Airport security is nobody’s favorite part of the traveling lifestyle. It’s never fun to have to wait in long lines, unpack and re-pack parts of your carry-on luggage, or watch strangers take off their shoes within smelling distance of your face. We know it’s uncomfortable. We know it’s time-consuming. We also know that it’s a necessary step of the air travel process designed to keep us and our fellow passengers safe, which is why we all put up with it.
The rules for these often unpleasant airport security protocols are always changing. Entire countries have even set laws about what should and should not happen in airport security lines. For example, today’s Canadian airport security employees need to follow not just their airport’s own pat-down protocols but also the official Canadian Aviation Security Regulations and the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority Act.
If you want to be prepared for your next encounter with a TSA agent, you better keep your expectations up to date. What kinds of things are normal for a security agent to say when you get your body scanned? What kinds of things do you need to take out of your carry-on while you wait in line? We’ve listed the most up-to-date facts below, so you know what’s normal and what you should raise an eyebrow at.
Read on for 10 uncomfortable but realistic things to expect the next time you go through airport security – and 10 things that should never happen in the security checkpoint line.
20 Emptying Your Pockets (Normal)
It’s not a stickup. If you’ve ever flown before, you know that being asked to empty your pockets is just part of what it takes to make it from the chaos of the security screening section to the relative peace and quiet of your pre-boarding area. You empty every pocket on your pants, hoodie, and even coat (which of course, you’ve removed and placed in its own scanning tray) so that anything metal is in plain view of the security personnel.
Even something as small as a car key or bobby pin can set off their walk-through metal detector. Save yourself the drama by handing over every piece of spare change. You’ll get it back in a second.
19 Handing Over Your Cellphone (Normal)
We know it’s painful to hand your phone over to a stranger. In your day to day life, this is something that you would never do. When you’re about to travel 30,000 feet in the air alongside the precious cargo of one hundred or so other living people, handing over your phone is the least you can do to help ensure that everyone on board has a safe flight.
The security agents don’t generally need to look at the contents of your phone, but they may ask you to turn it on just so they can see that it’s actually just a phone and not some dangerous device in disguise. Suck it up, turn it on, and keep moving.
18 Being Asked For Your Passport or ID (Red Flag)
Now we’ve made it things that you SHOULD NOT experience at an airport security checkpoint. If you’re subject to this or the following experiences, you might want to ask to speak to your security agent’s manager. If a security screening employee asks you for your passport, you have every right to get suspicious and ask about why.
It is not normal for passengers to hand over their passports or ID when going through security at the airport. All the agents need is your boarding pass, and at some airports, an automated machine is placed at security checkpoints to scan boarding passes without any human interaction at all. Keep your passport to yourself until it’s time to pass through your gate.
17 Getting a Pat-Down from an Officer of a Different Gender (Red Flag)
You might just want to go with the flow and ignore the awkwardness when it comes to a security screening pat-down. You might want to think about anything besides what is actually happening at the moment when a stranger’s hands are patting down your arms and legs. It’s important to stay alert, however! You should not be pat-down by a security agent who is a different gender than you are.
Government agencies like the TSA and the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA) insist that it is only appropriate for passengers to be pat-down by security agents of the same gender. If you’re subject to a pat-down by an officer of a different gender, they are violating these policies.
16 Having Your Palms Swabbed (Normal)
This is one of the stranger parts of security screening, but it’s still totally normal. You can expect to have your palms swabbed with a cloth or metal tool if you fly through the United States. According to CNN, American airport security employees have been asking people to put their palms forward for swabbing since 2010. This is to check if their hands have come into contact with any chemicals that Homeland Security is looking out for.
"The point is to make sure that the air environment is a safe environment," Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told CNN. "One way we keep it safe is by new technology [and] random use of different types of technology."
15 Taking Off Your Belt (Normal)
Your belt is yet another item that can set walk-through metal detectors a-beeping. If you fly often, you’ll already be familiar with hearing airport security agents asking rookie passengers to take off their belts so they can actually scan for real harmful items, not accessories.
If you’d rather not have to fiddle with your belt’s notches while holding your coat, shoes, and other various carry-on items as you approach your screening trays, it’s best just to not wear one. There’s nothing wrong with flying in casual wear! Try athleisure for some inspired travel looks that are stylish and practical at the same time.
14 Having a Cultural/Ceremonial Item Confiscated (Red Flag)
Certain cultural and ceremonial items are protected by government agencies also. If something that you wear or carry with you for meaningful cultural reasons, like a headwrap or beaded necklace, those items need to be treated like every other airplane-safe item that security agents check. In most airports, it’s rare for them to ask passengers to remove these items – and wrong for them to confiscate these items.
“If your head covering causes an alarm to sound, a physical search will be required,” explains the explains CATSA. “In most cases, this will not require you to remove your head covering. The physical search may be conducted in a private search room at your request.”
13 Security Officers Making Jokes about Your Safety (Red Flag)
Most frequent fliers know that it’s never a good idea to talk about terrible accidents or contraband substances when you’re walking through the airport. It doesn’t matter if you have no intention of actually causing trouble or flying with those substances. Security screening checkpoint agents know that it’s inappropriate to talk about those things in an airport, so if they are doing so while screening you, they are being completely unprofessional.
Don’t engage with employees who are behaving this way, and whatever you do, steer clear of joining in. According to CATSA: “Depending on the circumstances, you could be charged with an offense under the Canadian Aviation Security Regulations, 2012.”
12 Unlocking/Opening Your Laptop (Normal)
Just like your phone, your laptop is a carry-on item that security screeners pay special attention to. This is something we’ve come to expect for years! If you don’t have a “checkpoint-friendly laptop bag,” you will always need to remove your laptop and put it in a tray of its own so it can be scanned, examined, and often powered-up so that they can ensure that it’s only a laptop.
“The larger the laptop, the more stuff you can hide in it,” says Bob Burns on the TSA blog. “Items have been found concealed in laptops in the past, so we have to be able to get a good look at them.”
11 Getting a Pat-Down from a Same-Gender Officer (Normal)
Pat-downs can be cringe. The last thing most people want is a complete stranger touching them literally from head to toe when they’re just trying to catch a flight, but this is yet another necessary discomfort on the way from the ground to the air.
Being pat-down in an airport these days should follow strict rules. Your security agent should pat you down using the backs of their hands. They should also be the same gender as you, so no men patting-down women or women-patting down men. Uncomfortable? Yes. But if your pat-down complies with these protocols, it’s also totally normal.
10 Having to Remove Your Shoes When You Paid for Premium Pre-Check (Red Flag)
Most people have to take their shoes off when they go through a pre-boarding security checkpoint. Most people also do not pay for a premium pre-check program. For those who do subscribe to a premium pre-check program, the shoes-off policy does not apply. They are free to take a quick walk through airport security with their shoes firmly on their feet.
Being made to remove your shoes when you’re part of a premium pre-check program is not right. You have paid (somewhere between $80 and $100 per year) for the luxury of keeping those on! Tell the security agent about your status and be prepared to file a complaint.
9 Not Having an Item Returned to You Post-Screening (Red Flag)
If all of your carry-on items are categorically approved for air travel, there is no reason for any of them to be taken from you during the security screening process. From your coat and shoes to your laptop and your boarding pass, everything should make it back to you by the time you’ve gone through the walk-through metal detector.
Don’t leave security without all of your items returned to you! At this point in the process, you’ve already checked the luggage you’re going to check and the security personnel knows this. There is no reason for them to keep your luggage from you at this point – it’s just meant to flow through the scanners and join you on your way.
8 Handing Over Your Jewelry (Normal)
Any metal jewelry you’re wearing while you navigate an airport needs to be removed when you go through airport security. Even a wedding or engagement ring can set a metal detector off and halt your progress through the security checkpoint, so professionals advise you to just remove it all.
We hope you’re not wearing your most glamorous jewels while you travel (this is a common sense security no-no!) but if so, you can still trust it to be handed over to security agents for the brief moment it takes to pass through a scanner. The TSA once returned a $30,000 watch to its owner after the owner misplaced it at a security checkpoint! Chances are, your jewelry is in safe hands.
7 Being Questioned About Your Carry-On Contents (Normal)
Don’t get nervous if a security agent starts unpacking your carry-on and asking questions about what’s inside. Your instinct might be to tell them off for revealing your personal belongings to the world, but resist the temptation and keep cool. This is a totally normal part of a standard airport security screening.
Your bag might have an item in it that the scanner couldn’t identify, like an oddly shaped hair dryer or a plug adapter for outlets in a foreign country. Stranger things have been found in carry-on bags! If you truly have nothing to hide, it should be easy to let the agent take a peek, confirm that your contents are harmless, and move on.
6 Being Given BOTH a Pat-Down and a Body Scan (Red Flag)
This is not normal. In this day and age, passengers are given the choice between having their body scanned by the touchless body scanner OR being pat-down by a same-gender security officer. If you have chosen to undergo one, there is no reason for you to have to undergo the other in most modern airports.
“Passengers undergoing screening will have the opportunity to decline AIT screening in favor of physical screening,” according to the TSA’s Frequently Asked Questions page. (AIT screening is the TSA’s term for Advanced Imaging Technology or touchless body scanners.) Enjoy your ability to always choose for yourself.
5 Being Pat-Down with the Palms of the Officer’s Hands (Red Flag)
No thank you! This process is invasive enough without security officers using the palms of their hands to pat you down. The backs of their hands or a small metal detecting tool are the appropriate things for you to be pat down with, giving the pat-down process a sense of strict professionalism.
If a security officer ever pats you down using the palms of their hands, you have every right to ask why, request that they use the backs of their hands, and complain to the security authorities at the airport. They will likely face serious consequences for breaking protocol. It wouldn't be the first time.
4 Being Asked to Change Lines (Normal)
You might think that the shortest line at an airport’s security checkpoint is the best line to join, but that’s not always the case. Some agents have the role of managing the lines, and they know more about which lines are appropriate for which tasks than we do. Trust the person in charge to put you in the right line for your circumstances, even if that means changing lines after you’ve begun to wait.
And don’t worry if you end up being put in a long line. Even if this makes you miss your flight (we hope it doesn’t!) most airlines will work to accommodate you at no extra charge, according to TIME Magazine.
3 Getting a Touchless Body Scan (Normal)
Touchless body scanners are a reality at the airport these days! Welcome to the 21st century, everyone. As you likely have experienced for yourself, most major airports now have the technology to scan your body without touching you at all by centering you in a high-tech x-ray machine.
When you step inside one of these machines, expect to be asked to stand with your feet on the designated markings and stand up straight. Then according to Smarter Travel, “millimeter wave” or “backscatter technology” is used to map out a digital image of your body that a security agent can check for concealed items. It might make you feel vulnerable, but it’s easy, quick, and completely legal.
2 Having Another Person’s Luggage Returned to You (Red Flag)
This is so bad, but it happens. Can’t you picture it? A busy security checkpoint line, some frazzled security agents, and all of the sudden you’re standing on the other side of the walk-through metal detector wearing somebody else’s coat.
Ending up with someone else’s bags at the luggage carousel is one thing, but having your bag switched with someone else’s at this point in your journey is inexcusable. It should be very clear whose things are whose because you’re walking through in order! Any other way is a sign of a terribly disorganized airport, and will likely be just the first of your problems there. At least TSA has a lost and found.
1 Having Medication Confiscated When You Have a Prescription (Red Flag)
It can be tricky to travel with prescription medication, but experienced fliers know that the most important thing is to bring it in its original packaging within your carry-on bag. Prescription medication is even exempt from some liquid carry-on content rules, according to some government agencies.
Your medication is yours to bring wherever you go! Don’t let security agents intimidate you into surrendering it if you have already followed all of the flying-with-prescription protocols. An officer taking this medication from you for him or herself is just not okay, so be aware! Nobody should ever take your prescribed medication besides you.
References: CATSA-ACSTA.gc.ca, Science.HowStuffWorks.com, CNN.com, TSA.gov, SmarterTravel.com, TIME.com, CATSA-ACSTA.gc.ca, FlyClear.com, TripCentral.ca, Travel.gc.ca