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Everything You Need to Know About the TSA’s Liquids Rule

By Maggie Fuller

Mar 27, 2020

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Don’t forget to remove your liquids when going through TSA screening.

Photo by Jaromir Chalabala/Shutterstock

Don’t forget to remove your liquids when going through TSA screening.

Plus, a few more airport security regulations you should be aware of.

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One of travel’s truest frustrations is getting to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) security line and realizing there’s a new rule or restriction that you forgot or didn’t know about. Best case scenario, you’re held up for 15 minutes or so, but more often than not, you end up surrendering your best sunscreen or one of your favorite plane snacks to a stern agent. Whether you’re a carry-on-only kind of person or you prefer to check your main bag and only bring a small purse or backpack on the plane with you, the best thing you can do to expedite the TSA process is to know (and abide by) the 3-1-1 rule. Here’s a little primer on that, and a few other security regulations you should know about.

The 3-1-1 Rule

Each passenger is allowed to bring one quart-sized, resealable bag of liquids through security. This includes liquids (shampoos, perfumes, lip gloss), aerosols (hairspray), gels (hair products or aloe vera), creams (sunscreen, moisturizer), and pastes (toothpaste). These products must be stored in travel-sized 3.4-ounce (100 milliliters) containers or reusable toiletry bottles. If together, all your travel-sized containers fit in that sealed quart-sized bag, you can take them with you past security. 

So, 3 (3.4-ounce containers) - 1 (one quart sized bag) - 1 (one bag per person). 

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If your liquids are stored in containers larger than 3.4 ounces, even if there’s only 3.4 ounces left inside the bottle, you cannot bring them through security. You’ll need to pack them in your checked bag. You can, however, bring a reusable water bottle with you, as long as it’s empty when you go through the TSA checkpoint. 

The upside of having to store all your liquids in one bag is that they can be easily removed for the screening process—no digging around in the bottom of your suitcase for that small bottle of mouthwash. 

Exceptions

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the TSA is currently allowing travelers to bring up to 12 ounces of hand sanitizer in their carry-on bags. These will be screened separately.

The TSA makes exemptions to its liquids rule for medication: You’re allowed to bring medically necessary liquids, aerosols, and gels, with you through security. This also includes the ice or gel packs you may need to keep your medications cool. You are not required to store these items in a plastic, resealable bag, but you should remove them from your luggage and let the TSA officer know that you’re traveling with them. 

Baby formula and breast milk are also not subjected to the 3-1-1 rule. Like medication, you can also bring freezer packs to keep these items cool, and you should remove them from your luggage and notify an agent when you go through security. You do not need to be traveling with a child to bring breast milk with you. More baby-related exceptions? Gel or liquid-filled teethers and canned or jarred baby food. 

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The 3-1-1 rule applies to most foods too, so your yogurt or peanut butter snacks need to be smaller than 3.4 ounces and packed in your resealable bag. However, there are exceptions for certain frozen foods. Check out our guide to TSA food rules for holiday travel or the TSA website if you’re unsure. 

Of course, the final decision on whether an item is allowed through the checkpoint rests with the TSA officer.

Powders

Powders and powder-like substances, including baby powder, protein powder, or laundry detergent, aren’t restricted in your carry-on bag. But if you’re carrying more than 12 ounces (350 milliliters) of a powder, you’ll need to place it in a separate bin for x-ray screening, and it may be subject to additional screening. Best to pack the large containers of powder in your checked bag. 

Prohibited Items

Signs around security warn passengers not to pack dangerous or hazardous items in their suitcases and carry-ons. But while some of these are obvious, such as fireworks, knives, lighter fluid, and tear gas, others are less so. You cannot, for example, bring cooking spray, a foam toy sword, or a Magic 8 Ball in your carry-on bag. You can, however, bring knitting needles, scissors that are less than four inches from the pivot point, and screwdrivers or pliers shorter than seven inches, end to end. The TSA’s website has a handy, searchable list of prohibited and allowed items that you can check if you’re in doubt. 

Identification

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Don’t forget your ID! Worse than having your liquids confiscated is realizing that you’ve forgotten your driver’s license or passport when you’re already at the airport. All adult passengers 18 and over must have valid identification to pass through the airport checkpoint. For most of us, that means driver’s licenses, photo ID cards, or passports.

Starting October 1, 2021, you’ll need to have a Real ID, which meets new minimum security standards, in order to fly. The deadline to obtain a Real ID was pushed back due to the coronavirus pandemic

The TSA is also making a temporary exception for expired driver’s licenses during the COVID-19 national emergency. Travelers can now use a state driver’s license that expired after March 1, 2020, if they haven’t been able to renew it at their local license agency.

>>Next: Opt out of Face Scans, Be Screened in Private—Airport Rights You Need to Know

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