13 Things That Totally Annoy TSA Agents—and What to Do Instead
Wish you could get through the airport security line faster and easier? You can, and here’s how to do it.
Everyone wants the security line to move faster, including TSA agents
For most passengers, the worst part of air travel is going through security. You know the drill: Take off your shoes—wait, no, don’t take them off, but do take off your belt and your jacket. Empty your pockets and bags, and don’t forget to do a little dance through the metal detector and stand in the body scanner, raising your hands in the air like you just don’t care! Get it wrong and accidentally annoy the folks working security? You could miss your flight or worse.
The people who work for the TSA (Transportation Security Administration) don’t want this either. They have a job to do, and a lot of it hinges on you doing what you’re supposed to. We’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you’re not trying to do anything illegal. But all the little things you’re doing (or not doing) can add up over the course of a long shift, so it’s no wonder TSA agents snap sometimes, says Abraham J., a TSA canine handler at one of the busiest airports in the country. “There’s a high rate of stress and burnout with the front-line TSA workers,” he notes.
So how do you avoid annoying TSA agents? One of the things a TSA agent first notices about you is how willing you are to follow safety protocols related to bringing food on a plane, staying under the TSA liquid limit and knowing the carry-on rules. And that’s just the beginning. Here’s what TSA agents wish you knew to ensure a smoother and safer travel experience for everyone.
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Trying to pet the TSA K9 dog
Abraham says that while he and his TSA K9 love their job, sometimes passengers make it hard for them to do it. “Our canines are ‘single purpose,’ which means they’re only trained to detect explosives (not drugs, as many people believe),” he explains. “To do that, they need to be able to walk freely with their handler, but some people see that closeness as an invitation to play with or pet the dog.”
Most likely, the dog and handler will ignore you, but the annoyance builds up. And if you make yourself a real nuisance, you may get lectured or be asked to step out of line or wait behind a barrier, which could add more time to your wait. And in the worst-case scenario, if you distract a dog and cause it to miss a threat, then lives could be at risk.
Do this instead: Keep your distance. Don’t pet the dog, throw things to it, feed it, try to play with it or yell at it. “We get it—they’re so cute, and it’s hard to resist,” Abraham says. “But you should resist. They’re there to do a job, so let them do it. I promise our dogs get lots of belly rubs and games when they’re off duty!”
Handing agents your boarding pass without your ID
As a TSA Transportation Security Officer (TSO) who usually works as a Travel Document Checker (TDC), Collin S. is the person at the security checkpoint who asks to see your travel documents. “In the past, people were able to use just their boarding pass to get through security, and every day, I still get people who only want to show me their boarding pass, saying it should be enough to get through security,” he says. “But as far as I know, there isn’t an airport in the U.S. that will accept a boarding pass without an ID anymore. These days, your official ID is the most important document we need from you, so don’t forget it.”
In the grand scheme of things, this isn’t the most egregious mistake, and the TSO will just correct you, but it gets annoying fast if you argue with the agent about it. Back in my day … Multiply that by dozens of people saying the same thing and making the TSO repeat the same instructions over and over.
Do this instead: Have your boarding pass and government-issued ID (driver’s license, passport or State ID) ready to show the TSO, Collin says. And don’t try to hand it directly to the TSO. Since COVID-19, most airports now have you place your boarding pass on the scanning machine yourself to reduce contact and avoid spreading germs. Note: Some airports are moving to a new system where you won’t have to show the TSO your boarding pass—but you will always need to show your ID! See the next point below.
Holding up your ID
It’s not enough for the TSO to just see your ID, either in your hand or through the plastic screen in your wallet—you need to hand it to them. “I don’t want to handle your boarding pass, but I do need to briefly take your ID,” Collin says. “It’s confusing, I know! Welcome to airport security.” The reason for this? Airports are moving to CAT (credential authentication technology) systems to verify IDs and spot fakes in real time. Rather than relying on a human to verify that it’s correct, the agent inserts your ID into the CAT machine, which scans and compares it to information in the Secure Flight Database. It will authenticate your ID, verify your reservation and see if you have a Secure Flight pre-screening status (like Global Entry or TSA PreCheck). Or it may flag you as a criminal or your ID as fake, alerting agents to pull you aside.
Do this instead: “Have your ID out and in your hand before you reach the front of the security line,” Collin says. “Hand it to me when I ask for it.”
Note: Because CAT scanners can verify your boarding info, you probably won’t need to show your boarding pass, just your ID. Biometrics that verify your identity through fingerprint and/or retinal scans are also in the works!
Crowding the security checkpoint
We get it, you’re in a hurry, but you need to respect the directions from the TSOs and lines on the ground at security checkpoints. “We ask passengers to wait behind the marked line to protect the privacy of the passenger before them,” Collin says. “Crowding just makes us mad and can be a security risk.”
This type of crowding is problematic because it makes it hard for the TSO to tell who is next. It also increases the risk of fights breaking out (especially when people are in a hurry) or someone getting shoved or hurt. It also makes it easier to spread germs between travelers. In rare cases, it could also be used as a distraction for someone to get through screening illegally.
Do this instead: Have your documents out and ready in your hand. Wait behind the marked line until a TSO motions or calls you forward for your turn. You can also use a redress number to avoid extra airport security screenings … but you have to be a part of the Department of Homeland Security’s Traveler Redress Inquiry Program.
Asking a TSA agent to check you in for your flight
Because TSOs deal with boarding-pass information, many passengers mistakenly think TSA agents can help them check in, upgrade their flight or change flight reservations. “I don’t work for the airlines,” Collin says. “I work for the TSA, and I don’t have the ability to check you in or in any way modify your reservation.” He adds that sometimes people get confused and think that scanning their boarding pass at security also checks them in for their flight—it doesn’t. At best, this increases the wait for everyone while the agent explains the situation, and if there is an error in your boarding pass, then you’ll need to get out of the security line and go back to ticketing to fix it. At worst, passengers get angry and entitled, asking to see a supervisor (who will tell them the same thing).
Do this instead: Check in for your flight via your airline’s app or the ticket counter at the airport, up to 24 hours before your flight. Most airlines allow you to do so through their app on your phone, through kiosks when you first arrive at the airport or at the ticket desk. You must be checked in to get your boarding pass before you head to security. If you need help changing your ticket, talk to an agent for that airline.
Talking on your phone the whole time
Waiting in an airport security line is about as scintillating as watching paint dry … but you do need to be paying attention. One of the main reasons people don’t is because they’re talking (often loudly) on their phone while trying to navigate through security. Not only does this annoy people standing around you, but it also may make you miss your turn, not hear critical instructions or just come off as rude.
“Don’t talk on your phone while trying to come through my line,” Collin says. “I’ll wait until you hang up, and then everyone behind you will get mad at you for holding up the line.” This isn’t about pettiness. A TSA agent needs to study your demeanor and is trained to look for body language, facial expressions and verbal cues that someone is up to no good. If you’re on your phone, the agent can’t interact with you and look for these signs.
Do this instead: If you need to make a call while waiting in line, it’s fine, but try to keep your voice low and don’t use the speakerphone. Then, hang up the call before getting to the security checkpoint and give the agent your full attention. Safety issues aside, this is also an etiquette rule you should follow in other public places, from retail stores to restaurants.
Bringing the wrong ID
Yes, TSA agents have lots of thoughts about your personal identification, and that’s because verifying that you are who you say you are is a huge part of their job. “I’m always surprised at what people will try to use as a valid form of ID,” says Jeanette P., a TSO who works at both security checkpoints and in baggage. “I recently had a lady try to use her Costco card.” Trying to use an invalid type of ID is annoying and holds up the line, and beyond that, it could cause you to get pulled aside for more questioning and subsequently miss your flight. Remember: TSA agents have to verify your identity somehow before letting you proceed.
Obviously, a Costco card isn’t a government ID, but you should know that adults cannot use birth certificates, social security cards, student IDs, employment IDs, library cards or other membership cards alone as ID at a security checkpoint—all things Jeanette says she’s seen. (FYI, you may be able to use a combination of these to verify your identity if you’ve lost your ID.) Children under 18 do not need to bring ID in the United States.
Do this instead: Double—no, triple—check that you have your ID on you before leaving your home. The most common forms of acceptable ID include a driver’s license, state ID card or passport. But the TSA can also accept a Global Entry card, DOD ID (CAC Card), TWIC (Transportation Worker Identification Credential), green card and Canadian IDs. Here’s the complete list of acceptable IDs when traveling.
FYI, expired IDs are still valid to use at a checkpoint as long as they’ve been expired for less than one year. And here’s what you need to know about the much-anticipated Real IDs.
Yelling at them
Many TSA workers struggle with mental-health issues, largely due to the stressful nature of the job. “It’s the most intense yet boring job I’ve ever done. We have to do the same thing over and over, but we have to remain constantly hypervigilant,” says Jeanette. “And when you’re trained to look for threats, you spend all day feeling threatened. I sometimes have trouble eating and sleeping, I have so much anxiety.” What doesn’t help? When you get mad at them. “I understand that traveling is stressful, especially when security lines are long, but a passenger yelling at me or swearing will just put me over the edge. I don’t take it out on the passengers, but I’ll get migraines sometimes or stomachaches,” she says. “And there’s something about airports that just makes even reasonable people crazy.”
Do this instead: If the TSO does something you don’t understand, asks you to do additional screening or makes a mistake, take a deep breath and remember they’re human too. “A little kindness goes such a long way,” Jeanette says. “Ultimately, I want to help you, but I’m going to want that a lot less if you yell at me.”
Telling a bomb joke
Using humor to diffuse a tense or boring situation is a good tactic—as long as the joke is tasteful. “I get a lot of bomb jokes,” Abraham says. “Like, ‘There’s definitely a bomb in my bag’ while pointing to a tiny purse or ‘I’ve got a bomb … in my pants. Har har.’ They’re not funny.” He adds that any jokes about the underwear bomber or the shoe bomber are terrible. Plus, agents have to take any bomb threat seriously, so do not joke about that or having any type of weapon.
Not all jokes are that serious, though. Many are just repeated so often that TSA agents get annoyed hearing them on repeat—for instance, when the metal detector alerts and the agent asks if you have anything metal in your body, and you reply with something like, “I have buns of steel,” “I’m secretly Iron Man” or “I have a heart of gold.” And the number of times people say, “Enjoy the view—haha!” when entering the body scanner is way too many, according to our agents. (P.S. They’re not ogling your body.) You may think you’re being funny and charming, but you’re not—and you’re likely slowing the process down by not answering questions directly.
Do this instead: Play it straight, and save the chuckles for later with your travel companions. Security really isn’t the place to joke around, especially since humor is easily misconstrued, says Abraham.
Not listening to their directions
A lot of the little things that annoy all the TSA agents we talked to fall under the category of not following basic directions at the security checkpoints—for example, not removing electronics from your bag, leaving your belt on, trying to bring large bottles of liquid, leaving your wallet and keys in your pocket and so forth. “We could save so much time and energy if people would follow the instructions,” Jeanette says. “I know that some of it seems pointless, and it feels like they change a lot, but we don’t make the rules—we just have to enforce them. And there’s no excuse for not knowing the rules: We have signs up everywhere and officers yelling them on repeat. Just pay attention.”
Do this instead: Do your best to follow the security instructions, which are generally posted multiple times along the security line, or listen to the announcements. If you’ve flown before, you know the drill, so don’t try to sneak around the rules (like bringing a 5-ounce bottle of shampoo). If you forget or make a mistake, no big deal; just correct it, as directed.
Walking your dog on a leash
Traveling with little ones and animals is always a little unpredictable, but that can quickly turn into chaos, making for a confusing and possibly unsafe situation for everyone. Nowhere is that more apparent than going through security. “Our canines are trained not to react to other dogs, but that doesn’t mean the other dogs don’t try and provoke,” Abraham says. Unless the animal is a true service dog (and emotional support animals do not count), pets are supposed to stay in their carriers.
The problem is that sometimes people let them out to walk, and that’s when the trouble starts. “Dogs may bark or snap at other passengers, have accidents, eat things they shouldn’t—the airport isn’t a safe place to let your dog roam,” notes Abraham. If any of that happens in a security line, then the TSA agents are the ones who have to deal with it.
Do this instead: There are a lot of things you need to know before flying with your dog. But start with the most important one: Keep pets in carriers inside the airport unless they are in a designated pet area.
Letting your kids run wild
Children who are traveling are often tired, hungry, out of their normal routine and scared, which can make them harder to deal with. The TSA understands this, Jeanette says: “We try to keep it simple for families with little kids.” For instance, you can carry your toddler through a metal detector, children can go through TSA PreCheck with you, and there are modified screening procedures for kids under 12 so they won’t get a pat-down. “But help us help you by keeping your kids under control,” she says. “I’ve seen kids running around, playing tag around the ropes, climbing on machines and screaming. That slows down the security process, is annoying and can be dangerous for kids.”
Do this instead: Preparation is the name of the game when it comes to traveling with children. Come prepared with snacks, toys, comfort objects, extra diapers and anything else your child might need. If you’re worried about them running around, bring a stroller they can be strapped into (that will need to get screened as well) or use a tether designed for kids. And if they do act up, don’t ignore it or excuse it as “kids just being kids.” This is a good opportunity to teach your kids manners they can use in a variety of situations.
With airline ticket prices soaring and passengers getting charged for every little thing, it’s understandable that people are looking for some frugal hacks. But one of those “tips”—wearing all your clothing to save space in your luggage—is super annoying to TSA agents. “It makes it look like you’re trying to hide something, or sometimes it makes people uncomfortable and sweaty, which then makes you look suspicious,” Abraham says. Also note that the TSO at the checkpoint will ask you to remove any jackets, shirts tied around your waist, etc., so if you’re wearing multiple things, it will take you—and everyone behind you—longer to get through security.
Do this instead: Wear what you need to be comfortable during your travel, and save money by getting the best airfare possible.