What Are the TSA Carry-On Rules You Need to Follow?

If you want to speed through airport security, brush up on these TSA carry-on rules about what you can and can’t bring on a flight

You’re a seasoned traveler. You know the best time to buy airplane tickets, you own smart luggage and you’re a whiz with airplane facts. But even you can get tripped up when going through an airport security check. While the process can be tricky, it becomes a whole lot easier and faster when you’re clued in on the latest TSA carry-on rules.

Questions and uncertainties about TSA-approved items abound: What can I take on a plane in checked luggage? What’s the TSA liquid limitCan you bring food on a plane?  It also feels impossible to know what the best carry-ons are when there are different rules about size and weight for different airlines.

Of course, there’s a good reason behind the restrictions: your safety. Strict TSA carry-on rules about the dimensions of cabin luggage and items allowed on board were implemented in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorism attacks. After British officials stopped a plot to use liquid explosives in 2006, the TSA also temporarily banned all liquids in carry-on luggage. These rules have now been relaxed to some degree, but the exact intricacies are about as clear as mud to most of us. We spoke to security and travel experts to get to the bottom of what you can and cannot take on flights to help you get through security a whole lot faster—and ensure that your belongings don’t get confiscated by the TSA.

TSA Carry On Rules InfographicRD.com, Getty Images

What are the size and weight restrictions for carry-ons?

Surprisingly, there’s no one answer to this question. Each airline has its own regulations, and the TSA itself is actually only interested in the contents of your bag, not the size. Many airlines have a maximum size of 22” x 14” x 9”, including wheels and handles, but this is by no means universal. Some budget airlines won’t allow carry-ons at all (other than a small personal item like a purse or a laptop bag) with a standard ticket, while others have both size and weight requirements.

You should always check with your airline before you travel, but here are the rules for some of the bigger carriers:

American Airlines

  • All passengers get one piece of carry-on luggage, regardless of ticket type.
  • Bag dimensions should be no larger than 22” x 14” x 9”.

Delta Airlines

  • Passengers are allowed one piece of carry-on luggage and one small personal item, such as a purse, a small backpack or a laptop case.
  • Measurements must not exceed 22” x 14” x 9”, and the total length plus height must not exceed 45 inches.
  • Singapore imposes weight restrictions of 7kg (around 15 pounds), while in Beijing and Shanghai, the limit is 10kg (22 pounds).

JetBlue

  • Different JetBlue passengers get different luggage allowances. Basic Blue ticket holders get one personal item, Mosaic customers get one carry-on, and Blue, Extra Blue, Blue Plus and Mint ticket holders are allowed both.
  • Personal items must be no more than 17” x 13” x 9”, while carry-ons must submit to the classic 22” x 14” x 9” dimensions.

Southwest Airlines

  • Every passenger gets one carry-on and one personal item.
  • Carry-ons can go up to 24” x 16” x 10″, which gives you a little extra room.
  • Personal items should be no larger than 18.5” x 8.5” x 13.5”.

United Airlines

  • Passengers traveling on a basic economy fare are allowed only one personal item, unless they are a MileagePlus Premier Member, traveling internationally or have a MileagePlus credit card.
  • Maximum carry-on dimensions are 22” x 14” x 9”.
  • Personal items are limited to 17” x 10” x 9”.

What is allowed in your carry-on?

Clothes, cosmetics in the suitcasesSouth_agency/Getty Images

TSA carry-on rules have nothing to say about the size of your luggage, but they do have quite a lot to say about what goes in it. Probably the most important thing to be aware of is the so-called “3-1-1 rule,” which limits the size and quantity of liquids, aerosols, gels, creams and pastes in your carry-on bag. Anything of this nature, including toothpaste, hand sanitizer and snacks (excluding baby food), must be contained within 3.4-ounce containers and fit inside one transparent quart-sized bag that gets placed in a bin and is scanned separately from your other carry-on items. If you’re wondering how many little bottles of lotions and potions that works out to be, it’s about nine.

Even when following these TSA carry-on rules, however, there are some exceptions and surprises. Let’s take a look below, and if you have other specific items you’re wondering about, check out the TSA’s “What Can I Bring?” page.

Allowed: Breast milk, formula and baby food

Many parents don’t know that you can bring formula, breast milk, juice and baby food in quantities greater than 3.4 fluid ounces when flying with an infant or toddler. “The breast milk [and other baby food items] needs to be a ‘reasonable’ amount, and you must inform the TSA officer that you are carrying it,” says Trish McDermott, former VP of Community and Communications of BabyQuip, a company that provides rental baby gear for travelers. “These liquids are likely to undergo X-ray.”

Allowed: Medicine

You can bring all your medications—pain relievers, antibiotics, cough drops, birth control, prescription medication, etc.—in your carry-on. TSA allows it, and “it will save you a ton of money if you get sick while traveling,” says Elizabeth Trattner, a licensed alternative doctor. While this is important for everyone, if you have children, this travel health kit is a must, Trattner adds.

You can even take medically necessary liquids, gels, aerosols and pastes in quantities larger than 3.4 fluid ounces, but you must declare these items to a TSA officer and expect to undergo further inspection.

Allowed: Tweezers and nail clippers

“Tweezers and nail clippers are allowed in carry-on luggage,” says Jessica Bisesto, senior editor at TravelPirates. “But it’s recommended that any sharp edges are covered to prevent injury to TSA inspectors.”

Allowed: Food and snacks

“A common misconception is that food is not permitted in carry-on luggage. But solid foods—such as chocolate or cheese, cooked meats, crackers, pizza and protein bars—are allowed,” says Bisesto. “Keep in mind that items such as salsa, creamy cheese, peanut butter and yogurts must fall under 3.4 fluid ounces in order to pass TSA regulations.”

Also be aware that if you’re flying to the U.S. mainland from Hawaii, Puerto Rico or the U.S. Virgin Islands, most raw vegetables will not be allowed due to the risk of spreading invasive pest species.

Allowed: Cowboy spurs

Good news if you’re on your way back from Texas: Cowboy spurs are allowed in both your checked and hand luggage under TSA carry-on rules.

Allowed: Lighters

Here’s a shocker. While lighters with fuel are not allowed in checked baggage, they are, in fact, permitted in your carry-on. So, why do we always see that huge bin full of lighters at security? Because the two lighters permitted per person must be safely contained in a DOT-approved case. If you can’t live without your trusty Zippo, this is what you need.

Allowed: Fishing poles

Fishing poles are allowed in both checked and cabin luggage under TSA rules, although passengers are advised to check with the airline regarding maximum size requirements and whether they will fit in the overhead lockers. Potentially dangerous fishing objects, such as sharp hooks, should be securely wrapped and packed in your checked luggage, but relatively harmless items, including tackle and even small files, can be carried on board.

Allowed: Antlers

Yep, you read that right. As long as they will fit into the overhead bins or under your seat, TSA carry-on rules state that you can take antlers onto a plane. We can’t believe we’ve been traveling all this time without them!

Allowed: Bowling balls

Sports equipment that can be used to bludgeon, such as bats and clubs, are not allowed on board as carry-on items. But perhaps the TSA considers bowling balls too unwieldy to use in this way, because they’re on the approved list of carry-on items. Bowling pins, on the other hand, are not and must be packed in checked luggage.

Allowed: Most lithium batteries

Here’s one that you’re only allowed to take in your carry-on. Lithium batteries, which are found in items like portable phone chargers, are not allowed in checked luggage due to fears that they might catch fire. They can, however, be taken as hand luggage as long as they meet certain requirements. Rechargeable lithium batteries are limited to 100 watt hours per battery, but that covers pretty much anything you’re likely to have for your personal devices.

What isn’t allowed in your carry-on?

Not allowed: Weapons

That may seem like a big ol’ duh, but people do it all the time, according to the TSA. “During a two-week period from September through October 2017, TSA officers discovered 165 firearms in carry-on bags around the United States,” says Jack Plaxe, a security expert based in Louisville, Kentucky. “Of the 165 firearms discovered, 144 were loaded and 56 had a round in the chamber, ready to fire.”

This is not uncommon. In fact, TSA officers discovered more than 3,300 firearms in carry-on bags in 2016. “Each year, TSA officers also regularly find realistic replica firearms, BB and pellet guns, airsoft guns, brass knuckles, ammunition, batons, stun guns, knives and many other prohibited items too numerous to list,” says Plaxe. Keychain self-defense devices like cats eyes and brass knuckles are also not allowed.

Not allowed: Large aerosol spray cans

Avoid packing anything that is combustible and pressurized in your carry-on. That includes hairspray or deodorant sprays larger than 3.4 fluid ounces. “You don’t want to bring anything that is flammable onto a plane,” says Evy Poumpouras, a former Secret Service agent and TV correspondent on matters of security and law enforcement. “Just buy a new product once you get to your final destination.”

Not allowed: Loose rounds

Hunters, retired law enforcement agents and military members: Remember to count your rounds. “People know not to pack their guns, but somehow loose rounds end up in carry-ons,” says Poumpouras. “TSA can easily spot them no matter how cluttered your bag, and this can cause a delay of 30 to 45 minutes.”

Not allowed: Undeclared animals

Apparently, this also happens all the time, say the experts—and it’s not just cats and dogs. Birds and snakes have also been stuffed into carry-ons. “On one flight in Florida, a passenger tried to sneak a boa constrictor through the TSA checkpoint. This shut everything down, as TSA officials were in for a shock when they opened the bag,” says Poumpouras. “Don’t put a live animal in your carry-on—just coordinate the travel with airlines. They’ll guide you through the process.” FYI, these are the best airlines to fly with your pets.

Not allowed: Loose razor blades

You can actually take your disposable razor on a flight as hand luggage. But the blades must be contained within the razor itself and not loose.

What do you have to take out of your carry-on for TSA inspection?

We’re not done yet. In addition to removing certain items from your person before going through a metal detector or airport body scanner, you’ll also have to take out some TSA-approved items from your hand luggage. This is because they can obstruct the X-ray images of the scanners. Here’s what should be taken out of your carry-on and placed in a separate bin:

Liquids

As noted above, liquids, gels and pastes in your quart-size bag must be scanned separately from the rest of your luggage.

Laptops

Laptops must be removed from carry-on bags and placed in a separate bin unless they are in a specially designed carry-on case with a padded pocket for laptops. If the TSA agents feel your device is still obstructing the image in its special pocket, they’ll ask you to remove it, though, so you might as well just take it out and save yourself the hassle.

Tablets, e-readers and cameras

Since 2017, passengers have been required to scan tablets, e-readers and cameras separately. You can, however, leave your mobile phone in your bag. Portable chargers and cables can stay in your bag too, but they can sometimes clutter the X-ray images. So, if you have multiple chargers and a big bundle of wires, you may be asked to remove them and scan again.

What happens to confiscated items?

If you fail to heed advice and fall foul of TSA carry-on rules, the TSA may confiscate your offending articles. Once that happens, your item is official government property, meaning even the TSA has little control over what happens to it. Potentially valuable items may get sold at government-operated surplus centers or online auction sites like GovDeals and eBay, while boring bits like half-finished bottles of water are thrown away. Anything useful (and not dangerous) may be donated to schools, government agencies and nonprofits, while guns and hazardous materials will be turned over to law enforcement.

So now you’re fully versed on TSA carry-on rules and TSA approved items—which means there’s no excuse for being that person holding up the line! For the next leg of your trip, find out what flight attendants want you to know about flying.

Additional reporting by Aly Walansky.

Sources:

  • TSA: “What Can I Bring?”
  • TSA: “Traveling with Children”
  • Trish McDermott, former VP of community and communications of BabyQuip
  • Elizabeth Trattner, licensed alternative doctor
  • Jessica Bisesto, senior editor at TravelPirates
  • Jack Plaxe, security expert based in Louisville, Kentucky
  • Evy Poumpouras, former Secret Service agent and TV correspondent on matters of security and law enforcement

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