What's the TSA Pat Down Procedure?

By A.J. Andrews

What to do when you're patted down at the airport

What's the TSA Pat Down Procedure?

Follow the officer's instructions during a pat-down. If you haven't flown in a while but have undergone a secondary search before, you'll notice pat-downs have changed. As of 2017, the TSA implemented an updated procedure, combining what once consisted of five possible search methods individualized for the traveler to a uniform pat-down method for all. Know what to expect and follow instructions to help your pat-down go as smoothly as possible.

What's a pat-down?

Pat-downs consist of a hands-on search of your person for concealed objects. Several factors go into the decision to give a flyer a pat-down. If you alarm the metal detector, the X-ray officer observes an anomaly, or if a TSA behavior-detection officer selects you for secondary screening, expect a pat-down. Even airline crew members, airport staff and passengers enrolled in one of the Department of Homeland Security's Trusted Traveler programs – which allow passengers an expedited security screening – might undergo a pat-down.

Notify the TSA officer before you enter the metal detector if you have metal surgical implants, including a pacemaker. If you have a medical card indicating you have implants, you can show it to the officer, but it will not change the screening process. TSA officers may select children for pat-downs under certain circumstances.

TSA pat-down procedures

If the TSA agent selects you for a pat-down, expect the following:

  1. The officer leads you aside, but still in view of other passengers, to an area where one or more officers stand to witness the pat-down. 
  2. An officer of your gender will inform you of the pat-down procedure and ask you to stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and raise your arms out to the sides.
  3. The officer will put on sanitary gloves (if not wearing them already) and run a handheld metal-detecting wand over the surface of your body. If the detector alarms, the officer will ask you if you have any type of metal in the suspect area and to remove it, if possible. Hand wands typically detect body-piercing jewelry in private areas, and may result in a private screening in a secured room.
  4. Next, the officer slides both palms over your clothing with enough pressure to feel your body, which can include the neck, head, feet, legs and torso. The officer might or might not run her fingers under your waistband and bra.
  5. The officer will check the breasts, groin and buttocks area with the back of her hands, not the palms, unless she determines the area potentially harbors an illicit object.
  6. The officer will clear you to progress to your gate if she finds nothing to warrant further inspection in a private room.

TSA Security Tips

  • You can request a pat-down in lieu of a full-body X-ray upon request.
  • You can request your pat-down take place in a private room with a companion present.
  • If disability prevents you from performing the requested pat-down stance, inform the officer beforehand.
  • Replace metal body-piecing jewelry with Lucite "placeholder"jewelry before you enter the security checkpoint to prevent a secondary screening in a secured room.

About the Author

A.J. Andrews' work has appeared in Food and Wine, Fricote and "BBC Good Food." He lives in Europe where he bakes with wild yeast, milks goats for cheese and prepares for the Court of Master Sommeliers level II exam. Andrews received formal training at Le Cordon Bleu.