The TSA, Transportation Security Administration, was born in the aftermath of the airborne terrorist attacks in the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001. Their mission: “Protect the nation’s transportation systems to ensure freedom of movement for people and commerce.” The TSA vision is “To provide the most effective transportation security in the most efficient way as a high performing counterterrorism organization.”

The TSA has significantly changed the pre-flight process at American airports, because their screenings are designed to keep potentially dangerous items and people off planes.  Luggage, carry on bags, and people are examined closely with good reason.  In 2014 alone, the TSA found over 2,000 firearms in passengers’ bags, most of them loaded.  TSA rules don’t prohibit firearms as long as they are in checked baggage and kept separate from ammunition.

TSA thoroughness has caused some degree of public frustration with long lines and confusing regulations. Here’s a quick look at the main regulations and how you can speed up getting through security at the airport:

Don’t bring prohibited items

An entire list of prohibited items is available on the TSA’s website. A few prohibited items include aerosols, cricket bats and large bottles of liquid. Only 3.4 ounces of liquid in containers are allowed, except for medications or infant nourishments. Water bottles are prohibited. You must purchase water bottles after you clear TSA checkpoints, or bring an empty water bottle container to replenish after clearing security.

One 4 fl. oz. (118 ml) container of mace or pepper spray is permitted in checked baggage provided it is equipped with a safety mechanism to prevent accidental discharge. Razor blades not in a cartridge and safety razors with a blade are prohibited in carry-on. A disposable razor is allowed. Metal scissors with pointed tips and a blade length longer than four inches are prohibited from being carried on.  If you’re traveling with handheld workshop tools, they must be shorter than 7 inches and then only screwdrivers, wrenches and pliers are allowed to be carried on; the rest must go into checked-in luggage.


These items aren’t allowed on passenger planes because they could be used as weapons, same as aerosols which could become explosive or a fire hazard. Liquids don’t look any different through an X-ray. A hair gel bottle could contain hair gel. It could also contain a dangerous chemical or explosive. The TSA will confiscate any item not allowed and it becomes their property.    

The TSA initially banned liquids in any form in 2006. While the ban was in effect, the TSA started testing different options. They eventually determined 3.4 ounces of liquid in a little clear container inside of a one-quart clear bag is a safe amount of liquid allowable.  

To speed up clearing through the TSA checkpoints, make sure any liquids are correctly packed.  Remove the clear bag containing the appropriate amount of liquids and place it in a security bin for the x-ray machines.  You must also prepare to take out any electronic devices, such as a smart phone, tablet or laptop.  They must also be scanned separately. In most cases shoes, jackets, large metal jewelry, belts, and wallets must be removed and placed in a bin for the x-ray machine.

Don’t forget your stuff!

Every year hundreds of thousands of laptops are left in bins on the opposite side of the x-ray machines.  They even collect more than $650,000 in spare change annually.  Few people ever try to get their stuff back. If you forget to reclaim yours you can recover it by contacting the appropriate airport security lost and found. They only keep missing items for 30 days, so don’t procrastinate. Any electronics will be destroyed afterwards.  Items that do not contain personal or electronic information are sold and the proceeds go to the state.

It’s a good idea to keep your business card on your electronics so you can be contacted if you leave valuables at the TSA checkpoint. If you forget, you can have the item shipped to you at your expense when it is located.

Bring identification

A valid government issued photo identification if you are 18 years old or older.  The TSA requires a valid government photo ID before entering security clearance. You can’t get to your gate without it. The easiest way to identify yourself is presenting a driver’s license.  Your ticket or boarding pass must match the name exactly on your government issued ID.  Minors can travel with an adult.

Examples of government issued identification include:

  • Driver’s licenses or other state photo identity cards issued by Department of Motor Vehicles (or equivalent)
  • U.S. passport
  • U.S. passport card
  • DHS trusted traveler cards (Global Entry, NEXUS, SENTRI, FAST)
  • U.S. military ID (active duty or retired military and their dependents, and DoD civilians)
  • Permanent resident card
  • Border crossing card
  • DHS-designated enhanced driver’s license
  • Airline or airport-issued ID (if issued under a TSA-approved security plan)
  • Federally recognized, tribal-issued photo ID
  • HSPD-12 PIV card
  • Foreign government-issued passport
  • Canadian provincial driver’s license or Indian and Northern Affairs Canada card
  • Transportation worker identification credential
  • Immigration and Naturalization Service Employment Authorization Card (I-766)

Stricter TSA ID laws are slowly being phased in since the REAL ID Act was passed in 2005. If your state is noncompliant with the REAL ID regulations by 2018 or 2020, you must have state-specific alternative identification according to the Department of Homeland Security.  You can usually get TSA compliant government issued identification at the location where you get your state driver’s license.

What to do if you don’t have your identification

Losing your identification is a problem, but TSA strives to help you overcome it. They explain, “In the event you arrive at the airport without valid identification, because it is lost or at home, you may still be allowed to fly. The TSA officer may ask you to complete a form to include your name and current address, and may ask additional questions to confirm your identity. If your identity is confirmed, you will be allowed to enter the screening checkpoint. You may be subject to additional screening. You will not be allowed to fly if your identity cannot be confirmed, you chose to not provide proper identification or you decline to cooperate with the identity verification process. TSA recommends you to arrive at least two hours in advance of your flight time for domestic flights and three for international flights to allow ample time for security screening and boarding the aircraft.”

FASTER clearance

Protecting citizens from safety security threats as they enter and leave the United States is dependent upon citizen cooperation and the TSA doing their job well. The TSA also wants to expedite the process.  Here’s how:

TSA Pre✓ (Precheck) is a pre-screening service offered through the TSA. Travelers enrolled in TSA Pre✓ don’t need to take out their laptops and liquids, or take off belts, shoes or jackets. Unlike the usual lines at the airport, the TSA Pre✓ line takes approximately five minutes to navigate. Right now, 19 airlines and 180 airports participate in this program.

If you want to speed up your airport experience, sign up for TSA Pre✓ online and schedule an appointment at one of over 380 enrollment centers. A 10-minute appointment will include a background check and fingerprinting. A five-year membership costs only $85.  
The only surprises during your trip abroad should be good ones.