No one wants to have their things stolen, especially from their luggage. But it happens so often CNN published an article describing how hidden cameras have been used to catch airline employees pilfering through luggage. Even if you have travel insurance, having your things stolen or losing your luggage can ruin your trip and cause a massive headache. The obvious solution that occurs to most people is to use luggage locks. But if you really want to be protected, there are some things every traveler needs to know about luggage locks.

The Right of Removal

Privacy rights are not included in your flight rights. Any member of airport security can open any bag at any time. These searches can be arbitrary or targeted. There is no way to keep Transportation Security Administration (TSA) agents out of your luggage if they make a determination to search. They must have access for safety’s sake. In the most extreme cases, the agent will cut the lock off of the bag if necessary.

Passengers were concerned that having their locks cut off of their luggage would leave them with the exact vulnerability they were hoping to avoid. This led the TSA to partner with a few lock companies to provide master keys to TSA agents and TSA-recognized locks to consumers. This allows TSA agents to unlock and relock a bag without harming the padlock. Because the TSA has the right to open any bag, they have the right to remove any lock. With the TSA locks, your removed lock is unlikely to be reattached, secured, or even returned to you in the event your bag is investigated.

TSA Lock Controversy

Though the TSA locks are supposed to be opened using the master keys agents have been issued, there are many reports of TSA-approved locks still being destroyed. Passengers hoping to maintain some level of travel security were upset to find that even though they had fully cooperated, their luggage locks were forcibly removed. Even when locks were opened with a TSA master key, they were not being relocked effectively.

The master keys to the TSA compliant luggage locks have been widely available to the general public for some time. It has been about 2 years since the dimensions for all of the master keys were placed online with schematics that allow anyone with a 3D printer to make them. Certain enterprising individuals have also made brass copies of these keys to extend the number of times they can be used. It is highly probable all TSA master keys have been cloned.

The TSA has yet to issue an official response to master keys being hacked. Neither have the manufacturers of TSA-approved locks taken steps to update the compromised keyways. With no change and no sign that there will be a change anytime in the future, luggage locks aren’t really securing your possessions well.  Irregardless, most luggage lock’s baseline of protection to covert entry (such as lock picking) or destructive entry (such as cutting the shackle) has always been extremely low. Most luggage locks can be cut off with a pair of small diagonal pliers or picked within seconds.

Common Luggage Lock Bypasses

Passengers who decide not to use TSA-approved locks have been surprised to find a baggage check notice inside their still securely locked luggage. The question most travelers ask is, “How did they check the contents of my bag without cutting my lock?” They do not have master keys to every lock brand (nor do master keys exist for every brand of lock). The answer is they do not take the time to pick the locks.

Instead, they bypass the lock altogether. With a standard pen, anyone can puncture the zipper on a bag. The agent will move the locked zipper to one side and puncture the teeth of the zipper track. Then they have full access to the bag. When they are done, the can simply move the zipper to the other side of the track, and the bag will look as though it has not been opened.

If the lock is too strong and there is no zipper, there are also less covert ways that bags are opened. The number one form of opening a suitcase is cutting into the fabric. With a box cutter or knife, a single slice down any side of your bag will allow someone full access to your belongings.

Protecting luggage from theft involves not only choosing the right lock, but also choosing the right case. If your lock is too strong, it is simpler for criminals to attack the bag itself. There are products with puncture proof zippers and even slash resistant fabric, which will continue to keep your stuff safe abroad after you have passed through security checkpoints.


Now that you know the concerns your luggage locks face when traveling, you can shape your baggage security accordingly. Because the TSA will destroy effective security in cases where the bag must be searched, your bags will only remain safe in the event that it is not screened after you have checked it. TSA-approved locks are unlikely to stop any criminal, and there is still the chance that the lock will be destroyed when the bag is checked. In the end, you should do what makes you feel safest, and the safest bet is probably to keep anything you value in your carry-on within your reach.


Before you go on your trip, make sure to Depart Smart. Make a Travel Safety Plan with the help of travel-safety experts at Depart Smart. Avoid risks and enjoy worry-free global adventures with a customized Emergency Action Plan.


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