Laptops and airline travel

I’m going to be travelling by airline (within the US) soon for the first time in many years. What can I expect as far as bringing my laptop computer with me? I’ve read some older threads that say I should take the laptop out of the case before getting to the security check, is that still true? If so, does that mean that they don’t run the laptop through the x-ray machine? If they do run it through the x-ray, do I need to be at all concerned about the machine or its magnets doing bad things to my hard drive?

A related question, concerning checked luggage: I have heard that these days one should not lock the suitcase that you check in, because if security needs to open it for some reason, they’ll just break the locks. Is that true?

From the fine folks at the TSA

Your laptop is x-rayed (no problems there)

If you can find a TSA approved locked, use it.

Ok, Thanks for the info. I just gotta ask, though, if the laptop is x-rayed, why the need to take it out of the case? The x-rays can penetrate the titanium shell of the laptop, but not the leather of the carrying case? :dubious:

Just a WAG but when X-Rayed they see a 2D picture of the insides of the laptop. They can classify things as “Normal Laptop Bits” and “Gee Those Look Like Bomb Bits” a lot easier if the orientation is guaranteed to be horizontal at least. If it’s inside the case, it can be at an awkward angle or some such.

I’ve always had to take my laptop out of its case, and the last time I flew with one was in May. A lot of times they’ve actually dusted the machine, I assume looking for things like explosives residue. In any case, I recommend having it out and ready when you get there - it saves a fair amount of time. I;ve also trained myself just to take my shoes off, whether they are stopping everyone to do it or not.

On one of my trips, I showed up at the security check with shoes in one hand, laptop in the other, and the contents of my pockets dumped into a cellophane baggie. The security guard laughed and said “Somebody has done this a few times before!”

I have forgotten to take mine out of the case a few times- they do make me go back through with it.

For the second question: there are special locks you can buy at travel stores and such that TSAs can unlock and don’t have to cut.

I have locked my luggage with normal locks- cheap $2 locks are easy to stock up on; pack a few in case yours get cut. Locking isn’t so much illegal, but your lock is going to be cut if they need to search your stuff.

FTR, I have not yet had a request, written or oral, to remove my laptop from its case when traveling in other countries. It concerns me a bit that either the US X-Rays are inadequate, or the Europeans aren’t checking well enough, or something else… :dubious:

I’ve also never had to remove any shoes I’ve had on in Europe or South America. Only in the US. Once again, there’s that implicit question.

Belt and shoes off, laptop out of case…cell phone in the case (yes…cell phone in you carry-on).

Your carry-on goes thru the machine and should be stuffed with you cell phone.

Your laptop goes thru…alone in a plastic bin, which they will hand you.

Your shoes and belt go thru in a plastic bin.

Increasingly, shoes and belts must come off. I even take off watches and my ring and put that in my bag.

If TSA ‘suggests’ anything, and you comply but hesitate, you’ll be just fine, except your hesitation means you get the body scan after passing thru the arch. They’ll annoy you, so avoid it and do what I said above.

There is a decent chance that you will be asked to turn your laptop on too. Bombs don’t boot Windows well.

Don’t wear shoes with metal arches.

Took me a couple of months of heavy travel to figure out exactly what was causing the incorrect alarm. I usually just told them I’d need to be hand scanned, they chuckled every time. This was pre 9/11 though.

In general, if you’re not sure how it works, just plan some extra time. They understand that many folks aren’t regular travelers, and have no clue how to deal with the security zone. Don’t bring anything sharp.


BTW that bit about breaking the locks is not an empty threat. I traveled with my wife & MIL and my MIL had built-in locks on her suitcase that were broken with a little form letter left inside the suitcase explaining why.

Man, what a setup line…

Anyway, I agree with everyone else. Just have it out ahead of time. Be ready to boot it if needed. If you have any other electronics on you, such as a cell phone, go ahead and put that into your carry on or in the bin with the laptop.

Also, don’t worry about having to remember all these details ahead of time. At most airports there are signs and continuously running announcements telling you about taking your laptop out of its case, removing your top coat or jacket, etc. The security line is usually long enough to give you time to get ready before the conveyor belts/metal detectors. Just watch what other people are doing for clues.

You’re not going to get a full body-cavity search because you forgot to take your keys out of your pocket.

Thanks for all the replies. The image this all conjures up of the scene on the other side of the security point is scores of people standing around putting on their shoes, re-threading their belts through the belt loops, putting on their coats and jackets, putting their laptops back into their cases . . . Kind of an amusing picture.

One last thing I forgot to ask: Is it still advisable to get to the airport two hours before departure time? Is two hours even enough?

For domestic flights two hours is plenty of time, even for the busiest of airports.

Yeah, that’s pretty much how it is. I think a lot of it is foolishness, but I’m not about to get in a scrap with the airport security people.

My methodology, based on a lot of flying I used to do for consulting:
[li]Everything in my pockets goes into my carry-on. Exceptions: boarding pass and ID stay in my pocket. Some places want to see your boarding pass after you walk through the metal detector. [/li][li]If your watch has a lot of metal, stuff it in the carry-on too. My simple belt has never set off anything - if you sport a championship bull-riding event belt, that could go in your carry-on too.[/li][li]Shoes go in a bin.[/li][li]Laptop goes in it’s own special bin. Nothing else may go in the bin! Light summer jackets block X-rays! [/li][li]Absolutely no knives, sharp thingies, or (and this is fairly new) lighters. I’ve gotten really good at using matches again. [/li][li]For some reason, video cameras are on the list now. Those probably go in their own separate bin.[/li][/ul]

I almost hate to answer this, since it can vary so much. I generally leave my house 2 to 2.5 hours before a flight, and it takes me an hour to get there. It’s a little stressful sometimes, but I hate hanging out in the airport. If you get to the airport two hours before your flight, that seems like more than enough. Bear in mind that I never ever stand in a check-in line (I always do E-ticket and check in at a kiosk) and I know my way around my airport really well. YMMV and all that. Also, I generally fly out of O’Hare, which is one of the busiest in the country but correspondingly has huge numbers of screening personnel and such.

I’ve been travelling on an almost weekly basis for more than a year for business and not once have I had to turn on a device at a US airport or when returning from Germany. I often carry piles of electronics, many of which are not battery powered and have never had a request to turn them on. Turning on a device doesn’t prove it is not a bomb as the Israelis have used a working cell phone in a bomb assasination. The only place I have been asked to turn on devices was at the Kennedy Space Center which didn’t have X-ray eqipment. They looked at my phone and were baffled by my GPS unit.

Metal detectors seem to have variable sensitivity. A few months ago I went though wearing a fairly large watch and metal band and didn’t set it off but I wouldn’t count on that always being the case. I heard of Nicole Richie setting off a metal detector with nipple jewelry which I would think is less metal than my ring. I leave on my ring, a large titanium band, and small belt buckles on a dress belt and haven’t gotten dinged. I’m careful to turn my shoulders as bumping the detector will make it ding and doing it twice in a row will get you additional screening.

X-ray != magnet. I have never heard of X-ray equipment being an issue for electronic devices and magnetic media or drives.

Extend the TSA folks as much courtesy as you can and your sreening will go much easier.

From my experience:
Germany and Belgium = Yes
UK, Sweden, Finland, Switzerland, Netherlands = No

I have been asked to do this in Germany, but that was because the flight to the UK I was taking left from the same part of the terminal as the US flights. Therefore I had to go through the US-level screening. The security folks were very apologetic and told me the Americans insisted on this nonsense :smiley:
On the other hand, I have boarded international flights from the US to the UK without having to remove my shoes, so as always YMMV.

Very frequent traveler here (60+ flights per year for the last 5 years)
US airports do not as a rule ask you to boot up a computer or other electronic device since about late 2001. Canadian airports kept asking until about 2003, and will still ask if you are singled out for extra screening (In Vancoover anywho)
If you have a belt with a very small buckle it probably won’t set off the alarm, but if you do plan on traveling much, consider getting a belt with no metal in it. I have belts with velcro “buckles” and a woven belt with plastic D rings. Again as has been said before, if you belt buckle is large enough to get DSS take it off.
Lighters and strike anywhere matches are not allowed either in your carry on or checked luggage. However you can carry up to 4 books of safety matches in your carry on, but no matches of any kind in your checked luggage. :confused:
BTW the above is from the TSA list of allowed and prohibited items (PDF!) If you haven’t traveled recently, it is a great resource.
The offical TSA rule on shoes (last time I asked a TSA supervisor I know) is that if the soles are over 1" it is required, under 1" your option. However based on what I have encountered, many TSA screeners are very poor judges of distance. Bottom line if they ask, smile and say sure.
One last thing, I have given up on locks on my luggage and I just use zip ties to hold my zippers closed. A small nail clippers will open your bag on the other end, and are allowed in your carry on. (Yup, check the link above)