What Happens to Items Confiscated by the TSA—and How to Get Them Back
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Say goodbye to your bottle of wine, but there may be hope for other TSA-confiscated items
The next time you’re embarrassed about having your full-size toothpaste tube confiscated in the airport security line for exceeding the TSA liquid limit, consider this: Someone was caught at the New Orleans airport with a “forgotten” chainsaw in a carry-on bag. Thankfully, it was seized by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), just one of the bizarre TSA-confiscated items found in flight passengers’ possession in 2021, according to the agency’s viral video.
But here are some reassuring airplane facts: More often than not, TSA-confiscated items are mundane things like bottled water or sunscreen. In fact, the vast majority of contraband isn’t nefarious but happens because a traveler has violated TSA carry-on rules accidentally, says Mike Hatten, an aviation expert and retired airline pilot who worked as the senior manager of fleet training at a major U.S. airline. “In my decades of flying, I’ve seen it all,” he says. “Yet I’ve never had anything personally confiscated by the TSA.”
Wondering what you can take on a plane in checked luggage or a carry-on? We have pro tips for getting through the airport security check, what to expect from the body scanner and whether you can bring food on a plane. Keep reading for expert intel on exactly what happens to your stuff after the TSA takes it, how to get it back (or try to) and what you need to do to clear security as efficiently as Hatten.
What happens to items confiscated by the TSA?
The government has strict rules it must follow for disposing of confiscated property, according to the TSA. Guns, weapons, hazardous materials or anything deemed illegal are turned over to local law enforcement, and all forbidden liquids are immediately disposed of. All other items are either turned over to state agencies or kept by the TSA to be disposed of through sales, destruction or donations to charity.
But they’re not getting rich off pocketknives. Any profit from TSA sales of confiscated items goes to the U.S. Department of the Treasury and into a general fund used to help pay off the U.S. national debt. If the government sells it, then the government keeps the money and decides how to use it.
What are the most commonly confiscated items at the airport?
Liquids—things like bottled water, shampoo, soda, alcohol, soap and sunscreen—in bottles larger than 3.4 ounces are by far the most commonly confiscated items at security, according to the TSA. (To keep your large liquids, make sure they are in your checked luggage!)
Other TSA-confiscated items that agents see on the regular include pocketknives, multitools and keychain knives. The agency also confiscates a large number of legitimate weapons, including guns and large knives—more than 5,000 in 2021 alone.
RD.com, Getty Images (8)
What are some of the weirdest items confiscated by TSA agents?
In 2021, TSA agents saw some wild things attempting to make their way onto flights. There was the chainsaw, of course. But they also confiscated fireworks, bear spray, an antique pistol, a deodorant packed with bullets and—chef’s kiss—a crystal meth–stuffed burrito. There are a lot of rules to follow next time you fly, but this should be easy to remember: Never stuff weapons or drugs in your luggage.
How can you get your confiscated items back?
Most airports now offer a mailing station near the metal detectors so you can pay to mail small items back to your home. Many people simply choose to abandon the contraband soda or hair gel, and all liquids are tossed in the garbage.
To be frank, retrieving an item after the TSA has taken it is difficult, and in some cases, impossible, says Hatten. That’s why it’s so important to double-check your bags to make sure everything follows the TSA guidelines for what you can bring on a plane.
But what happens if you forget, the TSA confiscates your item and you don’t want to give up on getting it back? If it isn’t liquid and it’s too big to mail, your next step is to check GovDeals. There, state agencies sell surplus or confiscated goods via a bidding system. TSA-confiscated items for sale often include pocketknives, corkscrews and bottle openers. Simply search under the category of your missing item and cross your fingers that it shows up. You may have to shell out a few bucks to recover it, but that certainly beats getting a new one, especially if it’s special to you.
Another good place to look for your confiscated items is USA.Gov, where you can search for surplus sales by state.
How can you avoid having items confiscated?
Hatten’s top air-travel tip—and the reason he’s never had anything confiscated—is simple. “I keep one travel bag that is only to be used when flying. Nothing ever gets put into that suitcase that is prohibited by the TSA,” he says. “I never violate my self-imposed rule under any circumstances.”
So invest in that smart luggage or affordable luggage you’ve been eyeing, and vow to check it before boarding. Then feel the freedom of packing a full-size bottle of body wash in your toiletry bag without the fear of it becoming another one of those TSA-confiscated items.
As for your carry-on, add only TSA-approved items. Accidentally packed the wrong thing? If you remember that you have a prohibited item before you reach the metal detectors, step out of line and remove it, either disposing of it yourself or finding a mailing station. “Do not enter screening knowingly with a prohibited item,” says Hatten.
He also recommends alerting TSA agents in advance if you have an item that is permitted but isn’t commonly seen in luggage. “They will still scan it, and if it looks like something prohibited, they will likely pull your bag from the belt for additional screening,” he says.
That might take a few extra minutes, but it’s smart to factor in time for the security check before you even leave for the airport. If speed is a concern, there are ways to make the process go a bit more quickly. Hatten recommends signing up for a security service (think Global Entry or TSA PreCheck) as a general tip to expedite the security process.
And finally, always be polite. Don’t raise your voice, get angry or (heaven forbid) make any bomb jokes. “If you are kind, understanding and even appreciative of their service, I promise you will have fewer problems,” says Hatten.
- Mike Hatten, retired airline pilot, aviation expert, former senior manager of fleet training for a major U.S. airline and CEO of the Growth Facilitator
- @TSA: “TSA’s Top 10 Catches of 2021”
- Transportation Security Administration: “What Can I Bring?”
- Transportation Security Administration: “Frequently Asked Questions”