Are your trips through security angst-free and uneventful? Do you factor airport screening into your packing regimen? If the answer is “yes” to both of these questions, it sounds like you know how to prepare for airport security. If you’ve answered “no,” read on for some tips on how to do so.

Apply for trusted traveller status. Investigate what program you’re eligible for given your citizenship or resident status. For example, my Nexus card ensures a speedy trip through security and customs at Canadian and U.S. airports. It’s saved me countless hours because when it comes to airport security, there are dedicated screening lanes for cardholders. When travelling in the USA, the accompanying TSA Pre✓ ® special privileges include not having to remove shoes, belts, laptops and 3-1-1 bags. As a Canadian resident, it’s the best $50 in travel money I’ve ever spent.


Check carry-on limits. List the dimensions of your standard and personal carry-on bags, and carry these for easy reference in a notes app. Add a section for the free carry-on baggage allowance of your preferred airlines. When making specific travel arrangements, head over to the baggage allowance page and check the carry-on allowance. Add it to your notes. It’s too late after you breeze through security with your two carry-on bags, only to find out at the gate that the airline you’ve booked has a one-bag limit of 8 kilograms.

Research prohibited items. What’s acceptable in one jurisdiction may not be acceptable in another. My folding scissors that passed inspection at countless North American and European screening points were confiscated in Singapore. It takes a few moments to check. Google “prohibited items” with the name of the country or specific airport. I hope you find a clear and detailed list like this one from New Zealand’s Aviation Security Service.

Add airport screening to your packing list. When assembling a packing list, choose categories that make sense and with airport security in mind. For some travellers, this means devoting a special category to what will be packed in a personal carry on, and worn during the flight.

If taking gifts, remember the “3-1-1 rule” applies to ALL liquids, aerosols and gels in carry-on luggage. That maple syrup you’re taking to your host will have to go in checked luggage if it exceeds 100 millilitres (3.4 ounces). Also, don’t wrap any gifts. Pack the wrapping materials, and attend to this task at your destination. And don’t lock your bags. Pack your lock or cable ties separately and secure your bags at the gate.

Choose your travelling clothes with security in mind. Seconds count at the security checkpoint, both for you and the people behind you. You’ll be asked to remove your jacket and perhaps other outer layers. Wear something that’s easy to take off. Don’t wear clothing with metal snaps, buttons or studs. Your belt may also have to come off, unless it has a plastic clasp. Limit jewellery to small earrings, rings and watches. Wear shoes without metal arches, buckles, steel toes or shanks. Just in case you’re asked to remove your shoes, wear ones that can be slipped on and off easily.

Bring a positive attitude. Screening agents are working to keep us safe. Be polite, and skip the “jokes” that might land you in hot water. Agents take any references to terrorism or explosives very seriously. If you’re selected for random screening, or a closer examination of your bag, cooperate with a smile. Take comfort in the fact they’re doing the same with other passengers, and confiscating what might be harmful. Check out the TSA blog of the Transportation Security Authority in the U.S. for a mind-blowing insight into some of the dangerous things people try to bring on planes.


Develop a mental checklist. Before entering the screening area, it might help to work through your own checklist of what you need to have organized. It might look something like this:

  • Water bottle empty?
  • Outerwear pockets all zipped?
  • Other pockets in clothing all empty?
  • ALL liquids, aerosols and gels in 3-1-1 bag?
  • Laptop and 3-1-1 bag ready to slide out?
  • Phone, wallet, coins, and keys packed away?
  • Boarding pass and trusted traveller card in hand?

Arrive at the checkpoint with plenty of time to spare. Lines can be long. Very long. You might get stuck behind someone who isn’t familiar with the system, or isn’t organized. An agent might identify a prohibited item. If it’s allowed in checked baggage, there may be enough time to return to the check-in counter and check a bag.

Have documentation ready. The only documentation needed at a screening checkpoint is a boarding pass. Although, I’ve encountered some systems, mostly in the USA, where an agent checks photo ID at the entrance to the screening area. To use the designated screening lane for trusted travellers, members usually need to produce a membership card (or have TSA Pre✓ ® printed on your boarding pass). 

Observe the process. While waiting in line, look for signs with information on the screening process. Determine what trays and other containers are used for passengers’ belongings. Observe security agents for clues on verbal instructions being given to passengers. Watch how other passengers are placing their stuff on the conveyor belt attached to the X-ray machine. Luggage may have to be placed in trays, or laid flat on the belt.


Keep your 3-1-1 bag accessible. Make sure all of your liquids, aerosols and gels are in your 3-1-1 bag before entering the screening area. You can transfer that small tube of moisturizer or bottle of hand sanitizer back to your pocket or purse while waiting at the gate. Pack your 3-1-1 bag in an external pocket so it’s easily retrieved, and quickly returned after being screened.

Limit the number of individual items you need to place on the conveyor belt. Aim to pack away as much as possible in your carry-on bag(s). Passengers can be easily distracted or delayed during the process, and these are ideal opportunities for someone to make off with your things. Easy-to-pocket items such as a wallet or phone are particularly vulnerable. Besides, I’m thinking those trays can’t be very hygienic. I doubt they’re sanitized or cleaned on a regular basis, and many passengers use them for shoes that have stepped in goodness-knows-what. Not the best place to put your phone.

Prior to entering the screening area, check your pockets for coins, keys and other metal objects and place them in their designated spots in your carry-on bags. Place your wallet or purse in your luggage, any jewellery likely to set off the security buzzer, and electronic devices. Unlike laptops, special screening is not required for smaller electronics such as notebook computers, tablets, flash drives, PDAs or internet-enabled phones. If you’re carrying a refillable water bottle, ensure it’s empty. By stowing these individual items in a bag, it’s less to keep tabs on. It’s less to leave behind.


If you’re travelling with a laptop, make sure it’s charged in case you’re asked by an agent to power it up.

Count how many individual items you’ll be placing on the belt. Count at both ends of the process. As an example, in my case, it’s no more than four: standard carry-on bag, personal bag, 3-1-1 bag, and a jacket or travel vest. This will help you get organized, and not leave anything behind afterwards.

Determine the order for placing items. Place less valuable things on first (shoes, belt, 3-1-1 bag, outerwear) and more valuable items on last (personal bag, laptop). If your jacket or travel vest contains your passport, wallet, phone or tablet, put it on last. Zip all pockets and hide them from view. In ideal circumstances, you’ll want to pass through the personal scanner and arrive at the end of the conveyor belt in time to monitor the progress of your possessions.

Work with a buddy. When travelling with others, work in pairs. With your buddy, discuss what individual items you’ll each be placing on the conveyor belt so you can keep an eye on each other’s stuff. This is especially useful when one of you is selected for secondary screening.   

Stay alert. Watch your possessions disappear behind the curtain. Try to time it to synchronize with your trip through the walk-through metal detector. Stay alert, keeping an eye on them as they emerge at the other end. A laptop doesn’t take long to disappear if you’re distracted, engaged in conversation or delayed removing or putting on shoes. Put your shoes on once you’ve retrieved your other possessions. Usually, chairs and counter space are provided for this purpose. Before leaving security, check that your boarding pass in its rightful place.

Congratulations. You made it!!

For additional information, see CATSA’s (Canadian Air Transport Security Authority’s)  two short videos on preparing for airport screening and packing a 3-1-1 bag.

What are your tips for a speedy trip through airport security?

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