You buy the ticket, pack your bags, check in for the flight – and get excited. And then you remember: ugh, airport security. I feel you. Getting through airport security is one of my least favorite things (second only to really long layovers at an airport with no lounge to pass the time in!). Over the years, I’ve come up with a few TSA tips to help make airport security faster, easier, and less painful.
Below you’ll find my hard-won TSA tips, learned through years of traveling, hours of waiting in airport security lines, and watching people mess up over and over. If you ever find yourself in the TSA line with me, you’ll see I do these exact things every time. I live by these rules – and you should follow these TSA tips too, to make airport security easier for you.
TSA Tip #1. Sign Up for TSA Pre-Check
If you are eligible, I cannot recommend enough that you sign up for TSA Pre-Check. Here are the requirements to sign up:
- You need to pre-apply online.
- You’ll need to attend a 10-minute interview and a background check that includes in-person fingerprinting.
- You’ll need to provide an “unexpired U.S. government-issued photo identification and proof of citizenship (i.e., passport only, or a driver’s license and birth certificate).” (source)
It costs $85 to apply for TSA Pre-Check and you pay this at your interview. If you’re approved, you’ll receive your Known Traveler Number within a few weeks.
Some credit cards offer to pay your application fee; I have the American Express Platinum card which will reimburse you for this fee every five years.
TSA Tip #2. Acing Airport Security Starts When You Pack
My real secret to getting through TSA quickly (other than pre-check) is to pack for security. I typically don’t pack more than 24 hours before my flight (meaning I check in to my flight before I pack – and I know whether or not I have pre-check on any given flight), so I arrange my bag(s) accordingly.
For example, with my new rolling suitcase, I make sure my laptop is right in the middle of the bag, so I can just unzip the top and slide my hand in to pull out my Macbook Pro once I’m in line. When I’m traveling with my valise, I’ve got my toiletries at the end near where the zipper is closed, so I can unzip only a little and still pull that bag out.
In short, don’t bury the things you know you’ll have to pull out – in the next section, I detail the official TSA rules if you’re not pre-check, so pack with that in mind.
TSA Tip #3. Make the Most of Waiting in Line
There are two stages of waiting in line: before screening your boarding pass, and before scanning.
Before your boarding pass is screened, make sure you have your ID and boarding pass out. If it’s on your phone, make sure you can swipe or whatever to access it quickly. Don’t hold everyone up because you put your boarding pass away or got distracted browsing 50 apps.
Once you’re in the line to be scanned, start getting ready in advance For reference, here are the official rules from TSA:
- Remove your jackets, scarves, hats, belts, and shoes. (Pro-TSA tips: Be sure to wear socks and a tank top in case they ask you to take off a sweater/hoodie!)
- Remove your clear plastic (1qt) bag of all liquids of 100ml (3oz) or less.
- Remove your laptop computers, iPads, and eReaders. Cameras can usually stay in your bag but you may need to ask once you arrive.
So while you’re in line, take off your coat and pull out your electronics if you have an extra hand to manage them. This will make it even faster once you reach the luggage conveyor belt.
TSA Tip #4. Multi-Task Once You Reach the Belt
Once you reach the conveyor belt and start loading your belongings, you need to master multi-tasking. Everyone says it’s not possible, but for the next 30 seconds, you’re gonna be a pro.
Grab bins, and stack them in a T shape to start putting your belongings in on two levels. Pull your luggage up to go in first. Be pulling off your belt, watch, and shoes as you step sideways. Put your shoes in the first bin after that, along with your toiletries and jacket. Set your electronics in the second bin. (This will help you re-pack on the other side, since your shoes will come out first.) All of your limbs should be moving – removing shoes, pulling off necessary items as you slide your items sideways until they enter the machine.
Note: If you’re pre-check, obviously you won’t have to do all this.
TSA Tip #5. Step Through – then Step Back
Once you’ve passed through the body scan and are waiting for your belongings to come through the X-ray, don’t stand right at the exit point if there’s anyone else in the line behind you. It’s better to stay back from the belt until you see your belongings come out of the machine. Then, slide them down as far as you can to start putting your items back on.
If there’s a real crowd, the best thing to do is take your suitcase and trays to one of the benches or tables beyond security, re-assemble yourself, and then return your bins to the end of the line.
TSA Tip #6. Be Helpful Not Nasty
Look, I get it: TSA sucks. I am the first person you’ll hear griping about it when there’s a line of more than 10 people. I’ve definitely hate-tweeted TSA too. But once I start interacting with TSA people, I switch from vinegar to honey. (You’ll attract more flies with honey, ya know?) Everybody’s trying to get to the same place (a flight).
First of all: TSA employees are people working a job they probably need – and what they don’t need is your shitty attitude about how they’re doing their job. If you’ve got a complaint, TSA has channels to receive that feedback. Don’t take it out on the people working any given day.
Second, being rude or nasty slows everything down even further. Instead, just be ready, get your stuff scanned and get through it.
Help your fellow travelers: let them know if they left something in a bin or need help managing their luggage to get them through the system. Help the TSA folks by stacking your bins and putting them back. Help yourself by planning ahead, showing up with enough time, and taking some deep breaths.
There you have it – these are my top TSA tips! Do you have others? Let me know in the comments.
This post was originally published in November 2015, and was updated in September 2019.