The TSA do not take the safety of passengers lightly, so you might be wondering if your checked bags get searched.

On average, only 1 out of every 10 checked bags are searched by airport security personnel, but they are more concerned with finding items that put passengers at immediate risk.

This includes items like explosives, flammables, and other dangerous items.

This can even include items that seem innocuous, like lithium batteries, but can actually be a fire hazard.

How Checked Bags Are Searched

Once you have checked in your bag, it is provided to the TSA for screening before it gets on the plane.

An X-ray machine is used to scan your checked baggage by creating detailed images of the items inside your bag, which includes both metallic and non-metallic objects, as well as organic and inorganic materials.

If nothing suspicious is noticed during the screening process, your bag will be put loaded onto the plane for your flight.

If something suspicious is noticed, a TSA officer may open up your bag for further investigation.

Airport Scanner X-Ray Image Example
What the contents of luggage look like to an airport scanner

Generally, in the USA, a CT scanner (Computer Tomography Scanner) is used to scan checked baggage.

It works by calculating the mass and density of individual objects in your bag.

If an object inside your bag is within the mass/density of a dangerous material, security personnel are alerted.

Each day, the TSA screens approximately 1.4 million checked bags.

How the TSA is Able to Open Locked Baggage

The TSA recommend that passengers purchase TSA approved locks, so they can easily open bags.

While it might not sound like it, this is actually to the benefit of passengers.

Regardless if you use a TSA approved lock or not, either way, the TSA is going to find a way to open your bag.

If you have used a TSA-approved lock, your bag will be opened with a master key; if not, a TSA officer will have to cut the lock.

If you’re wondering where the TSA obtains this master key from, it is directly from the manufacturer of the locks:

The “TSA has been provided universal “master” keys under agreements with Safe Skies Luggage Locks and Travel Sentry so that certain branded locks may not have to be cut to inspect baggage.”

Domestic vs. International Flights

Regardless if you’re flying domestically within the USA or internationally, there is a chance that your bag will be searched.

The safety of passengers is a priority in all countries, so security personnel in each country will do their very best to identify forbidden items that can pose a risk to passengers.

Checked Bags Aren’t Actively Searched for Drugs

It’s a surprise to many passengers to learn that the TSA is actually not actively looking for drugs in your baggage.

Several nuggets of marijuana on a table

There are far more immediate dangers that are of more concern that put can put the safety of passengers at risk.

Checked Bags Aren’t Searched for Alcohol

Again, the TSA is not actively looking for alcohol in passengers’ bags.

Unlike drugs, alcohol, of course, is legal, though it would be illegal for someone who is under 21 to pack alcohol in their checked bags.

What Happens if the TSA Finds a Forbidden Item in a Checked Bag

What happens if the TSA finds a prohibited item in your checked bag depends on the item itself.

For example, even though the TSA aren’t actively looking for drugs, if they are found, the officer has a duty to report the passenger to the local, state or federal authorities.

If a passenger innocently packs lithium batteries (lithium batteries with more than 100 watt hours are prohibited) in their bag, the batteries will be confiscated, and the bag will then be loaded onto the plane to make its way to your destination.

Related: Can You Bring Batteries on a Plane?

You Will Know if Your Bag Has Been Opened

If a TSA officer has opened your bag, you will know.

This is because a notice of baggage inspection will be placed inside your bag.

Avoid Packing Valuable Items in Checked Luggage

In general, it’s advised to avoid packing valuable items in your checked bags.

The sad reality is that passengers have sometimes had their personal belongings stolen – and TSA officers are the most likely culprit, though thieves sometimes specifically operate at the airport too.

In the USA, over a million bags are screened every day and 1 in 10 are opened

In the vast majority of instances, passengers retrieve their bag with all their belonging intact, but there is still a very small chance that a valuable item will go missing.

Ella Dunham, a Freelance Travel Journalist and Marketing Manager, boasts an impressive career spanning eight years in the travel and tourism sectors.

Honored as one of "30 Under 30" by TTG Media (the world’s very first weekly travel trade newspaper), a "Tour Operator Travel Guru" and "Legend Award" winner, Ella is also a Fellow of the Institute of Travel, a Member of the Association of Women Travel Executives, has completed over 250 travel modules, and hosts travel-focused segments on national radio shows where she provides insights on travel regulations and destinations.

Ella has visited over 40 countries (with 10 more planned this year).