8 TSA Rules You Have to Know

13 July 2023
8 TSA Rules You Have to Know

These days, it can feel like getting through security is the final hurdle before you can start your vacation. Would you agree?

The Transportation Safety Administration, or TSA, screens both carry-on and checked luggage. The screening procedures are intended to prevent prohibited items from entering planes and stop other threats to passenger safety at airports and on airplanes.

The TSA also screens people entering the secure areas of the airport to prevent prohibited items and threats to the safety of the people (passengers, flight crew, and staff). 

We’re gonna bet that you’ve taken a trip in the last couple of years and you know the basics, so I’m going to focus on some of the lesser-known TSA rules for air travel. Follow these tips and you’ll whiz through security with plenty of time to make it to your gate.

1. Liquids have exceptions

I recently read this rule: anything you can pour, pump, spread, squeeze, smear, spray, or spill is considered a liquid, according to the TSA, even if they are factory-sealed and unopened.

Brief history lesson: The 3.4-ounce/100 ml rule was imposed after terrorists in Britain tried to sneak liquid explosives (specifically hydrogen peroxide) onto planes in August 2006. They planned to sneak the liquids onto the aircraft and assemble the bomb onboard. According to science, to make certain explosives, you need a critical diameter to cause damage, so the size of the container is the security measure.

There is some hope that new technology improvements will mean that liquids can be better scanned, but until then, we have the rules. 

Of course, what’s the rule about rules? It’s that there are always exceptions and here they are:

  • Prescription medications – in liquid, cream, or gel formats are allowed to be more than 3.4 ounces. Examples include insulin and EpiPens.
  • Infant and child nourishments – infant formula, breast milk, toddler drinks, and semi-soft foods (puree pouches) are allowed to be more than 3.4 ounces.
  • Ice packs and frozen gel packs – items required to keep medicines or infant nourishment cold (including frozen liquid-filled teethers) are allowed to be more than 3.4 ounces.

These items must be removed from the carry-on and screened separately. You should also inform the TSA officer at the beginning of the screening process that you are carrying these excepted items so they are aware before the alarms go off.

Hack: freezing your water bottle is also the trick to get your favorite water through security.

Pro tip: shampoo, conditioner, soap, and perfumes in solid form can be brought on board in any amount. 

2. Solid foods are allowed

If you’re like me, you prefer to have some snacks on hand in case the airline options are terrible or the flights are delayed. So bring those apples, cookies, protein bars, and your own big bag of pretzels.

You can also bring cooked items like sandwiches or slices of pizza, for example. Just leave the extra sauce (if it’s larger than 3.4 ounces) at home.

Questions about whether your favorite snack will be allowed on board? Check out the food section of the TSA website and search alphabetically.

3. Undeveloped film must be inspected

Traditional film-based cameras have reportedly made a comeback with the pandemic. Just like making your own bread became a thing, so did processing your own photos. 

If you’re new to film, it’s important to know that putting it through higher-energy X-ray machines is a bad idea. That’s why the TSA recommends putting it in your carry-on (and not checked) luggage. The equipment used to inspect carry-on luggage uses a low level of x-radiation that will not cause damage (in most cases).

Here are some tips for keeping your film accessible for TSA screeners:

  1. Remove the film from canisters and wrappers
  2. Place it in a transparent plastic bag
  3. Keep the bag in an outside or easy-to-access pocket
  4. Tell the TSA agent about the film

Pro tip: processed film is not affected by x-rays.

4. Keep expensive jewelry on

If you’re concerned about transporting that heirloom watch home from your Dad’s funeral, and don’t want it stolen from your checked bag, keep it on and go through security.

Reports of TSA officers and airline employees stealing items have prompted the TSA to ask passengers to keep their valuables on unless asked to take them off.

5. Plants are allowed

As long as the cute little cactus fits into the overhead bin or underneath your seat, you can take it on board. Just make sure that you check the regulations for the state where you are landing to ensure it’s not restricted due to specific insects or plant diseases.

6. Marijuana is (mostly) allowed

With so many US states legalizing recreational and medical marijuana, travelers may be under the impression they can pack weed in their carry-on. Of course, it’s not that simple because under federal law, marijuana possession is illegal and air travel rules are under federal jurisdiction.

If a traveler is carrying a cannabis-infused oil, for example, that will fall under the liquid rules. Otherwise, TSA officers are required to report any suspected violations of law to local, state, or federal authorities. 

The TSA is not law enforcement; they’re looking for potential threats to aviation and passengers (things like weapons and explosives). They don’t have the power to arrest travelers, but they can contact local authorities of something looks suspicious, like if the quantity exceeds personal use and may be intended for sale.

7. Drones are sometimes allowed

Travel photography junkies who want aerial photos and videos of their latest adventures may be able to bring their trusty drone on board if the airline allows it. Even though the TSA allows drones to pass through security screenings, not all airlines allow them onboard.

Why? It’s about the batteries, and not the drone.

Drones with lithium batteries, fuel cells, or components of parachute systems may be prohibited according to the FAA.

8. Duty-free liquids are allowed on inbound international flights

Travelers can carry liquids of more than 3.4 ounces onto the plane under these circumstances:

  • The liquids are packed in a tamper-evident bag by the retailer and show no signs of tampering when presented to the TSA
  • The duty-free liquids were purchased internationally and the passenger is traveling to the US with a connecting flight
  • The original receipt for the liquids is present and the purchase was made within 48 hours of passenger screening

What does this mean? It means you can purchase and carry onboard the liquids you buy in the duty-free shops as long as you follow the rules, so buy that perfume or liquor and carry it home!

Damian Tysdal

Damian Tysdal is the founder of CoverTrip, and is a licensed agent for travel insurance (MA 1883287). He believes travel insurance should be easier to understand, and started the first travel insurance blog in 2006.

Damian Tysdal is the founder of CoverTrip, and is a licensed agent for travel insurance (MA 1883287). He believes travel insurance should be easier to understand, and started the first travel insurance blog in 2006.