Top Tips On How To Navigate US Airport Security

23 December 2014

We've all been there: lining up at the security gate at a US airport and feverishly trying to remember what to do. What's in my carry-on? Do I need to give them my passport? Where is my passport? What about my boarding pass? Shoes on or off? What about my belt? What's this newfangled AIT Machine and what does it do?

The questions seem endless, and all the while you're working up a sweat worrying about whether or not your nail clippers are still considered a deadly weapon.

Panic no more! Here is a helpful guide on what to expect when checking in and going through security at a US airport. There are even a few hints to help you save some time as you navigate your way to your gate. And, rest assured that nail clippers are now free to travel on board in your carry-on bag.
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Check-In

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 Be sure to give yourself plenty of time for check-in.

Quick Tips:

  • Give yourself plenty of time
  • You will need your passport and ESTA proof/visa

When it comes to navigating US airports, you can never have too much time. This is especially true if you're flying through busy hubs such as LAX or JFK. Domestic travellers should plan on giving themselves at least two hours prior to departure, while international travellers should plan on three.

Once you've arrived at the airport, ensure that you have your travel documents ready to go before you get to the front of the check-in line. Pack them in a secure, easy to access place in your wallet or bag so that you can pull them out without fumbling through everything. This includes your passport, travel visa or ESTA proof. While you may not be required to show proof of the latter because it's electronic, some airlines will request to see a print out.

Tech Tip:

There are travel websites and apps available that predict wait times at various major airports. While these times aren't guaranteed, they can give you an idea of what to expect on arrival.


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Security Check Point

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 Shoes, jackets and laptops must be put in separate bins for scanning (image: Getty).

Quick Tips:

  • Dress smart
  • Remember the 3-1-1 rule
  • You will need your passport and boarding pass in hand

Getting through security can seem like a daunting process, but if you know what's expected and you're prepared, it actually goes pretty quickly. Firstly, save time by dressing and packing smart. Wear a single layer of clothing with slip-on shoes/ boots and minimal jewellery or accessories. Ensure your carry-on baggage is neatly packed so it's easy to scan, and, of course, leave the prohibited items at home such as sharp objects and flammables.

As you approach the metal detectors, you'll be expected to remove the following items and place them in individual bins for scanning:

  • Jackets
  • Shoes
  • Any bulky accessories
  • Coins, keys and phones
  • Laptops
  • 3-1-1 bags (see below)

You'll present your boarding pass and passport to the security agent and pass through the required detectors. Assuming you haven't set off the alarm and you've packed wisely, pick up your items and proceed to your gate.

3-1-1 Rule:
If you are carrying liquids, gels, aerosols, creams and/or pastes, remember that all of these items must be 3.4 ounces (100mls) or less per container. Place them in a one quart-sized, clear plastic bag. Each passenger is allowed to take one bag in their carry-on, which will have to be removed and placed in a bin to be scanned.

 Make sure you remove all metal objects before passing through the detectors (image: Getty).

AIT Machines And Pat Downs:
AIT Machines are units that use milimetre waves to scan participating passengers for metallic and non metallic items that may be hidden. They use generic outlines rather than passenger-specific images. If you are asked to use an AIT Machine at security, ensure that all items are removed from your pockets.  This includes your wallet. You will be asked to step inside the unit, hold your hands over your head and stay still for a few seconds. You will then exit the unit on the other side. The entire process takes less than a minute.

If you would prefer to skip the AIT Machine, or you set off the metal detector, you'll be screened with a pat-down. A security agent of the same gender will pat down your body over your clothes to ensure you are not carrying any prohibited items. You are able to request a private room for a pat down if so desired.

Once you've been cleared by the security officer, pick up your personal items and proceed to your gate.

Tech Tip:

You can sign up for TSA update emails to stay on top of new information regarding what can and can't be taken through security. The TSA has also started to roll out a Pre-Check Program available to US Citizens, lawful permanent residents and all members of Global Entry.

Carlie Tucker

Travelling is for discovering the unexpected. From fantastic meals in ramshackle joints to stumbling upon a best kept secret, I love those fortuitous travel moments that couldn't be planned if I tried.