Do Checked Bags Get Searched?

Nine times out of ten, airline security will not search your checked bags.

However, your pack or suitcase will always go through Transportation Security Administration screening to ensure there are no dangerous items within. 

If someone does flag your luggage as suspicious, they will hand search it.

If you’ve ever been curious about what happens to your luggage when you check-in at the airport, you should know that the security screening is quite similar to how they check a carry-on bag.

There is a whole series of events that can happen to your checked baggage after you leave the check-in desk.

How Does the TSA Screen My Checked Luggage?

The TSA screens every checked bag that goes through an airport, just like they do with carry-on bags. This process aims to be as efficient and thorough as possible.

Before TSA officers sort and place all of the checked luggage on the correct plane, Explosive Detection System (EDS) machines scan them at a security checkpoint. These devices work using a combination of x-ray scanners and computer processing.

Using this method, the TSA can get a detailed scan of your bag’s contents without opening it. If it doesn’t detect anything suspicious, the luggage continues on its journey.

From there, airport employees sort your pack according to its destination. Once they have collected all of the checked bags for a particular plane, they bring them to the airplane and load them into the cargo space.

However, sometimes the EDS x-ray machines will flag a pack’s contents as potentially dangerous. Or, they will randomly select the luggage for a secondary screening.

If either option happens, airline employees will take your luggage from the screening process. At this point, a by-hand TSA search will begin.

It is for this reason that the TSA has specifically approved luggage locks. TSA agents have access to master keys for the lock brands they approve.

But, if the luggage has a lock that the TSA has not approved, they will break the lock to search the luggage. 

As long as they find nothing dangerous or illegal in your luggage after the hand search, the TSA agent will return it to the conveyor belt. 

Inside the luggage, the TSA agent will leave a note informing you that they opened and searched your suitcase. 

Why Was My Checked Luggage Physically Inspected?

The TSA’s x-ray scans all checked bags, but agents don’t inspect all of them. So, when a TSA inspection does occur when you’re flying, it can make you feel lost for an answer to why. 

However, remember that almost everyone who flies frequently has had their baggage searched at some point. 

The first possibility is that the Explosive Detection System encountered something in your suitcase that it decided could be a bomb. These x-ray scan machines typically detect explosives by their volume and density, so false alarms are possible at most airports since they use these automated processes.

While this method is relatively specific, the machines alert that hundreds of bags contain explosives or other dangerous items daily. A false positive like this can get your baggage inspected.

When the x-ray machine flags a bag because of potential threats or a suspicious item, a screener will look at the image and decide whether or not they should hand search the luggage. If they decide they shouldn’t, the bag continues as normal.

A related possibility is that there is something in your suitcase that the scanner can’t see through. If this is the case, you will have your bag inspected before it can go on the aircraft.

The most common items that the scanner can’t pierce are metal. So, anything made from heavy or dense metal can trigger a hand search.

You may also have something in your pack that the TSA prohibits from checked bags. Anything that looks prohibited will also set off the x-ray device, and you will have your items inspected for weapons and other dangerous objects. 

The last common possibility is as simple as a random check. For whatever reason, the agent decided to hand-check your bags.

This process can certainly be annoying, but it protects you and others.

What Happens if TSA Finds Something in My Luggage?

You may be curious what might happen if an agent does find prohibited items either in your checked bag or hand luggage. No matter the reason for a restricted object being in your pack, there are procedures that TSA agents follow.

If a TSA agent finds prohibited items in your checked luggage or carry-on, they will remove them from your pack and get rid of them. The disposal method will differ depending on the item.

After this, you will find a notice in your bag. As long as the item is not illegal, you will be able to board the airplane and continue with your journey.

If the item is illegal to own or travel with, they will not only get rid of it, but they will report you to law officials. From there, you will probably not be able to board the plane

If it is a serious offense, you may even get arrested. Less severe crimes can result in a fine.

Do Customs Agents Check My Luggage on International Flights?

The Transportation Safety Administration isn’t the only one that can search your luggage to determine if it meets certain criteria. The various customs officials in foreign countries can also search your checked bags.

But, unlike TSA searches which occur before a flight, customs happens after you land at your destination and pick up your checked bag. Since this is the case, they are not searching for items that could pose a risk to the plane.

Instead, customs officials search for things that you cannot bring into the country for one reason or another. These items can be very different depending on where you land.

The reasoning for a customs baggage inspection can also vary greatly. Most of the time they will not stop you for a customs search, but it can happen.

The most common reason you’ll get stopped for a customs search is because of your answers to the questions at immigration. If you have something you need to declare, they will direct you to customs.

Less commonly, you will get stopped for a random search.


Overall, the TSA’s screening procedures are there to keep you safe. Thus, if you get your luggage searched by a TSA officer, know that they are only adhering to aviation security guidelines. 

So, if your baggage looks suspicious, a security person may check to see what’s wrong.