Before you are able to board your flight, you must first go through security screening.

Better understanding what this process entails can help you prepare and navigate through security smoothly and with no delays.

Therefore, in this article, the goal is to provide a comprehensive overview of the TSA security screening process, including what to expect, essential tips, and important regulations to follow.

Why TSA Security Screening is Necessary

Security screening by the TSA (or the equivalent in any other country) is vital in keeping passengers and flights safe from potential threats, and maintaining public confidence in air travel.

Over the years, as security threats and technologies have changed, so have the security screening procedures put in place, including the use of advanced imaging technology, explosive detection systems, and canine teams.

When it comes to personnel, TSA officers are trained to carry out various security procedures, such as screening passengers, screening carry-on and checked baggage, and conducting security checks.

TSA Security Screening Process: Step-by-Step Guide

The TSA security screening process isn’t necessarily complex, but understanding what to expect can help you navigate the airport security checkpoint with ease and ensure you run into no complications and make your flight on time.

While the process may seem overkill, the safety of passengers is paramount, and the TSA’s aim is to balance security measures with passenger convenience and efficiency.

The TSA continually explore ways to streamline and improve the screening process, while maintaining the highest levels of security.

Step 1: Check-In and Identification Verification

The first step in the security screening process starts at the check-in counter, though this is only if you haven’t checked in online.

You will be asked to present a valid government-issued ID, such as a driver’s license, which is to confirm your identity and match the information on the airline ticket.

At the check-in counter, you will also be able to drop off your checked bag. It’s worth noting that checked bags are searched and scanned too.

Once you have been verified, you will be given a boarding pass, which you will need to present before you are able to go through airport security.

Step 2: Security Checkpoint and Carry-On Baggage Screening

At the security checkpoint, you will be asked to place your carry-on bag on the X-ray belt for screening.

TSA officers will inspect the X-ray images of your baggage to identify any prohibited items or potential threats you may be traveling with.

Interestingly, TSA officers aren’t checking for drugs, as they don’t pose a security concern to passengers, and airport scanners can’t outright detect drugs.

You will also be required to remove certain items from your bag, including electronic devices the size of a tablet and larger, and liquids, gels, and aerosols, that should be placed in a clear, single-quart sized bag.

Additionally, you should take off your shoes, though this is more of a requirement in the U.S. than anywhere else, and empty your pockets and place these items in one of the trays.

Once you have done this, it will be time to go through the airport body scanner.

Step 3: Personal Screening and Body Scanner

The body scanners that airports use are designed to detect any prohibited items that you might have concealed on you.

The body scanners use advanced imaging technology to detect both metallic and non-metallic items, including weapons, explosives, or other potential threats.

However, while airport scanners are able to see through clothes, they are not able to see through body cavities, which also means that they are largely unable to detect medical problems, and are unable to see tampons, and other similar items.

We go into more detail in our article: What Do Airport Body Scanners See?

Step 4: Additional Screening

There are several reasons why you might be flagged at the airport– and if you trigger an alarm or arouse suspicion, additional screening may be required, including a pat-down inspection.

If a TSA officer notices a potential threat or prohibited item in your carry on bag, they have the authority to open your bag and go through your belongings.

Step 5: Boarding the Plane

Once you have successfully passed through the TSA security screening process, it’s time to head to your gate to board your plane.

At the gate, you will be required to present your boarding pass and ID for verification before you can board the plane.

TSA Regulations and Requirements

The TSA have a few regulations and requirements in place that you must follow to ensure a smooth screening process without any delays.

3-1-1 Rule

The 3-1-1 Rule is one of the most well-known TSA regulations.

The rule prohibits passengers from bringing liquids, gels, and aerosols in containers larger than 3.4 ounces (100 milliliters) through the security checkpoint.

Additionally, these containers should be stored in a single quart-sized clear plastic bag that must be taken out of your carry-on bag and placed in a security screening tray for separate screening.

You should note that each passenger is limited to one quart-sized bag each.

Electronic Devices

Electronic devices, including laptops and tablets, require additional screening at the security checkpoint, so you will be asked to remove these items from your carry-on and place them in a separate bin for screening.

Prohibited Items

The TSA don’t allow certain items in your carry-on through the security checkpoint under any circumstance, including:

We have written an article called the All of the 106 Items You Can’t Bring in Your Carry On that serves as a great reference point.

Additionally, some of the most commonly prohibited items in checked bags include:

  • Explosives: Fireworks, flares, and gunpowder
  • Compressed gas: Aerosol cans, propane, and scuba tanks
  • Flammable liquids and solids: Gasoline, lighter fluid, and matches
  • Oxidizers and organic peroxides: Bleach, fertilizers, and pool chemicals.
  • Poisonous materials: Pesticides and insecticides like bug spray

Tips for Navigating Security Screening

Long lines, strict regulations, and various procedures to follow can certainly be annoying for passengers, but with proper preparation and a prior understanding of the screening process, you should be able to complete screening without any hiccups.

Prepare for Security Screening in Advance

One of the best ways to ensure the screening process goes as smoothly as possible is to prepare in advance by reviewing the TSA regulations and requirements, checking the list of prohibited items, understanding the 3-1-1 rule for liquids, gels, and aerosols, and the rules surrounding electronics.

Additionally, make sure that you have your identification documents readily accessible for inspection.

Organize Your Carry-On Luggage

It’s a good idea to pack your belongings in a way that makes it easy for TSA officers to inspect them, including ensuring larger electronic devices and your liquids bag are easy to access and take out of your bag for separate screening.

If you really don’t like waiting, there’s always the option of signing up for TSA PreCheck.

Dress Appropriately

It’s easy to overlook your choice of clothing when it comes to passing through airport security efficiently.

It’s a good idea to wear clothing and footwear that are easy to remove and put back on, as you may be required to take off your shoes, jackets, and belts during the screening process.

Emptying your pockets of any metal objects, such as coins, keys, or electronic devices would also be wise.

While you should be okay to wear jewelry through airport security, jewelry that is bulky and contains a lot of metal may set off the scanner.

Be Aware of Your Rights and Responsibilities

TSA officers are trained to follow established procedures while respecting passengers’ rights and privacy, but it is always good to know what your rights are in any case, especially if you are flying as someone who is trans or non-binary.

In short, you have the right to request a private screening, but have the responsibility to cooperate with TSA officers, follow their instructions, and comply with the TSA regulations and requirements.

As long as you are patient, courteous, and cooperative during the screening process, you are unlikely to run into any issues.

TSA PreCheck

While TSA PreCheck doesn’t change the rules and regulations surrounding what you can and can’t bring on a plane, being enrolled in the program can definitely save time and result in a smoother screening process.

This is because enrolled passengers are able to keep their shoes, belts, and jackets on, and their laptops and liquids in their carry-on bags.

The TSA claim that 89% of TSA PreCheck passengers wait less than 5 minutes, but keep in mind that TSA PreCheck isn’t available at every airport and for every airline, though is still currently available at more than 200 airports with 85+ participating airlines nationwide.

Applying for PreCheck is simple and straightforward, though does require a TSA PreCheck interview in-person, and your fingerprints will be taken.

Screening for Children and Families

If you are traveling with children, additional planning and preparation is necessary, especially if you are traveling with infants.

Screening Procedures for Children and Infants

While kids and required to go through airport security:

  • Children under the age of 12 are allowed to keep their shoes, light jackets and headwear on during the screening process.
    Infants may be carried through the metal detector by a parent or guardian, but items, including strollers, car seats, and baby carriers, are subject to X-ray screening.
  • Children aged 13 and older are subject to TSA’s standard screening procedures.

Traveling with Baby Formula, Breast Milk, and Baby Food

If you are traveling with baby formula, breast milk, or baby food, you’ll be pleased to hear that the TSA has exemptions for these items.

In other words, baby formula, breast milk, and baby food are not subject to the 3-1-1 rule, as they are considered medically necessary liquids.

This also applies to breast milk and formula cooling accessories, such as ice packs, freezer packs, and gel packs.

The only thing to keep in mind is that you should inform the TSA officer at the beginning of the screening process that you are traveling with these items.

Screening With Special Needs or Medical Conditions

While flying can present unique challenges for individuals with disabilities or medical conditions, the TSA has specific procedures in place to ensure that all passengers can efficiently clear the security screening process.

TSA officers are trained to provide reasonable accommodations and assistance to individuals, including kids with special needs, with travelers with disabilities or medical conditions able to request a private screening, which allows for additional privacy and discretion.

Mobility Aids, and Medical Devices

The TSA recommend that a passenger provide an officer with medical documentation to describe their condition (carrying a TSA Notification card can be a way to do this), so they can be mindful of any sensitivity or pain associated with certain medical conditions or disabilities and will take appropriate measures to ensure a respectful and comfortable screening experience.

Additionally, the TSA has specific procedures in place for passengers who require the use of mobility aids such as wheelchairs, crutches, canes, or walkers.

Passengers using wheelchairs or other mobility aids can remain in their wheelchair during the screening process and can request for a manual pat-down instead of going through the metal detector or advanced imaging technology (AIT) scanner.

Traveling with Medication

It’s recommended that if you are traveling with medication, it should be in its original labeled container, as this will help facilitate the screening process.

As medication is exempt from the 3-1-1 rule, you can carry larger amounts, but you must declare the medication to a TSA officer at the checkpoint for inspection.

In case you were wondering, airport scanners can see pills.

Frequently Asked Questions

How Much Money Can I Bring on a Plane?

If you are flying domestically within the USA, there is no limit to how much money you can bring on a plane, but if you are flying internationally, you will generally be required to declare any amount over $10,000 to customs.

Why Do I Keep on Setting Off Airport Body Scanners?

The most likely reasons why you keep on setting off airport body scanners is because you are overweight, you have a medical problem, you have an implant, or you forgot to remove a metallic item.

Can Airport Scanners Detect Weed?

Airport scanners are unable to detect weed – at least outright.

TSA officers are trained to detect what weed looks like on an airport scanner, and have a duty to report you if weed is found, even if the weed is found in your checked luggage.

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).