Everything You Need To Know About Airport Security and Your Rights
This is a resource page. We will update it as more information becomes available.
GOING THROUGH AIRPORT SECURITY SUCKS. It’s one of those many, tiny indignities we must go through when we travel, and usually, it’s just a boring, mildly unpleasant obstacle to our travel. But sometimes, we get pulled aside, and we get searched. Usually, this is not remotely illegal, and it is not designed to degrade us — it is merely a measure that is nominally done for our own protection.
But sometimes, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) TSA can cross the line, by searching you in an inappropriate way or by racially profiling you. And before you go to the airport, you should know your rights. Here’s a quick breakdown of what you need to know.
Note: This guide is for American citizens traveling within the US. The rules change from country to country, and foreign people traveling in the United States may have access to fewer rights than an American citizen.
Who am I going to deal with?
There are three groups of law enforcement officials you are typically going to encounter at airports, and you should distinguish the three.
- TSA Agents — The Transportation Security Administration is in charge of making sure nothing dangerous makes it onto the planes. You will deal with them every time you fly — they are the ones manning the security checkpoints.
Immigration Agents — Both Immigration and Customs agents fall under a separate department from the TSA: The US Customs and Border Protection agency. Immigration agents are the ones that stamp your passport. Their job is to determine that you have the proper paperwork to be in the country. They are the first people you see when you land in the country.
- Customs Agents — Customs agents are interested in what you’re bringing into the country with you. They’re less concerned with your person, and more with what’s in your luggage. They are usually the second people you see when entering the country.
We’re not going to deal with the CBP agents much right now. You only deal with them on international flights, and then, it’s after you land. Just make sure you have papers in order and aren’t smuggling anything and you (should) be fine. They could still totally profile you or be terrible, but if you’re a citizen with papers in hand and nothing illegal in your bags, there’s very little they can do aside from be douchey. Instead, we’re going to focus on:
If you have a sneaking suspicion that the TSA is useless… well, you may be right. They kind of suck at what they do, and there’s no real evidence that they do much beyond creating the illusion of security while slowly eroding civil liberties. They were created as a response to 9/11, but unlike innovations such as increased numbers of Air Marshals and locked cockpits, they aren’t particularly effective at keeping us safe. Adam Ruins Everything explains:
But let’s humor them for a second. Nominally, the TSA’s job is to make sure you’re a) allowed to be on the flight, and b) that you aren’t bringing anything dangerous or illegal on board. This means they can search your bags and your person. We’ll quickly go through what you can bring on, and then we’ll get into your rights.
What the TSA can seize
Broadly speaking, you can’t bring the following in your carry on baggage:
- Self-defense weapons (clubs, mace, stun guns, etc.)
- Sharp objects (box cutters, razor blades, ice picks, scissors, etc.)
- Sports gear (baseball bats, hockey sticks, etc.)
- Tools (hammers, crowbars, screwdrivers longer than 7 inches in length, etc.)
- Liquids above a certain amount — you are limited to having liquids in a 3.4 ounce bottle. You must put the bottle into a clear, quart-sized ziploc bag, and you may only have one of these bags. You can put as many of those bottles into the bag as you can fit. This is known as the 3-1-1 rule. Yes, it is ridiculous, and yes, it was a rule created because a terrorist tried to smuggle explosives onto a plane as liquids in normal containers.
The TSA has a full list of prohibited items here. Ultimately, what they allow through is up to the individual TSA agent’s discretion.
If you try to bring something on board that’s prohibited, you may get fined. There’s a breakdown of what can be fined over at the TSA website. Usually, though, if it’s something minor like a lighter, a pocket multitool, or a bottle of liquid, they’ll let you either surrender it to them and move on, or they’ll let you try and bring it back to your checked luggage or car. But they have the option of fining you. So it’s best to make sure you have this stuff out of your bags before you get in line.
What the TSA may not seize
The two broad exceptions to the liquids rule are the following:
- You are allowed to bring on medications. This includes liquids over the 3.4 ounce limit. If you have liquids and medical equipment that goes with it — freezer packs, IV bags, syringes — separate it from the rest of your stuff when you get to security, and inform the TSA agent that you have medical equipment before you go through the line. They will still test it to make sure it’s not dangerous, but you have the right to carry it on. They do not require a prescription, but not all TSA agents are properly trained, so it wouldn’t hurt to have one on hand.
- You are allowed to bring on formula, breastmilk, and juice for your child. You should separate it from other liquids ahead of time, and be willing to subject it to x-ray screening, but otherwise, you are allowed to exceed the 3.4 ounce limit when it comes to feeding your kid. Like with medical stuff, you should notify the TSA agent at the beginning of the process that you have formula, juice, or breastmilk.
If you have a disability, consider calling the TSA passenger support hotline 72 hours before traveling. They’ll help you navigate security.
Aside from checking your luggage, TSA may put you through a metal detector, or an electric body scanner. They may also swab your hand for traces of explosives. They can do this at random, which is to say pretty much whenever they want (so long as they aren’t profiling you, which is admittedly a very difficult thing to prove). There are limits to what they can do, though. Here’s what they may do:
- They are allowed to prevent you from boarding if you are on a Homeland Security no-fly list, or a Center for Disease Control do-not-board list. If you feel your inclusion on such a list is unjust, you can contest it at the Travel Redress Program.
- They can manually search your bag.
- As of right now, they are allowed to search the files on your laptop, and they are allowed to make copies of those files. This is currently contested by Civil Liberties activists, so if this happens to you, take note of the name, agency, and badge number of the person who is searching you, and file a complaint.
- They can (and will) make you go through a metal detector, or a full body scanner (i.e. that thing that you hold your hands up for). As the full body scanner allows them to see under your clothes, you are allowed to refuse to go through this, opting instead for a pat-down. If you choose to do this, or if they pull you aside to do this, you have rights:
- You can request that the pat-down is performed by a person of the same gender.
- You can request that a person of your choosing be present during the pat-down.
- You can request that the pat-down be performed in private.
- They MAY NOT ask you to lift clothing, or touch any sensitive areas.
- A second TSA officer MUST ALWAYS be present for such a pat-down.
- If you have a religious head covering, YOU DO NOT HAVE TO REMOVE IT. If you set off the detector, the TSA agent may scan you down with a hand wand. If they ask to pat down the head covering or remove it, you have a right for the search to be conducted in a private area.
- They are NOT ALLOWED TO PROFILE YOU for religious or racial reasons.
What the TSA can’t do
There are limits to what the TSA can do — we’ve already mentioned the racial profiling, though this is hard to track, in part because it’s very easy for them to deny. That said, you should know the following:
- In spite of what they usually tell you, you actually are allowed to use phones and to film security lines. You also have the right to not delete anything that you film, so long as there’s no local law or rule specific to that airport against it. The exception is that you can’t hold up the line while doing so, and you can’t film the x-ray screen.
- No one may touch you without your consent.
- TSA may NOT detain you. They aren’t police. They can call in the police to detain you, though.
If something happens to you, don’t physically resist. Often the problem is a poorly trained agent. It’s better instead to take their name and badge number, to ask for their supervisor, and then to file a complaint later.
If you want more information, check these pages out.
- The American Civil Liberties Union has a useful Q&A guide (along with resources, if you feel you’ve been profiled).
- The ACLU also has a “Know Your Rights” page for Airport security.
- Check the TSA prohibited items page ahead of time if you’re not sure you can bring something in your carry-on or checked baggage.
And remember — it’s best to keep a sense of humor about it when going through TSA. What they’re doing is rarely a blatant violation: it’s usually just a miserable person doing a miserable job.
This resource page was last updated on December 13, 2016.