talk about the shortcomings of the system and how you can deal with them.

When did TSA begin swabbing passengers?

TSA had been swabbing luggage for traces of explosives for a long time but after the failed 2009 Christmas Day bombing of Northwest Flight 253, they soon started to swab the hands of passengers.

(That bombing attempt did not end well for him and he is currently serving four life sentences in a super max.)

Different reasons you might get swabbed by TSA

TSA does not have the resources or the time to swab every passenger so only a certain subset of people will get swabbed.

Suspicious items in your luggage

A common reason that you could be swabbed is that something in your baggage triggers a further inspection. This is often the case if you have a suspicious looking item in your luggage.

This could be some type of electronic or it could be a rare household item like a collapsible tea kettle that just looks strange in the x-ray machine.

You appear nervous or suspicious

If a TSA agent believes that you appear suspicious while waiting in line they could order a swab.

While TSA does not publish a lot of data on how they go about doing this, common sense would dictate that agents would be looking for people who look extra nervous or like they are up to something in order to subject them to more screening.

You refuse the full body scanner

Another reason why you could get swabbed is if you declined to go through the full body scanner. In that case, you will likely be subject to a pat down and could also get swabbed.

Randomly selected

It’s also possible that you could be randomly selected for additional screening.

This could happen without warning or you could see it coming based on your boarding pass. For example, if you had SSSS on your boarding pass then you will have to go through the enhanced screening process which will require swabbing.

When going through the security checkpoint, you’ll usually know that swabbing is coming whenever your bin or bag is removed from the main conveyor belt. The agent will ask who owns the bag and will call you over to where the screening will take place.


If you are traveling with a pet, you will likely have to get your hands swabbed.

Medical equipment

TSA states that “officers may swab an individual’s hands, mobility aids, equipment and other external medical devices to test for explosives using explosives trace detection technology.”

If you have mobility issues you can always request to have the procedure done while you are being seated to make yourself more comfortable.

How does TSA swabbing work?

Once you have been designated for swabbing, you will likely be directed to walk over to a certain spot at the checkpoint. You will then be asked to hold out your palms and your luggage will likely be set aside on the counter to be swabbed as well.

This can feel uncomfortable and be a bit stressful but if you have nothing to hide, chances are nothing is going to happen and you will be on your way shortly. So just try to follow directions as much as you can.

TSA agents wearing nitrile gloves could use different materials to swab but you will often find them using a fabric swab (perhaps made of teflon coated fiberglass) attached to a wand but sometimes the swabs can be used by hand.

The agents will swab your hands and then will often also swab your luggage contents. It’s not uncommon for electronics like phones, cameras, and laptops to get swabbed but they can also swab your clothing, shoes — pretty much anything.

The TSA agent swabbing your body or your bags has to be very careful to apply just the right amount of pressure to the swab. In fact, despite how easy the swabbing process might look, quite a bit of training goes into showing TSA agents how to properly get a sample.

Depending on the material, TSA could use the same swab up to around 10 times but after a certain point it will become unusable. However, with the outbreak of coronavirus and worries about spreading viruses, TSA gave direction to replace the swab every single time.

(It’s not clear to me if they still have that requirement given how attitudes have changed regarding the pandemic.)

Once TSA has the sample, the sample goes into the ETD instrument.

Typically the instrument uses ion mobility spectrometry (IMS) to get a reading on what the substance is.

IMS works by ionizing the sample and turning a liquid or solid sample into gas particles. Those particles are then sent through a drift tube via an electric field. A detector then records how long it took those ions to get through the drift tube and compares it to other drift times in the library.

Larger ions have more collisions and move slower so these libraries can break down the drift times based on the size and shape of the ions.

TSA has shown interest in moving to mass spectrometry which could be more accurate but is more difficult to build (and to scale) in a small package.

There are also other ways to accomplish EDT but so we don’t get bogged down into the science, let’s get back to the process…..

Once the sample swab is submitted into the detection instrument, it is then compared to a vast library of different chemicals, which only takes a few seconds to happen thanks to powerful algorithms.

If there is a match then the alarm will be triggered. You’ll see a red light come on and hear the dreaded “beep.”

For security purposes, TSA does not release exactly which chemicals they are testing when they check for explosives.

However, to keep your browser search history squeaky clean we have included some possible candidates below:

  • Cyclotrimethylene-trinitramine
  • Cyclotetramethylene-tetranitramin
  • Otoluene
  • Pentacrythrite tetranitrate (PETN)
  • Ammonium nitrate/fuel oil (ANFO)
  • Trinitrotoluene (TNT)
  • Nitroglycerine (NG)
  • Nitrates
  • Trinitrophenylmethylnitramine
  • Semtex

If the machine detects traces of an explosive substance, an agent may want to do a second sample to verify that this was not simply a false positive.

After this, you will likely be questioned and depending on your answers and the results of your test, you could be told to go freely about your business or you could be taken to a screening room for an invasive screening.

TSA agents are aware that honest, hard-working people sometimes test positive for explosives so this should not be a “walk of shame” as you head to a screening room. However, it can be difficult to not feel that way.

During the screening process, you could be thoroughly pat down (by a member of the same sex/gender I believe). Your bags could be completely unpacked and every item inspected closely, perhaps getting more swab treatment.

This process could easily add 15 to 20 minutes or possibly longer to your journey through the airport which is why it helps to get there early.

Common items that can trigger the alarm when swab testing

Unfortunately, the explosive trace detection systems can be triggered even when someone has not been in close contact with explosives or does not have any intent to inflict damage.

There are quite a few different scenarios where you could come into contact with something that could set off the alarm and here are some of those.

Products with glycerin

Glycerin can set off the testing machines and unfortunately glycerin is found in a lot of common products.

You can find this in a lot of lotions, certain make up products, soaps, laundry detergents, shaving creams, baby wipes, etc. There are also lots of other products that could contain glycerin.

For some of these products, the odds of you testing positive go up when you use them just before heading through security. For that reason, you should try to wait until after you get through security to apply lotion or any other potentially suspect product.


If you are a farmer, gardener, or just someone who was randomly exposed to certain fertilizers, those can leave behind traces of molecules that will test positive for explosives, especially if the detection instruments use thermo redox.


Nitroglycerine pills, used for heart conditions like angina, are allowed by TSA but it’s possible that you could trigger the alarm if you were handling them.

Fireworks and pyrotechnics

If you’ve ever done fireworks for New Year’s Eve or the Fourth of July, and then flown shortly after there’s a chance that you could have tested positive for explosives due to having gun powder residue on you or your luggage contents.

Incendiary munitions, accelerants, firearms, etc.

Sometimes you could be dealing with guns, ammunition, and explosives for some type of training.

This can be really common for military personnel and also police officers, firefighters, etc. If you are dealing with these things, there is a high chance that you would not pass an explosive detection test.

In those cases, the organization you are training with could reach out to TSA at the local airport and let them know that trainees will be going through with explosives residue.

You will still need to show that your name is on a certain list but it could make your time going through the security checkpoint easier.

Machines in need of maintenance?

One thing about these ETD Machines is that they do require maintenance in order to function properly. If a machine has not been properly maintained, it could be more prone to false positives.

So in some cases, you may not have any of the substances above on you but you could still trigger the alarm simply because the machine is not working properly.

Smoking cigarettes?

Some people claim that they have triggered the swab alarm after smoking cigarettes.

I’m not sure if that happens often but you might want to put off smoking cigarettes until after you get through security (assuming the airport has a smoking area).

Do the TSA swabs detect illegal drugs?

One concern that people have is whether or not the swabs will detect illegal drug use.

We know that TSA does not focus on busting people for using drugs. A TSA agent is focused on detecting dangers such as explosives and not on whether or not you are traveling with marijuana or some other drugs.

Also, there could be constitutional concerns if these swabs were used to detect drug use (i.e., used for non-security purposes).

With that said, we know that these type of chemical detection tests can be designed to detect narcotics.

Typically, whenever you see tests like this being used to discover narcotics in a US airport they are being used by US Customs and Border Protection to inspect passengers, luggage, or packages coming into the US.

So I suspect that TSA swabbing is not set up to bust people that have come into contact with drugs.

BUT it is worth noting that whenever you encounter chemical swab testing, there’s always a chance that it could be designed to pick up chemicals related to illegal drugs. This is especially true when traveling through other countries that are known for cracking down on drugs.

Are they swabbing for DNA?

Some people are really worried about their personal security when they are swabbed on their hands.

Their worry is that their DNA is being collected and stored but that is not happening at the security checkpoint. Also, the swab is not used to detect viruses whether that be coronavirus or any other virus.

Related: Can Airlines Refuse To Serve Sick Passengers?

Does TSA always rely on swabbing?

You may not always be swabbed as TSA has contemplated utilizing different methods for explosive trace testing.

For example, they have entertained using contactless methods involving lasers or other methods like moving air particles around. New methods will always require a lot of testing so they may not be used in practice for quite a while.

But it’s feasible that in the foreseeable future swabbing may become more of a rare and obsolete practice.

Why am I always getting swabbed at the airport?

If you’re somebody that’s always getting swabbed by TSA then consider a couple of things.

First, you might be traveling with an object that looks strange in an x-ray machine.

Think about any weirdly shaped items you travel with such as electronics or even certain types of vapes. Traveling with powders can also raise questions.

Second, if you have SSSS on your boarding pass then your name might be in a government database causing you to get enhanced screening. You can apply for a redress number which can potentially remove your name from that list so that you will not get enhanced searches any longer.

Another possibility is that you give off nervous vibes. Some people just can’t help but to look suspicious when they go through security and that can raise red flags. Try to relax and just remind yourself that you are not doing anything illegal.

And finally, maybe you have just had some bad luck and you need to give it a few more tries before you start to worry.

Final word

For most people, getting swabbed at airport security is not a major hassle and it won’t affect your travels much.

However, if you have traces of explosives on you or in your belongings then you could be subject to a much more invasive screening that could take up a considerable amount of time.

So try to think ahead and avoid wearing certain items or exposing yourself to certain substances if possible before you head to the airport.

Additional Sources:

TSA Approved Gun Case & Ammunition Guide [2023]

Are you thinking about bringing your guns/firearms and/or ammunition through the airport and on to your next destination? If so, there are some specific TSA rules related to traveling with guns that you need to know about  before you ever set foot in an airport. In this article, I break down all the rules for TSA approved gun cases and also provide you with links to all of the firearm policies for the major US airlines. 

Can you bring firearms through the airport? 

Yes, you may transport unloaded firearms in a locked hard-sided container but as checked baggage only. Some of the things to keep in mind are that the guns need to be unloaded and the container needs to: 

  • Have a lock
  • Be hard-sided
  • Transported with checked baggage

Keep reading below for more details on the rules.

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Firearm transport restrictions: 8 things to know 

1. State and local laws 

When traveling to and from the airport, remember to comply with the laws concerning possession of firearms since these can differ a lot, depending on the city, state, etc. For a list of relevant laws pertaining to traveling with guns in every state click here

2. What is a “firearm?”

It’s a good idea to check with your airline to see what exactly is considered a firearm if you are on the fence. For example, here’s the definition of firearm provided by Alaska Airlines: 

A “firearm” is any weapon that will, or is designed to, or may be readily converted to expel a projectile by the action of an explosive, or the frame or receiver of any such weapon. This includes:

  • Sporting rifles, shotguns, and handguns
  • Handguns of authorized law enforcement officers while traveling on official duty
  • Starter pistols, compressed air or BB guns, and flare pistols
  • Antique firearms
  • Silencers/suppressors

Notice that even BB guns fall under this category. If you have a paintball gun they might not be subject to the container requirements. For example, Southwest states that “[p]aintball guns are allowed in checked baggage and are not subject to the container requirements of firearms.” Just check with your airline if you are in doubt. 

Relate: Can You Bring Pepper Spray on a Plane?

3. International travel with firearms

If you are traveling internationally with a firearm in checked baggage, you should check with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection website for information and requirements prior to travel.

Here’s what the CBP states

Current export regulations issued by the Department of State require travelers to file Electronic Export Information (EEI) for temporary export of personally owned firearms via the Automated Export System (AES) prior to departure from the United States.

You will likely need to complete a CBP Form 4457. Once the CBP 4457 is completed, it can be used over and over again for the same firearm. You also want to get familiar with the import requirements of the foreign country(s) (the CBP Form 4457 may be required for entry). For more on international firearm travel regulations click here

US Customs and Border Protection form.
US Customs and Border Protection form.

4. Firearm must be unloaded 

When you are traveling with your firearm through an airport, it must be unloaded. 49 CFR 1540.5 defines what a loaded firearm is and states that:

Loaded firearm means a firearm that has a live round of ammunition, or any component thereof, in the chamber or cylinder or in a magazine inserted in the firearm.

Some also recommend locking the slide back to show that the gun is not loaded. But just make sure that the gun is not loaded or you could face some harsh consequences like getting fined or even criminal consequences.

5. Choosing a container and lock

Firearms must be unloaded and locked in a hard-sided container and transported as checked baggage only. Sometimes multiple locks may be required or used to secure the baggage. (You are usually NOT required to place locks in every available hole on the case, as long as the case is secure.)

Only the passenger should retain the key or the combination to the firearm lock. The exception to this is if TSA personnel request the key to open the firearm pursuant to TSA regulations for inspection. This means that you need to be on alert as you make your way through the terminals just in case your are paged by airport agents that they need to inspect your container after you have checked it. 

You may use any brand or type of lock to secure your firearm case. I would not go with a container that has a “TSA approved” lock on it (the type of lock that TSA agents can open up), since you want to avoid as much potential tampering with your firearm as possible.  

Here are some links to TSA compliant firearm containers, many of which are on the cheaper side. Keep in mind that you don’t have to use a “firearm” case. Any hard-sided case that can be securely locked will suffice, even if it’s not specifically designed for firearms. 

Related: TSA Approved Locks Guide (Worth It?)




Bass Pro Shops

6. Declaring your firearm (checking-in)

Once you arrive at the airport you need to declare the firearm and/or ammunition to the airline when checking your bag at the ticket counter (you can’t check your firearm at the curb). This process could take some extra time to complete so you don’t want to be rushing through the airport when you’re traveling with a firearm — give yourself a little bit of extra time.

You’ll have to read and sign a tag ensuring that you are complying with all the firearm regulations and then insert that tag into your firearms bag. The TSA inspection will take place at the check-in counter or may take place at another TSA area. 

The container that you choose to use must completely secure the firearm from being accessed. If the locked case can be easily opened it will not be permitted. You should note that the container the firearm was in when purchased may not adequately secure the firearm when it is transported in checked baggage.

Declare each firearm each time you present it for transport as checked baggage. Ask your airline about limitations or fees that may apply. You can read the policies for each major US carrier below: 

I would recommend for you to print out/download the policy for the airline that you’re flying with to ensure that the process runs smoothly. Sometimes airline agents don’t know their own policies and will assume how things should work and you’ll have to check them which is easy to do when you have their policy on you. 

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7. Firearm parts 

Firearm parts cannot be transported in your carry-on bags. So things like magazines, clips, bolts, and firing pins, must be transported in checked baggage. Also, replica firearms (even toys) must be transported in checked baggage only. However, rifle scopes are permitted in carry-on and checked baggage.

8. Ammunition

Ammunition is prohibited in carry-on baggage, but small arms ammunition may be transported in checked baggage when being transported securely for personal use according to 49 CFR 175.10 (a)(8). 

Small arms ammunition includes cartridges up to 19.1 mm (.75 caliber) and shotgun shells of any gauge. (It does not include black powder, smokeless powder, primers, percussion caps, or homemade powder and ball loads for muzzle loading.)

Firearm magazines and ammunition clips, whether loaded or empty, must be securely boxed or included within a hard-sided case containing an unloaded firearm.

You can store your small arms ammunition in the same hard-sided case as the firearm or in a secured box made up of certain materials. TSA states that, small arms ammunition “must be packaged in a fiber (such as cardboard), wood, plastic, or metal box specifically designed to carry ammunition.”

The federal regulation that speaks on this is 49 CFR 175.10 (a)(8) and it states:

(8) Small arms ammunition for personal use carried by a crewmember or passenger in checked baggage only, if securely packed in boxes or other packagings specifically designed to carry small amounts of ammunition. Ammunition clips and magazines must also be securely boxed. This paragraph does not apply to persons traveling under the provisions of 49 CFR 1544.219.

Also, you should check with your airline if ammunition is allowed in checked bags.

Related: Does TSA Check For Arrest Warrants?

The risk of getting fined by TSA

TSA can fine passengers for violating certain rules and the fines for failing to abide by the transport rules for firearms are some of the biggest penalties.

So make sure that you properly package your firearm and that it is not loaded when you arrive at the airport because that is one of the major violations.

And also, always triple check that your firearm is not in your carry-on bag because taking a firearm through airport security, especially if you have access to ammunition, could result of a hefty fine (along with referral to law-enforcement).

Firearms through the airport FAQ

What is considered a firearm?

Typically a firearm will include:

Sporting rifles, shotguns, and handguns
Handguns of authorized law enforcement officers while traveling on official duty
Starter pistols, compressed air or BB guns, and flare pistols
Antique firearms

If you have any questions, be sure to check with the airline you are flying with.

Can I bring a firearm on an international flight?

You may be able to bring your firearm on international flights in your checked baggage. However, you may have to fill out extra paperwork including a CBP Form 4457.

Does my firearm need to be unloaded?

When traveling through an airport with your firearm, it must be unloaded or you might be subjected to a large fine and/or face criminal consequences.

Can I bring ammo in my carry-on?

No, you are not allowed to bring ammunition in your carry-on.

Final word 

The rules aren’t that complex when it comes to traveling with firearms through airports. The key is to make sure you get a TSA-compliant case that has a hard shell and comes with a key lock or combination lock. Also, it’s very key to remember to unload the weapon before storing it. And if you’re planning on traveling internationally, you should do some research on the regulations in the country you’ll be arriving in. 

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