Traveling through airports and flying can already be a stressful experience for many people. But flying when you know you have a warrant out for your arrest can elevate that stress to a different level.
Many people wonder if they can get through TSA with outstanding warrants and what the risks are. In this article, I’ll break down everything you need to know about whether or not TSA checks for warrants and what your risk level is for getting arrested.
Table of Contents
Does TSA check for warrants?
TSA does not check for outstanding warrants but that does not mean that it is always a good idea to fly when you have a warrant.
Below, you’ll find out that the risk of flying with a warrant is not so much about breaking the law by traveling but it is more about all of the opportunities that arise allowing you to be found with an outstanding warrant.
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What is the TSA’s job?
Once you understand what the TSA is, you may feel better about getting through security without getting arrested for an outstanding warrant.
TSA stands for “Transportation Security Administration” and the purpose is to “strengthen the security of the nation’s transportation systems while ensuring the freedom of movement for people and commerce.”
TSA is concerned about threats (mostly terroristic) and not with enforcing laws and penal codes.
They want to make sure people are not bringing explosives on board and they — for the most part — could not care less about minor warrants.
More importantly, TSA agents are not law-enforcement officers which means that they do not have the authority to arrest passengers at security checkpoints (it’s worth noting the Federal Air Marshal Service is a part of the TSA and they have much more authority than standard TSA agents.)
Air marshals aside, you don’t need to worry about getting arrested by a TSA agent. However, they can refer you to law-enforcement and that is what you need to worry about with an outstanding warrant.
Related: TSA Approved Locks Guide (Worth It?)
Why you might get arrested when flying with a warrant
There are a few situations that could cause you to get arrested at the airport if you have an outstanding warrant. Basically, any type of close encounter you have with law enforcement could mean them running a database search on your name and discovering that you have an outstanding warrant.
If you for some reason forget to bring your ID and you need to go through the identification verification process there is a good chance that it will be discovered that you have an outstanding warrant. If that happens then you can be referred to law-enforcement and arrested.
Caught up in a dispute
If you get yourself into some type of altercation such as a dispute with a staff member at check-in or some sort of unfortunate scuffle with a fellow passenger, the police may get involved.
Also, if you are (majorly) holding up the security line or refusing to go through the security checkpoint you could be inviting an encounter with law enforcement officers.
It’s worth noting that while TSA does not have power to arrest you, they can detain you while they wait for law-enforcement to arrive in situations like this.
In some cases you might just be a bystander but the police may request for you to give a statement and that might be how you get involved.
If you are caught with illegal drugs authorities could be called on you as well. However, it is pretty rare for authorities to be called on you for small quantities of drugs that are not dangerous.
Sometimes TSA agents are given a “Be on the Lookout” (BOLO) notification and if you fit the description of what they were looking for, they could stop you to investigate — police could follow.
There is also a possibility that someone could be aware of your travel plans and decide to tip off the law regarding your whereabouts. If the police deem it worth their time they could be waiting for you at the airport.
If for some reason your name is ran against a database where you have an outstanding warrant then you could run into trouble. For low level domestic offenses this seems to be very rare.
The reason is that it would take an incredible amount of resources for airline staff members to run every passenger’s name against a database for a background check.
There would be a sizable group of people who have outstanding warrants over things like parking tickets and trying to arrest all of those individuals would likely interfere too much with airport logistics to make it worth it.
So this outcome would be extremely rare but if you are traveling through an airport with a warrant I think you should always be prepared for the prospect of getting arrested even if it is rare.
If you have an outstanding warrant for a federal offense or a serious state offense then there is a much higher likelihood that you could be arrested when you show up at the airport.
It’s possible that a detective could be tracking down your movements and that they will simply be waiting for you at the airport when you depart or when you arrive.
When you are traveling internationally you should expect your name to be checked against databases for at risk individuals including those with outstanding warrants.
Your name could be flagged before you even arrive at the airport since in many cases you need to apply for a visa to get to your destination. The visa application process will typically involve a background check which could pick up on your outstanding warrant.
In other cases if you have been charged with serious offenses your passport may have been revoked which obviously limits your ability to leave the country.
Situations where you may be denied a passport include:
- international drug traffickers
- subjected to a federal arrest
- forbidden by probation, parole, or a court order to leave the country
- owning some money in child support (for example in the US if you owe $2,500)
- imprisoned or under a supervised release program for felony drug charges relating to distributing a controlled substance.
Your name could also be checked at the time that you are departing the country or it could be checked whenever you come back through Customs and Border Protection (CBP). The agents at immigration are different from TSA agents in that they have the authority to arrest you.
Will you be extradited?
It’s one thing to be detained and quite another matter to be arrested and extradited.
Getting extradited is a pretty complex process because it varies based on the process and rules of the jurisdiction with the arrest warrant.
Many arrest warrants are never reported to the FBI’s National Criminal Information Center (NCIC), which means that a lot of arrest warrants are never even detected by agencies outside of the state or region where the warrant exists. (According to the FBI, approximately 60 percent of all warrants have an FBI identification number.)
If an arrest warrant is reported to the NCIC and detected by the state you are in, the state holding the arrest warrant still may not want you extradited, especially if it’s for a minor crime.
So it is possible that your arrest warrant could somehow get detected but you are still released because there is no extradition process initiated. This could still cause you to be detained and go through a pretty painful and long process though so be aware of that.
On the other hand, some states will extradite you from another state, often when the state you’re in is nearby or bordering the state with the warrant. This could result in you getting transported in the back of a police van while being shackled up even if your warrant is for a minor offense.
What about ID scans?
TSA agents typically do not scan your ID.
Usually, they scan your boarding pass which will pull up information such as if you have TSA Pre-Check, or if you are subject to something like enhanced security screening also known as SSSS (these markers are already visible on your boarding pass).
When they ask for your ID what they are doing is verifying that your name matches the name on the boarding pass, that your identification is not fake or expired, and that you look like the person on your ID.
They might also be scanning your ID with an ultraviolet light to look for any phony identification elements found on your ID but that depends on the type of ID you have.
So they are not tapping into some database for outstanding warrants when you handover your boarding pass and ID.
However, it’s worth noting that there are new devices being used such as the credential authentication technology (CAT) in certain airports where they do scan your ID.
According to Bart Johnson, TSA’s Federal Security Director for Upstate New York:
“The technology enhances detection capabilities for identifying fraudulent documents such as driver’s licenses and passports at checkpoints and increases efficiency by automatically verifying passenger identification.”
There isn’t any mention about checking your name against the database for outstanding warrants but it’s worth noting that ID scans may be more prevalent in the future.
At a standard security checkpoint TSA agents do not scan your ID but some airports utilize new equipment that allows the agents to scan your ID.
Yes, you can still get through airport security and fly with a misdemeanor warrant. However, traveling through an airport with an outstanding warrant will always carry a risk that you could be arrested.
No, TSA agents do not have the authority to arrest you.
No, TSA agents do not carry weapons including guns, pepper spray, or even handcuffs.
Although I would always recommend handling your warrants so that you can travel stress-free it is possible to fly domestically and get through TSA security even though you have an outstanding warrant. However, flying internationally can be a different story and the risk is certainly higher that you could get caught up with the law in that case.
Daniel Gillaspia is the Founder of UponArriving.com and creator of the credit card app, WalletFlo. He is a former attorney turned full-time travel expert covering destinations along with TSA, airline, and hotel policies. Since 2014, his content has been featured in major publications such as National Geographic, Smithsonian Magazine, Forbes, CNBC, US News, and Business Insider. Find his full bio here.