What are TSA-Approved Locks?

By Denise Schoonhoven

Lock vs. Not: When can I lock my checked bags?

What are TSA-Approved Locks?

You lock your house, lock your car and lock your electronic devices, all for safety and to prevent unauthorized entry. Locking the luggage you'll check for an airline flight is no different. The lock protects luggage contents and serves as a deterrent for those who have no business rifling through your belongings. TSA officers do, however, sometimes need to inspect your luggage, and they are authorized to do so under U.S. Department of Homeland Security regulations. Using a TSA-recognized lock can prevent having the device cut off in order for a security agent to conduct a hands-on search inside your luggage.

Are luggage locks even allowed by the TSA?

Yes, it's OK to put a lock on any of the luggage you check. Combination locks and padlocks that open with a key are both acceptable. If you use just any old lock from the hardware store, there is a chance that it will be removed with bolt cutters should your luggage be selected for physical inspection. Once the lock is cut, it will no longer be useful to protect your belongings for the duration of the trip.

What is a TSA-approved lock and how does it work?

The internal locking mechanism of a lock appropriate for air travel is designed so it can be opened only by your own key or combination, and by a master key in the hands of a TSA officer. The design is universal, meaning that it can be opened by a TSA officer in New York, in Nashville, in Seattle or at any other TSA luggage inspection location.

When you purchase a lock for your luggage, look for the symbols that indicate the lock is made with the universal locking mechanism:

  • A red torch is the symbol for Safe Skies, which produces standard combination and key locks, cable locks and strap locks to wrap around your luggage to securely hold it together.
  • A red diamond is the symbol for Travel Sentry, which provides the internal mechanics to a wide range of lock manufacturers. Locks with the red diamond are sold under various brand names at luggage stores, department stores and at online retailers.

The symbols aren't just to inform your buying decision. They also serve as a “heads-up” to any TSA inspector so that a master key is used to unlock your luggage, if necessary.

When and why might my luggage need to be unlocked for inspection?

For security reasons, specific details about checked luggage screening are not publicly available. At a point along the elaborate routing system that carries your luggage from the baggage check desk to the airplane, it passes through scanners. If the scanned images indicate an unidentifiable or prohibited item, the luggage is likely to be subject to physical inspection.

To expedite the inspection process, always check the TSA's Prohibited Items lists before you pack. And if you lock, use a TSA-recognized lock for easy opening and re-locking as your luggage makes its way to the airline luggage compartment.

About the Author

Denise Schoonhoven has worked in the fields of acoustics, biomedical products, electric cable heating and marketing communications. She studied at Newbold College and Middlesex Polytechnic in the UK, and Walla Walla University. A writer since 2008, Schoonhoven is a seasoned business traveler, solo tourist, gardener and home renovator.