What To Expect During a TSA Search or Screening

03.16.23 by Travelex Insurance
Image credit: Getty Images

For some travelers, getting through airport security causes frustration and anxiety. Lines are long and rules are constantly changing, but knowing the rules and what to expect can ease your mind — especially if you're searched.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) works with the intelligence and law enforcement communities in order to maintain the highest levels of transportation security. The TSA’s primary mission is to “protect the nation’s transportation systems to ensure freedom of movement for people and commerce.” The agency uses a wide variety of methods to accomplish its mission, starting well before you even arrive at the airport. Changes occur from time to time to meet evolving threats, and the TSA counts on travelers to report suspicious activity to local law enforcement through their See Something, Say Something™ program.

In short, the TSA’s job is to keep you safe. If you're taken aside for a pat-down, or just going through the rigors of baggage screening, here’s what to expect during their screening procedures.

The TSA pat-down

This type of screening is used to see whether prohibited items or other threats are concealed on a person. You may be chosen randomly if an alarm goes off, or as an alternative to other types of screening. Even if you're a TSA pre-check expedited traveler, there may be occasions requiring a pat-down. Pat-downs require some pressure to ensure detection, and areas may undergo a pat-down more than once to confirm no threat items are detected. If you have any physical handicaps, disabilities, prosthetics, or medical devices, inform the officer prior to the pat-down so they can accommodate you.

You'll be screened by an officer of the same gender, and officers will explain procedures as they go. At any time, you may request a private screening with a companion. If so, a second officer will also be present. At no point will you be asked to lift or remove clothing to reveal a sensitive part of your body. While the process can feel uncomfortable, it usually takes only a few minutes. See the below TSA video of what to expect during a pat-down.

Checked and carry-on baggage screening

Checked bags

While the majority of checked baggage is screened with technology, some bags require an actual physical search. If your bag was chosen for a physical search, the TSA will put a notice inside your bag to let you know. TSA has been provided universal "master" keys so certain branded locks may not have to be cut to inspect baggage. Look for indications on the lock packaging if you purchase one. The TSA will cut locks if they feel they need to. See this video for an inside look at TSA checked bag screening.

Carry-on bags

When taking your carry-on bag through security, you’ll be asked to put electronic devices larger than a cell phone (i.e. laptops, tablets, game consoles) in a separate bin. A TSA officer can guide you through food regulations. Always be prepared to follow the 3-1-1 liquids rule, and to place those items in a separate bin. It's your responsibility to know what items are prohibited in carry-on bags. Your carry-on may or may not be searched by hand after your bag goes through the X-ray machine. Watch this AskTSA video about preparing your carry-on bags for security.

Can the TSA search my phone?

You may have heard about the 2018 lawsuit accusing the TSA of searching and documenting what they found on passengers’ phones and other devices. According to their website, the TSA doesn't “search electronic devices for electronic content that may be contained on the device, and does not extract data from passenger electronic devices.” They treat cell phones like any other digital device you'd put it the bin — run it through the X-ray machine to make sure it hasn’t been tampered with.

Wear clothes that can help you get through airport security quickly

If you want to get through security faster, make your fashion work for you. Some quick tips:

  • Skip the skirt; wear pants.
  • Eliminate jewelry. It'll save you the possibility of having to take it all off. If you have body piercings, remove them if you can. Otherwise, be prepared for a pat-down.
  • Don't wear a belt as you’ll have to take it off at security. If you must, put it in your carry-on and put it on after clearing security.
  • Wear slip-on shoes with socks (and yuck, avoid bare feet). Why hassle with laces when you don’t have to?
  • Keep it simple. Avoid clothes with lots of pockets, zippers, or metal parts.

Remember, the TSA officer’s job is to keep everyone safe. Knowing what you can bring and being prepared before you hit the line goes a long way to get you through security without a hitch. Also, a little kindness, a dose of patience and a warm smile doesn’t hurt either — it makes everyone’s day better. Travel on, friends.

Sign up for Travelex's newsletter

Never stop exploring with travel news, tips, and stories sent straight to your inbox.
Thanks for signing up to our newsletter.         
Your registration is complete!

Enter your first name
Enter your email

Related Posts

Want to go on a cruise vacation but need to stick to a budget? From the best times to book a cruise to which cabin to choose…
Want to know how to make a positive impact on the world while exploring it? Discover more about ecotourism and sustainable…