Airport security can be a nightmare. You’re tired, you have to get to your plane on time and the last thing you want is to be in line for an hour. To make matters worse, everyone else feels the same way! Knowing how to pass through airport security quickly will help speed things up for you and everyone around you.
There are ways to try and minimize the delays at airport security, at least for your part of the process, by knowing ahead of time what to expect. You need to know what you have to do and what you can and can’t take through airport security or in your checked luggage.
Don’t be one of those annoying people, who we have all been behind at some time or another, who cause delays by having things in their carry on that aren’t allowed or are carried in the wrong way.
I have tried to bring together everything you may need to know in one article to avoid any airport security problems. You will find information on what you can take in your carry on (and what you cannot), what you can and can’t pack in your checked bags as well as how to get through security quicker in the US by signing up for the TSA Precheck program.
Before you go through airport security
When can you go through security at an airport?
In general you can go through airport security whenever you want. In practice, since you will probably aim to be at the airport 2-3 hours before your flight, then you can go through as soon as you have checked in your bags (if you have any) and have your boarding pass.
Some airports will only allow passengers to go through within 3 hours of the scheduled departure time.
Do you need your boarding pass to go through security?
Yes, only passengers with a boarding pass are allowed to go through airport security, which makes sense of course. So make sure you have yours to hand.
If friends or family are with you to say goodbye then they will have to do this just before you enter the security area.
Can I go straight to security with mobile boarding pass?
These days a boarding card which you have downloaded to your cellphone is becoming the norm. Older people, like me, still prefer to have a back-up printed out in case of problems.
If you have your board card on your phone then make sure that the battery has sufficient charge so you can show it. If your phone dies before you do then you are rather stuck.
Can I go straight to security with hand luggage?
Yes you can, provided you have checked-in online and have your boarding card either on your mobile device or you have printed it out. This is one of the big benefits of traveling with carry on only these days.
What to expect at airport security
- Firstly, you can expect delays unfortunately. Particularly if there is a high security alert you are in all likelihood going to have to wait in a long line to get through. So make sure you allow plenty of time to get through this process. If you are pushed for time then you can guarantee that the lines will be at their longest
- When you arrive at the front of the security line you will be asked to put any larger electronic devices into a plastic tray along with any larger metal objects, a chunky chain or a large watch and another important item is your quart-sized resealable plastic bag containing your liquids. You will also be asked to remove a belt if you are wearing one with a metal buckle and probably your shoes too. Coats and jackets are normally also required to go on the conveyor belt to be scanned by the x-ray machine.
- You will then be asked to pass through a metal detector. If you set it off, don’t worry too much. It probably means you have just forgotten to take something out of your pockets or have another metal object you have forgotten (even a false hip occasionally). You will either be patted down by a same-sex agent and/or a hand-held metal detector to find whatever set off the detector.
- You may have to have your hands swabbed. This is a common test. The agent will swab your hands with a cloth and that cloth is then analyzed in a device that looks for certain chemicals that the security services are interested in.
- Once you have personally been cleared you can go and retrieve your carry on bag and the other items you put in the plastic trays. If something was seen in the x-ray that needs further examination then you will be taken aside and the agent will do a physical check of the contents.
- You may be asked to switch on electronic devices such as laptops, tablets or phones to show they are “real”. So make sure the batteries contain at least sufficient charge to be able to do that.
General security area tips – Dos and Don’ts
DO: When you are in the line, waiting your turn to put your items in boxes to go through the x-ray machine, try not to be in a little world of your own. Watch what is happening near the front of the line and listen to any instructions that the security agent may be giving.
DO: Remove your jacket/coat and, as far as possible, empty your pockets while you are in the line. It might not be possible to do this unless you have more than two hands though!
DO: Make sure you wear socks as from time to time, as security levels go up or down, it may be that you have to remove your shoes to put then through the x-ray machine. You don’t want to walk around that area in your bare feet!
DO: Have your zip-lock liquids bag handy, not buried in your carry on bag. Also try to put all the items you will need to separate in trays together (tablet, mobile phone etc) in the same pocket of your carry on bag perhaps so you don’t have to search for them.
DO: The security agent may want to take a look at your boarding pass and your ID/Passport so make sure these are kept within reach.
DO: Keep an eye on your tray, or trays, containing your valuables such as you laptop, tablet etc as they go into the x-ray machine. Then try to get through the body metal detector and to the other end of the x-ray machine as quickly as possible, keeping a lookout for your tray. This is often the place where things get stolen – by fellow passengers not the security staff.
DON’T: Whatever you do, DO NOT make stupid jokes about bombs, explosives, guns and similar things. All security organizations, no matter which country they are in, take a dim view of this sort of thing. Not only could such infantile behavior cause delays, including a full security alert, but it could also result in your arrest.
DON’T: Do not take out your camera or phone and start taking photos, be they selfies or otherwise. Photography in this area is not permitted so you may get yourself into some trouble if you do. This restriction makes writing articles like this with photos difficult!
DON’T: You may need to remove your shoes so they can be x-rayed so do not wear shoes that take a long time to take off and put back on again. Those knee length lace-up boots might look really stylish but will take an age to remove and replace.
Do you have to take off jewelry at airport security?
In most cases you do not need to remove any jewelry when you go through the security checkpoint at the airport. The possible exceptions to this might be if you have some large chunky metal jewelry such as a necklace or a bracelet or perhaps a large watch. Things like rings and earrings can normally remain on you.
Will metal implants in your body set off the security alarms?
Well I have first hand experience of this as I have lots of metalwork in my right arm which was left in after surgery to repair my badly broken arm and elbow. I was so disappointed the first time I went through airport security when I didn’t set off the alarms. I felt cheated!
Although I haven’t set them off I understand from others that large implants could potentially set them off, such as a hip or knee replacement. If you have these then according to tsa.gov you should inform the security officer if you have. If you have a pacemaker then you should also advise the security officer.
What items can you take through airport security?
One of the frequent things which can slow your progress through the security process, and that of those behind you, is if you don’t know what you can and what you can’t take in your carry on bags.
You can cause big delays if the security officers have to go through your bags to find something that has been seen by the x-ray operator which is not allowed.
One of the most important airport security rules is the rule applying to carrying liquids. And they do not have to be runny substances to be classed as liquids under these rules as pastes and gels are also considered liquids (toothpaste is classed as a liquid for example). You can read the full rules in my TSA Liquids Article.
It is difficult to say in a few words what is and isn’t allowed. With most categories there are exceptions. So if you intend taking any of the following with you then I suggest you read the full article in the link to check.
|ITEM||LINK TO ARTICLE|
|Deodorant, antiperspirant||Can I Bring Deodorant On A Plane?|
|Make Up||Can you bring makeup on a plane in hand luggage?|
|Lighter||Can you take a lighter on a plane?|
|Sharp items||Can you bring tweezers on a plane? Or scissors, nail clippers, pens?|
|Electric toothbrushes, toothpaste||Can you take an electric toothbrush in hand luggage?|
|Phone chargers, battery banks||Can you take phone chargers in hand luggage?|
|Lithium batteries||Can you take lithium batteries on a plane?|
|Umbrellas||Can you take an umbrella on a plane?|
|Hair straighteners, hair dryers||Can you bring hair straighteners in carry on bag?|
|Vape/E-cigarettes||Can you take e-cigarettes on a plane? Can you vape on a plane?|
|Food||Are you allowed to take food in your carry on?|
|Razor||Can you take a razor in hand luggage?|
|General||31 things you are not allowed in hand luggage|
|What is not allowed in checked luggage?|
|Will aerosol cans explode in checked luggage on planes?|
If you travel frequently you can apply to join the TSA Precheck program which makes passing through airport security easier and quicker. You can read more about it – TSA Precheck: What is it and how to get it?
Can you take coins through airport security?
There are no restrictions regarding taking coins with you through airport security. Obviously they are made of metal so will need to be placed in the trays to go through the x-ray machine as they would set off the metal detectors if you had them in your pockets or purse.
Can I wear a bulletproof vest on a plane?
According to the TSA website you can carry body armor in either carry on or checked bags but point out that their officers make the final decision as to whether they are allowed or not. The same goes for airport security in the UK.
This seems to be quite contentious though as some other sites seem to say that you can only have it in checked bags and definitely not wear it on the aircraft.
If you are traveling abroad you should look into the laws in the country or countries you will be visiting as bulletproof vests are illegal in some places.
Homeland Security have recently published a helpful article about TSA Precheck and other airport security tips – Speed through Airport Security: Your Complete Guide to TSA PreCheck, Global Entry and more