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Everything You Need to Know about Liquid Limit TSA Rules


The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has on its official website an outline of liquid-related regulations whenever boarding a plane, but don't go into enough detail to establish a clear enough understanding of what exactly is allowed, how much, and whether or not there are any special circumstances to take into consideration. At present, there are three TSA liquid limits for fluids, gels, pastes, and creams that are packed into your carry-on bag when you board a flight. These limits are enforced by the TSA whenever going through airport security. It's not about the moment when you board a plane, but the moment your luggage goes through the security checkpoint's scanners. Whatever liquids you purchased after passing airport security are allowed to board the plane with you without any restrictions. When going through airport security's checkpoint, the contents of your carry-on bag go through the scanning process of the site's x-ray machine. Although the scanner is able to detect liquid, it cannot determine which liquid is which as scanners were designed to detect weapons. They're not designed to figure out exactly what type of liquid content you intend to bring on board. With this being said, the checkpoint scanner is unable to detect if the liquid content contains explosives, so this results in adopting the possibility liquids could pose a security threat. This is why the TSA has placed restrictions on how much liquid a traveler can bring in from the outside onto the airplane.

Identifying the Three

TSA Liquid Limit 1 allows aerosols, gels, and liquids in travel-size containers that are 3.4 ounces (100 milliliters) or less. The majority of the nations rely on the metric system for measurements, so it's all primarily based on liters and millimeters, as only a few nations, such as the USA, that still use the imperial system. In this regard, it is the size of the container that is most important, not the amount of liquid that's inside them. Should a container that can hold 3.5 fluidic ounces be in your possession, it will not be allowed to board the plane with you in your carry-on luggage. What will happen should this result is the container, plus the liquid inside, will be confiscated by airport security and trashed.

TSA Liquid Limit 2 is to be packed into one quart-sized bag. Thirty-two ounces is what makes a quart. Ziploc bags which are measured at six by nine inches can hold a quart's worth of liquid content, but there are also other bags with different shapes that are also suitable enough to store as many as eight travel-size bottles securely enough inside them. Plastic baggies like Ziploc weren't originally designed with the idea of holding little travel-sized bottles inside, so sometimes using them as a means to hold a bunch of little bottles may not be so ideal. On sites like Amazon, there are airplane-friendly toiletry bags that are able to hold up to eight travel-sized bottles that are more accommodating.

TSA Liquid Limit 3 states only a single one-quart bag per passenger may be allowed to board the plane with them as part of the carry-on luggage. It is called the 3-1-1 rule by TSA and it applies to the passenger, not the carry-on bag. If a passenger is bringing more than one piece of carry-on luggage onto the plane with them, the single one-quart bag can be in one of the carry-on bags only. It is called the 3-1-1 rule for a reason as it is three TSA liquid limits, all stored in their own travel-sized bottles into one quart-sized bag, and it is only one quart-sized bag per passenger. For TSA, the math seems simple enough.

TSA's Definition of Liquids

According to TSA, if it can be pumped, smeared, squeezed, spilled, sprayed, or spread then that's considered a liquid substance. This means even if you personally don't see something like toothpaste as a liquid, the security officers commissioned by the TSA will disagree with you. Many travelers make the mistake of the assumption that creams, gels, and spreads are not liquid. However, even basic science points out they're not exactly solids either. Can you hold a handful of cream in your hand as well as a rock that's similar in size? How about when you tilt your hand over and try holding it upside down? See the difference? TSA can and this is the law of physical science they go with.

However, TSA does not consider liquid food fillings such as ketchup, mayonnaise, and mustard as a liquid. They consider it a part of the food group, which seems solid enough for them to give these types of liquid a pass. While the peanut butter itself is considered a liquid in its jar, when put on a sandwich, alongside some jelly, it's now part of a solid substance. On the same note, any liquids that are in a frozen state are considered solid. At the airport's security checkpoint, frozen liquids are seen as solids. However, it has to be frozen enough to pass as a solid. Should the commissioned security team of the TSA observe the frozen substance is beginning to melt, they will refuse to allow the item to board the plane. If it's your intent to bring a frozen solid substance with you inside your carry-on luggage, your best bet would have it packed inside a container that's holding dry ice.

Bug sprays, canned goods, snow globes, and sunscreen are all items that are considered liquids, something of which passengers don't always consider. Some have been caught with these items, which is enough to prevent them from boarding when it doesn't match TSA's 3-1-1 rule. As ridiculous as it may see a snow globe listed, bear in mind this was something already done by at least one passenger who learned the hard way that while the globe structure itself seems solid enough, it's still holding liquid content inside it. If the amount exceeds the 100-milliliter allowance, then it faces the probability of being trashed before your eyes. Unless, of course, the globe is deemed too valuable and you choose not to board the plane because of it. As nutty as that may sound, those are TSA's rules, one which the airport security team follows as it is part of their training.

Not All Liquids Allowed

Just because a certain something is in liquid form and so little of it to pass the TSA measurement allowance of 3.4 ounces (100 milliliters), it may not be something airport security's checkpoint will allow. Even in travel-sized bottles, items such as aerosols that do not fit in the toiletries category, lighter fluid, lighter gas, paint, and paint thinner. Aerosol-based liquids that are not considered toiletry would be something that is not typically sprayed onto the skin. For instance, it's unlikely you will spray air freshener on yourself, nor furniture polish. Even if it is for whatever reason, the TSA will not allow this type of aerosol on board as it is considered a flammable liquid. Such aerosol sprays, plus the lighters and the paint-related liquids are all highly flammable items that are not permitted on the plane at all, even if packed inside a travel-sized bottle.

TSA Liquid Rule Exemptions

There are some liquid items the TSA will allow a passenger to bring onboard where the 3-1-1 rule does not apply to. For passengers who have a baby or toddler in tow have to be able to properly accommodate their needs. This means liquid items such as baby formula, juice, milk, soup, and water. When at the airport security checkpoint, these liquid items will simply require you to place them into a separate bin before proceeding. Once all items are confirmed safe by security, then simply repack those items back on and continue. However, should the passenger have a young one that's coming with them onto the plane and are able to walk on their own, at least enough to pass through security's checkpoint, the airport will see the young one as a child, not an infant. At that point, the exemptions to bring extra liquids on board no longer applies.

Another exemption the TSA will take into consideration at the airport security checkpoint is in medicine. If a passenger requires containers of liquid that don't meet the standard 3-1-1 rule, then the additional screening will be required to make sure such liquids are placed into a separate bin while at the checkpoint station. Documentation from your doctor is not required from you as the security team is only interested in the content and not the medical explanation from your treatment provider as to why you need it.

Although not really an exemption, duty-free alcohol purchased after passing through the airport security checkpoint can be brought on board with you. However, if you are a passenger that has to travel to a connecting flight, should you have any unused alcohol still with you, then it is your responsibility to place whatever is left into a tamper-evident bag so that when passing through the security checkpoint station at the next airport you will still be allowed to take it with you. Please be advised any liquor brought with you, whether it's a carry-on or stuffed inside your checked baggage, anything above the 70% alcohol by volume (ABV) amount is considered too flammable and will not be permitted to leave the airport. Liquor over the 70% ABV count is banned worldwide at all airports. All alcoholic beverages that have at least a 24% ABV and less than the 70% ABV rating are restricted to no more than 5-liters' (5 quarts) worth as this is still considered a flammable substance. Kept in smaller amounts that don't pass the 5-liter limit per passenger is not considered enough of a threat by TSA's security team, so they will allow this amount to pass through. Remember, however, the only liquor you are allowed to bring onto the plane with you as a carry-on is whatever you purchase from the airport after you've passed its security checkpoint. Any alcohol you possess prior to arriving at the airport must be placed inside the luggage you've brought with you that will not directly accompany you as a carry-on when you board.

TSA Limitations

Most toiletry items that are limited in carry-on bags are unlimited in airport security checked bags. The amount of hair care products, personal hygiene items, and skin creams you pack into your checked bag is entirely up to you. However, if there are any flammable liquids in the equation, including aerosols, these require special attention from you as there are special rules applied to these products. It is your responsibility to understand what those rules are so that you can follow them without incident. Any individual container that holds more than 3.4 fluid ounces of content cannot come on board with you as a carry-on. It will have to be placed into baggage that will be checked by airport security before it is grouped with the rest that is slated for the plane's luggage compartment area.

Rules Are Rules

When it comes to liquids, what the TSA deems as allowed or not allowed sometimes seems confusing. TSA's 3-1-1 rule comes across as simple enough math to them, but for many passengers, it should be more like 3.4-1-1 as it is no more than 3.4 fluidic ounces that are allowed to be placed into a travel-sized bottle before going into a one-quart plastic bag or container. Furthermore, each one-quart baggie or container has the capacity to hold up to eight travel-sized bottles of liquid, so for some passengers who are not so mathematically inclined, it may seem confusing. However, what is not confusing is the simple math to simply test how many travel-sized bottles that can hold 3.4 fluidic ounces are able to fit inside something like a Ziploc baggie. From there, it's simply a matter of making the most out of what you can bring on board as part of the carry-on you truly feel you need. Remember, it's only one single quart-sized bag allowed per passenger that you can bring with you.

Liz Flynn

Written by Liz Flynn

Liz Flynn has worked as a full-time writer since 2010 after leaving a career in education. She finds almost all topics she writes about interesting, but her favorite subjects are travel and food. Liz loves the process of researching information, learning new things, and putting into words what others who share her interests might like to read. Although she spends most of her time writing, she also enjoys spending time with her husband and four children, watching films, cooking, dining out, reading, motorsports, gaming, and walking along the beach next to her house with her dog.

Read more posts by Liz Flynn

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