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10 Tips for a Speedy Trip Through TSA Screening

Know the latest procedures and rules at airport security checkpoints

airline passengers stand in security lines at Denver International Airport

PATRICK T. FALLON/Getty Images

En español 

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is asking the public for patience, courtesy and compliance as it adjusts to the growing number of passengers passing through security. The numbers have skyrocketed in the past few months — more than 2.02 million people passed through airport security on May 11, for example. That’s nearing the approximately 2.34 million who did so on May 11, 2019, pre-pandemic, and a huge leap from the 1.42 million who flew on the same date last year.

The agency recently issued a statement on the growing demand for air travel, noting that it “is prepared for a busy summer travel season with anticipated passenger volumes that will match and may occasionally exceed those of 2019 for the first time since the pandemic began.”

Passengers are no longer required to wear a face mask in the airport and on the plane, since a federal judge overturned the COVID-related order last month (it’s not yet clear whether the Justice Department will appeal the ruling). The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), however, is recommending that travelers continue to wear masks covering their nose and mouth “in indoor areas of public transportation (including airplanes) and indoors in U.S. transportation hubs (including airports).”

If you are wearing a mask, the TSA screening officer at the travel document checker station will likely ask you to briefly lower your face mask to verify your identity.

At a media briefing this week the TSA described some of its new high-tech tools, including computed tomography (CT) units, which can provide detailed, rotating 3D images of a carry-on bag’s contents, giving more accurate pictures than the old-school X-ray machines — and, the TSA hopes, speed the screening process by reducing the need for physical searches. They’ve been installed at 163 airports around the country. It has also begun using Credential Authentication Technology (CAT) for ID authentication and reservation verification in some airports, and is testing facial-recognition technology.

For a smooth and safe screening process, follow the TSA’s current tips and protocols.

1. Double-check the list of banned items (no cattle prods, please). 

2. Arrive at the airport early to make sure there’s sufficient time to make your flight in case lines are long due to increased passenger volume and TSA staffing shortages. You’re encouraged to sign up for TSA PreCheck, which allows for speedier passage through screening (you don’t need to take off your shoes and belt, and you can leave liquids and laptops in your carry-on). Note that those 75 and older can leave on their shoes and a light jacket during screening, even without PreCheck.

3. Organize your personal items before screening. Remove your belt, keys and other items from your pockets, and put them in your carry-on bag before lining up for screening. (This does not apply to TSA PreCheck members.)

4. TSA officials no longer physically handle boarding passes, so place your paper or electronic pass on the code reader and hold it for the officer to inspect. Again, the agent may ask you to briefly lower your mask to confirm your identity.

5. If you’re bringing food, it may need to be inspected, although in most cases, the TSA says, “food or snacks such as fruit, health bars and sandwiches can stay inside your carry-on bag,” as can cakes and other baked goods. Consider putting them in a clear plastic bag so a TSA officer can see the contents easily. The agency notes that foods such as gravy and cranberry sauce should be packed in a checked bag because they are not solids (TSA guidance: “If you can spill it, spray it, pump it or pour it, then it’s not a solid”). Ask a TSA officer if you are unsure. 


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6. Up to 12 ounces of hand sanitizer is permitted through security, but the TSA asks that it be removed from carry-on bags before screening. You can also bring alcohol wipes or antibacterial wipes in carry-on bags.

7. Personal electronic devices larger than a cellphone need to be removed from your carry-on bag and placed in a bin with nothing on or under them for X-ray screening.

8. The TSA will accept a driver’s license or state-issued ID up to a year after expiration for those who have been unable to renew theirs during the pandemic. Note that you now have until May 3, 2023, to acquire a security-enhanced Real ID instead of a regular driver’s license in order to get through airport security. 

9. Passengers are asked to remain aware of and report suspicious activities (“If You See Something, Say Something” is the motto of the public safety campaign). Find out more at the Department of Homeland Security website.

10. Ask for help. If you have any questions about the procedures, you can call the TSA’s customer service center at 866-289-9673, or get in touch through Twitter (@AskTSA) or Ask TSA on Facebook. If you require assistance because of medical or disability issues, contact TSA Cares at least 72 hours in advance of your flight at 855-787-2227.

A few more tips to make air travel easier for yourself and others:

  • Make sure you know the correct terminal that your flight will be departing from; you don’t want to waste time by getting dropped off at the wrong one.
  • If you know you will need to take your shoes off at security, wear socks and shoes without laces.
  • Have your boarding pass pulled up on your phone and your ID ready before you reach the checkpoint. Remember that you can only bring one carry-on bag and one personal item on most flights. A personal item is something like a purse or laptop bag that can fit under the seat in front of you.
  • Be nice. Many people are tense when they travel, and TSA and airline staff are facing their own stresses. And have a great trip!

Editor’s note: This article was originally published on May 21, 2020. It’s been updated to reflect new TSA procedures.

Christina Ianzito is the travel and books editor for aarp.org and AARP The Magazine, and also edits and writes health, entertainment and other stories for aarp.org. She received a 2020 Lowell Thomas Award for travel writing. 

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