This Is What a TSA Agent First Notices About You (2023)

    RD.COM Travel Airport Security

    This Is What a TSA Agent First Notices About You (1)By Lori IoannouUpdated: Dec. 16, 2022

      While it's nice to be noticed, this isn't the kind of attention you want. Here's what to avoid if you want to fly through the airport security check.

      This Is What a TSA Agent First Notices About You (2)John Moore/Getty Images

      Navigating airport security check

      First impressions are really important, and that’s especially true for the millions of air travelers navigating U.S. airports every day. Savvy voyagers know how important it is to follow safety rules and protocols so that going through airport security check is an easy, stress-free experience. The last thing they want is for a Transportation Security Administration agent to remove them from the line for a pat-down and search of their carry-on bags.

      While such an experience may be embarrassing, keep in mind that the TSA agent isn’t trying to make your life miserable. “They are just doing their jobs, and they are on your side,” says Mike Boyd, president and CEO of Boyd Group International, an airport security consultancy in Evergreen, Colorado. “They just want to ensure the airport and airlines are safe.”

      These security pros do more than just operate the body scanner. They’re trained to detect any item on a person or in carry-on luggage that poses a threat. According to the TSA, agents screen approximately 4.9 million carry-on bags for explosives and other dangerous items each day. The key is to be prepared. Make sure you know TSA carry-on rules (like what the TSA liquid limit is and which items belong in your checked luggage), whether you can bring food on a plane and how to use Global Entry or TSA PreCheck to sail through security lines.

      This Is What a TSA Agent First Notices About You (3)Carol Yepes/Getty Images

      What do they check at airport security?

      The TSA puts out a travel checklist with clear instructions for how to pack your carry-on and checked luggage to avoid issues with security at airports. Be sure to review the special instructions for items like firearms, flammables and medical equipment. TSA agents will check those as well as any liquids you’ve packed. You can pack a quart-size bag of liquids, aerosols, gels and creams in your carry-on, as long as each is no more than 3.4 ounces.

      The airport security check also screens electronics. They’re among the items permitted through security, but the TSA will ask you to remove these personal items from your carry-on bag and place them into a separate bin for X-ray screening when you go through the checkpoint.

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      What does the TSA check for when they scan your ID?

      When TSA agents ask to scan or check your ID, they want to verify your identity before you enter the security checkpoint. That’s why it’s so important to have an up-to-date license or passport. An agent will review your name, photo, address and date of birth, then cross-check to see that the information on your travel documents matches your ID.

      Keep in mind that the Real ID Act is now in effect, and it aims to deter terrorists’ ability to use fake or fraudulently obtained IDs. Under the law, you need to use a state-issued ID that is Real ID compliant. You can get one through your state department of motor vehicles. Otherwise, you can present a U.S. passport, U.S. passport card or U.S. military ID.

      What triggers a TSA bag check?

      Sometimes the most innocent items can spark a bag search at the airport security check—anything from lip balm and batteries to spreadable liquids like peanut butter. When an X-ray detects something in your luggage that may be suspicious, an agent needs to ferret through your bag by hand to determine what it is and whether it’s really a danger. The good news is that the TSA is rolling out an array of high-tech screening tools—think rotating 3D imagery and ID authentication—aimed at expediting the security check process.

      To boost the odds you won’t set off alarm bells next time you go through airport security check, we spoke to travel experts, former TSA agents and airport security consultants to find out what actions can trigger a closer inspection.

      This Is What a TSA Agent First Notices About You (4)Phongthorn Hiranlikhit/getty images

      Acting aggressive

      The last thing you want to do is draw attention to yourself at the airport by being belligerent, angry or downright nasty. “It sends up a red flag, and TSA agents begin to wonder what the issue is,” says Jeffrey Price, a former assistant security director for the Denver Airport who is now a security trainer for the American Association of Airport Executives and a professor of airport management at the Metropolitan State University of Denver. “If your flight has been delayed or canceled, don’t let that put you in a tailspin.”

      As he explains, TSA screeners primarily look for behaviors that are inconsistent with typical passenger commuters. So do your best to stay calm, cool and collected—even when you’re frustrated by airport issues.

      This Is What a TSA Agent First Notices About You (5)izusek/Getty Images

      Being overly talkative

      Feeling chatty and want to break the ice with TSA officers? Resist the urge to charm them with all the airplane facts you know. Making small talk with TSA employees isn’t always a good idea, says Price. “Many criminals try to avert the attention of security agents using this approach,” he says. “So being overly talkative may be a red flag.”

      That said, Boyd advises travelers to “be courteous and polite. Smile, and say ‘thank you.'” After all, having the right attitude can make all the difference.

      This Is What a TSA Agent First Notices About You (6)Roos Koole/getty images

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      Acting nervous

      You may be nervous because you have a fear of flying. Or you may be nervous for another, not-so-innocent reason. The TSA has been trained to be on the lookout for nervous passengers—those who clear their throats often and those who appear shaky, pale or wide-eyed. Anything that makes you look agitated could attract the attention of a TSA agent. Nervous flyers may want to find ways to calm themselves (such as by meditating or visualizing a calm, safe experience) before hitting the airport security check.

      This Is What a TSA Agent First Notices About You (7)Tara Moore/getty images

      Avoiding eye contact

      Perhaps you have other things on your mind—like all that traveling you’re about to do. Or maybe you’re just an introvert and don’t particularly like interacting with strangers. But to a TSA agent, your avoidance of eye contact could signify something else entirely, says former TSA agent Richard Rozins. “The eyes are the first place a TSA agent looks,” he says.

      If you’re unable to look TSA agents in the eye when they are asking you a question, it may seem like you are avoiding or hiding something, adds Price.

      This Is What a TSA Agent First Notices About You (8)Vladimir Godnik/getty images

      Wearing baggy clothing

      Baggy clothes are comfortable, and frequent flyers know that comfort is king when it comes to determining what to wear on an airplane. But loose duds may prompt an extra screening as you move through airport security. While they’re not prohibited, baggy clothes may make TSA agents wary because they can’t tell what you might be hiding underneath. They may even need to pat you down.

      This Is What a TSA Agent First Notices About You (9)Paffy69/getty images

      Wearing unseasonable outfits

      “If you are wearing a ski jacket in the middle of July, that may seem really odd to a TSA officer,” says Boyd. The screening pro who is on the lookout for criminals may wonder if you’re hiding something. Is the parka you’re wearing in 90-degree heat concealing a weapon? It’s the sort of question a TSA agent may ask when scanning the airport security check line. Yes, you’ll be removing your jacket and going through the body scanner, but you may have pinged the TSA radar by then. As a result, TSA agents may decide to do a bag search or even pat you down after you go through the body scanner.

      If it’s a matter of necessity—where else are you going to put your jacket?—it may be time to invest in some affordable luggage that you can pack with extras and check before heading to security.

      This Is What a TSA Agent First Notices About You (10)LightFieldStudios/getty images

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      Drinking before your flight

      The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and airport security have zero tolerance for unruly passenger behavior—and that includes drunkenness. Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, incidents of abuse by travelers at airports and on flights have risen dramatically. According to the FAA, there have been more than 7,000 reports of unruly passengers since the start of 2021. In response, lawmakers in the House of Representatives have filed a bill known as the Unruly Passenger Restraint Review Act to ban passengers who act out on flights.

      If a TSA agent senses that you’re intoxicated, you could be deemed a person of interest. He or she may ask the police to do a blood alcohol test. And you may be denied boarding by the gate agent. If you do make it onto the plane, intoxication is one of the first things a flight attendant will notice about you.

      This Is What a TSA Agent First Notices About You (11)Peter Dazeley/getty images

      Carrying lots of cash

      Globetrotters who carry a lot of cash—including a wad of foreign currencies and coins—may be surprised to know they can get flagged by a TSA agent. It’s happened many times to Sahara Rose De Vore, a wellness travel coach and consultant who has visited more than 80 countries. “I’ve been asked at many airport security checkpoints to explain why I have multiple currencies,” she says. “They are worried about sex trafficking, and this is something they often want to ask you about.”

      According to De Vore, TSA agents may ask why you traveled to various places and whom you work for. Her advice: Convert the money back to U.S. dollars, or your native currency, at the end of your trip.

      This Is What a TSA Agent First Notices About You (12)Tara Moore/getty images

      Traveling with coffee

      You may think a bag of coffee beans is a great travel gift or souvenir, but drug smugglers use coffee to hide the scent of drugs from canine dogs. Because it’s a common tactic used by criminals, it’s a red flag for TSA officers, says Price. If they see coffee beans in your carry-on luggage, they may question you or search your bag by hand. The TSA doesn’t prohibit coffee beans or ground coffee from either carry-on or checked bags, but you may want to buy it in the duty-free shop to avoid any hiccups.

      If you’re set on bringing home coffee from your destination, separate the item when going through the security check. You want to make sure it doesn’t obscure the image on the X-ray machine.

      This Is What a TSA Agent First Notices About You (13)Emilija Manevska/getty images

      Traveling with electronics and electrical equipment

      The TSA requires that all electronics bigger than a cellphone, such as laptops and tablets, be placed in bins and X-rayed separately. Most travelers are aware of that. But many don’t know about the other items that can trigger a search. “I always get flagged for my curling iron,” says De Vore.

      It’s best to review the TSA’s rules on all the items you’re packing in your luggage. The administration has special instructions for certain items—yes, even curling irons and hair dryers. Want to skip the hassle? TSA PreCheck enables travelers to keep their electronics in their carry-on bags when going through security.

      This Is What a TSA Agent First Notices About You (14)Francesco Carta fotografo/Getty Images

      Wearing intricate hairdos

      Here’s something TSA agents might not tell you: It’s best to wear your hair down. However convenient off-the-face styles may be, they’re not ideal for the airport security check. According to the TSA, there’s a reason why intricate styles—like braids, updos and hairpieces—could get a second look. Bobby pins, clips, wigs, extensions and other hair accessories could set off the metal detector, which can lead to an additional inspection to check for prohibited and potentially dangerous items concealed in your hair. The good news: A pat-down of your hair will eliminate any concerns, and it can be done quickly.

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      This Is What a TSA Agent First Notices About You (15)tongwongboot/getty images

      Packing batteries and battery chargers

      Most of us can’t survive without our electronics. And heaven forbid we travel without such necessities as battery chargers and extension cords! But did you know that all battery packs face stringent travel guidelines? Per TSA guidelines, you can pack lithium-ion (rechargeable) batteries and portable batteries that contain lithium-ion only in carry-on baggage. But stick to batteries with no more than 100 watt hours per battery. With airline approval, you can bring two larger spare batteries—up to 160 watt hours per battery.

      This Is What a TSA Agent First Notices About You (16)Tanja Ivanova/getty images

      Carrying liquids

      All air travelers must follow the TSA 3-1-1 rule for carry-on baggage. It states that liquids, gels and aerosols are limited to 3.4 ounces or less and must be placed in a single quart-size bag—one bag per passenger. There is an exception for hand sanitizer, which has a temporary 12-ounce limit because of the ongoing pandemic.

      TSA officers notice when you try to skirt the rules, and this can trigger a bag search. One common mistake during the summer is bringing a super-size sunscreen to the checkpoint. That can be a costly mistake when a TSA agent confiscates it. So either pack it in your checked luggage or bring a travel-size sunscreen on the plane.

      This Is What a TSA Agent First Notices About You (17)Ginanjar Hutomo Bangun/getty images

      Talking about bad things

      When experts warn against talking about “bad things,” they’re not referring to breakups. They’re talking about bombs and firearms. Discussing these items will absolutely get you pulled off to the side. Even asking the TSA agents about weapons—inquiring about which are allowed on a plane or why you can’t bring your gun—will get you questioned. In fact, you can get arrested for joking about bombs while in line. Pro tip: Keep quiet. Silence is definitely golden in regard to this topic.

      Additional reporting by Danielle Braff.


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      Originally Published: February 07, 2020


      What will get you flagged by TSA? ›

      17 Reasons You Could Get Flagged by TSA
      • What does it mean to get “flagged” by TSA?
      • Tripping the system during a background check.
      • Showing signs of nervousness.
      • Traveling with too much cash money.
      • Bringing large containers of powder.
      • Medications.
      • Bringing odd or complex objects.
      • Trying to transport drugs.
      Oct 31, 2022

      What does TSA agents see when they scan your ID? ›

      Airport body scanners alert the TSO to threats—mainly weapons such as knives, guns and explosives. They are designed to detect “metallic and nonmetallic threat items,” according to the TSA. Those are things like explosives or knives made out of materials other than metal, like ceramics, says Malvini Redden.

      Why did I get searched by TSA? ›

      If you ever find yourself in a situation at the security checkpoint where you're pulled aside by a TSA Agent for extra screening, don't panic. This could simply mean that you have been flagged in advance for what the TSA calls “Secondary Security Screening Selection,” also known as SSSS on your boarding ticket.

      What will TSA stop you for? ›

      TSA counts on the traveling public to report unattended bags or packages; individuals in possession of a threatening item; and persons trying to enter a restricted area or similar suspicious activities at airports, train stations, bus stops and ports. If You See Something, Say Something™.

      What will fail a TSA background check? ›

      Dishonesty, fraud, or misrepresentation, including identity fraud and money laundering, where the money laundering is related to a crime listed in Parts A or B (except welfare fraud and passing bad checks). Bribery. Smuggling. Immigration violations.

      Can TSA agents check your phone? ›

      TSA is not a law enforcement agency and therefore lacks certain types of search and seizure authority. According to communications from the TSA, the agency, “does not search electronic devices for electronic content that may be contained on the device, and does not extract data from passenger electronic devices.”

      What shows up on a TSA background check? ›

      Searches for drug- or alcohol-related crimes or incidents dating back two years. Driving history checks in search of past motor vehicle violations, license suspensions, or other red flags. Social Security Number validations to check for fraud and verify a candidate's current residential address.

      Can TSA see my tampon? ›

      Can you see a tampon during an airport body scan? This is a frequently asked question on Google, and if it's something you're worried about, you can breathe a sigh of relief. Airport body scanners can't see inside the body and therefore can't detect a tampon on a TSA female body scan image.

      Why does TSA swipe your hands? ›

      Why Does the TSA Swab Hands? The Transportation Security Administration randomly swabs passengers' hands at security checkpoints and airport gates to test them for traces of explosives. The TSA swabs are analyzed for nitroglycerin, nitrates, glycerin, or other chemicals.

      How does TSA randomly select people? ›

      The most common is a explosives residue swab (of palms and bags), which seems to be done every x people in a line. Another is the dreaded SSSS (secondary security screening selection), which shows up on your boarding pass. You'll walk through a metal detector, a body scan, and still get a full body/groin patdown.

      How long does a TSA investigation take? ›

      Please allow up to six months to fully investigate your claim. Claims that require investigation by law enforcement require additional processing time. All claims are investigated thoroughly and the final decision to approve a claim rests with TSA.

      Can you fail the TSA interview? ›

      An insufficient score in the standardized interview is obtained if the candidate obtains a score lower than "3" (score of 1 or 2) for one of the competencies and/or a pass for the competency "Honesty/Integrity". In this case, the interview is failed, and the candidate will not continue the Airport Assessment.

      How hard is it to be hired by TSA? ›

      While you can apply to the TSA with only the basic requirements, it can be a very competitive process. Most TSA agents have additional education beyond a high school diploma and many also have great experience to place on their resume as well.

      How long is a TSA shift? ›

      (1) There are at least two shifts in one 24-hour period. Each part of a split shift is at least two hours in duration and all breaks between shifts are at least two hours.

      Why do so many people quit TSA? ›

      A lack of career advancement opportunities

      TSOs are not happy with a lack of opportunities for advancement, unfair promotion process, and very few training opportunities. This is a direct result of TSA choosing not to be under Title 5, but to set its own terms and conditions of employments.

      Can you quit TSA and come back? ›

      A former employee may not work for any period of time after his or her separation effective date in any TSA location unless and until his or her reinstatement has been authorized and processed by the OHC. E.

      Can you argue with TSA? ›

      Keeping Calm at Security

      Any time you disobey a TSA agent's instructions, you run the risk of violating the law. But, people are not usually prosecuted unless they hit officials or repeatedly ignore, argue with, or disobey them. To avoid problems in case of a disagreement: If possible, do as you are asked.

      What disqualifies a person from TSA PreCheck? ›

      The TSA PreCheck® Application Program is only open to U.S. citizens, U.S. nationals and lawful permanent residents. Applicants may be ineligible due to incomplete or false application information, certain violations of federal security regulations, or disqualifying criminal offenses and factors.

      How long does the TSA hiring process take? ›

      The TSO hiring process takes about to 90 days on average. Review the process below to get a better idea of what to expect, and ensure you're prepared every step of the way.

      How much does TSA fail? ›

      An internal investigation of the Transportation Security Administration revealed security failures at dozens of the nation's busiest airports, where undercover investigators were able to smuggle mock explosives or banned weapons through checkpoints in 95 percent of trials, ABC News has learned.

      Are TSA random checks really random? ›

      The security personnel at the gate do not use a random number generator to select passengers to check. Rather, they stand by the gate and approach people. Now, the last couple of occasions they have chosen me, I've asked them what criteria they used, and both times I was told it was random.

      Can airports see your search history? ›

      By searching travelers' electronic devices, border officers can access a vast array of personal, sensitive information, including photos, texts, emails, internet browsing history, and location data. This happens to U.S. citizens, permanent residents, tourists, and business travelers.

      Can TSA conduct random searches? ›

      Obviously, the fact that the TSA agents can search people based on subjective factors and can perform “random” searches of passengers raises some cause for concern regarding profiling and discriminatory behavior.

      Does TSA call your references? ›

      References – The TSA are always through in checking all references to ensure your resume and other information proved checks out.

      Why does my groin get flagged at TSA? ›

      Why does my groin get flagged at TSA? “If someone has something in their pockets, for instance, the machine will put an alarm note in the paper doll's groin region so the officer knows generally where to search.”

      What sets off body scanner at airport? ›

      These images are what TSA agents see when you go through a millimeter wave machine. Some screening equipment uses ionizing radiation. Ionizing radiation has so much energy it can knock electrons out of atoms, a process known as ionization. Airports use ionizing radiation to scan passengers and luggage.

      Can airport scanners see pills? ›

      Can airport scanners see pills? Even if the pills are contained in plastic, non metallic or metallic bottles, the answer is yes. The airport scanners have no problems finding the pills that you are travelling with, liquid form or not.

      How do you deal with rude TSA? ›

      You can send an email directly to the TSA ( You'll want to select the category "Professionalism/Customer Service" when you do. Make sure you note other details, such as the name of the agent and the time and the terminal where the screening took place.

      Why do I always get frisked at the airport? ›

      Airport body searches, or “pat downs” involve being physically pat down by a security officer to confirm that you aren't carrying prohibited items under your clothing. Airport pat downs happen for two reasons: by random chance or because something about your clothing, appearance, or luggage seems suspicious.

      Why do TSA agents scribble on boarding pass? ›

      “They are placing their initials/name on boarding passes it to indicate which TSA officer reviewed the boarding pass. Some write neat, some sloppy—just like some people sign their signatures, some easy to read and some not as easy to read. But their supervisors are familiar with each person's initials.

      Are TSA agents happy? ›

      It's no secret that TSA is one of the worst places to work – years of employee satisfaction surveys have shown that TSA officers' morale is constantly the lowest or among the lowest in the federal government.

      What does 4s mean on boarding pass? ›

      Secondary Security Screening Selection — or "The Quad S," as some call it — means you have been selected for additional enhanced security screening by the Transportation Security Administration and the Department of Homeland Security.

      What questions do they ask at TSA interview? ›

      Once you get there, the TSA PreCheck interview isn't so much an interview but rather an appointment. Here's how it will go.
      You'll be fingerprinted and (potentially) asked a few questions
      • Are you a U.S. citizen, U.S. national or lawful permanent resident?
      • Are you wanted or under indictment for any disqualifying crimes?
      Jan 11, 2023

      Is being a TSA agent easy? ›

      Average Pay and Work

      The job is repetitive and there is not much to really be happy about. It is easy and not too difficult to get through the day. Just get use to dealing with a lot of travelers asking you questions. Need to have patience for this job.

      Is working at the TSA worth it? ›

      There are challenges but it's a great place to work for. It's definitely worth it. You interact with thousands of people and you are always on the move. You have many opportunities for growth and development as an agent and as an individual.

      Do you have to have 20 20 vision for TSA? ›

      Applicants must pass a drug and alcohol screening as well as a background investigation in addition to a credit check. Distant vision should be correctable to 20/30 or better in the best eye and 20/100 or better in the worse eye.

      What will get you flagged? ›

      By the way, the results are in: These are the best and worst domestic airlines.
      • Red Flag #1: Talking about weapons. ...
      • Red Flag #2: Traveling with coffee. ...
      • Red Flag #3: Not taking out all liquids. ...
      • Red Flag #4: Trying to game the system. ...
      • Red Flag #5: Not checking your kid's baggage. ...
      • Red Flag #6: Having any type of unusual item.
      Apr 24, 2018

      What is suspicious behavior in an airport? ›

      A Transportation Security Administration document leaked last year showed that crews are taught to look for suspicious behaviors that include fidgeting, perspiration, and evasive responses to questions.

      How long does a TSA background investigation take? ›

      Most applicants receive approval notification in 3-5 days, though some applications can take up to 60 days.

      How long does a TSA interview take? ›

      10-min in-person appointment that includes fingerprinting for a background check.

      How do I know if Im red-flagged? ›

      Go to a reputable pharmacy and ask for a dosage of your regular prescribed medication. ... If the pharmacist denies you the medication, then you are Red Flagged, as they would have to consult an online system that tracks when your next dosage should be given.

      How does someone get red-flagged? ›

      Red flags are often used in conversations around toxic or abusive relationships. Toxicity can present itself in any close relationship: friends, colleagues, family members, or partners. Red flags can be signs of narcissism, aggression, victimization, or even abusive behavior.

      What are flagged questions? ›

      The 'Flag question' feature allows you to mark specific quiz or exam questions so that you may easily reference them once your attempt is complete. Some students flag questions to alert their instructor of any possible issues or confusion they experienced with that specific question.


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