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TSA Rules – What Can I Carry On A Plane?

By Shari Mathias

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is responsible for security at US airports and is the group behind the rules that govern what you can and cannot take on an airplane. It is crucial that you understand the TSA's regulations before you leave for the airport so you don't get held up in security. For a complete and updated list of regulations, please see the TSA website at www.tsa.gov.

Can I Carry Liquids On A Plane?

3-1-1 Travel Bag

The TSA has determined that airline passengers can pack liquids, gels, and aerosols in their carry-on luggage so long as they are compliant with the 3-1-1 rule. 3-1-1 is the mnemonic to help you remember the following information:

  • Liquids, gels, and aerosols must be in containers that are 3.4 ounces (100 ml) or smaller. Note that larger, half-full containers are not allowed.
  • The 3.4 ounce or smaller containers must be placed in a quart-size, zip-top clear plastic bag.
  • Only 1 clear plastic quart-size bag is allowed per traveler and must be placed in the security bin separate from your carry-on at the checkpoint.

To help travelers comply with this rule, many companies have developed 3-1-1 bags and kits, often complete with refillable bottles.

There are some exceptions to the 3-1-1 rule that are worth noting. Medications, baby formula and food, and breast milk are allowed in reasonable quantities that exceed 3 ounces. These do not need to be put in a zip-top clear bag. However, you must declare these items for inspection at the security checkpoint.

Not sure what constitutes a liquid or gel? The TSA says if you can pour it, pump it, squeeze it, spread it, smear it, spray it, or spill it, it is considered a liquid and is therefore subject to the 3-1-1 rule.

For more information about 3-1-1, visit the TSA's Make Your Trip Better Using 3-1-1 page.

Can I Carry A Laptop On A Plane?

Laptops are allowed to be carried on planes. However, at the security checkpoint, you must remove your laptop from its case and place it in a separate bin unless you have a "checkpoint friendly" bag. Checkpoint friendly laptop bags are cases that meet specific criteria and therefore do not require you to remove your laptop at the security checkpoint. These criteria are:

  1. A designated laptop-only section.
  2. The laptop only section completely unfolds to lie flat on the X-ray belt.
  3. No metal snaps, zippers, or buckles inside, underneath, or on top of the laptop-only section.
  4. No pockets on the inside or outside of the laptop only section.
  5. Nothing packed in the laptop-only section other than the computer.

For more information about traveling with your laptop, see the TSA's Checkpoint Friendly Laptop Bag Procedures page.

Checkpoint-friendly laptop bag types

Some examples of checkpoint-friendly laptop bags include the butterfly style, the trifold style, and the sleeve style case.

Can I Carry Food and Gifts On A Plane?

Whether you're traveling over the holidays or just bringing a thoughtful gift with you on board, remember that you need to keep it unwrapped. While technically wrapped gifts are not prohibited, if the security officer needs to take a closer look at your item, they may have to unwrap it. Consider wrapping gifts after your flight or shipping them ahead of time.

Is the gift item food? Remember that food items are subject to the 3-1-1 rule if they are liquid, aerosol, or gel items. This means sauces, gravy, syrup, oil, vinegar, jelly, dips, spreads, liquor, and salsa are not permitted in your carry-on if they are over 3.4 oz. It's best to ship these ahead of time, put them in your checked bag, or leave them at home. The TSA does state that pies and cakes can be taken through the security checkpoint but are subject to additional screening.

For more information about traveling with food or gifts, see the TSA's How To Pack Food and Gift Items page.

What Else Is Prohibited On Planes?

The TSA has designated many items as prohibited in carry-on luggage and/or checked luggage. These items include various sharp objects, sporting goods, guns and firearms, tools, self-defense items, explosive /flammable materials, and other dangerous items. Please see the TSA website for the entire list.

It is important to note that even if an item is not in the list, it may be subject to additional screening particularly if it triggers an alarm during the screening process, appears to have been tampered with, or poses security concerns. It is up to the TSA whether to allow any items on the plane.