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A year ago, traveling through an airport in the United States, I did the usual removal of belt and shoes to get through the TSA checkpoint to enter the terminal.

I typically wear relaxed fit jeans. The problem is that when my belt is off, my jeans start to sag.

Next up was to get scanned by the human x-ray machine. I can't remember the specifics, but something went wrong here.

Coming out of the machine, the TSA agent spoke a canned response of how the machine detected an object in my pants. He asked if I was carrying anything and then told me he would have to do a pat-down. To make a long story short, I got frisked right there in the line including him grabbing my crotch. And then I was on my way. It was somewhat humiliating, but I got over it. But it is not an experience I would care to repeat.

I'm traveling again this week through the same airport. What's the best thing I can wear to avoid having a similar incident? I've seen folks go through the airport lines in gym shorts, sweatpants, or even pajamas. I'm not sure if looser or more tight fitting pants improves my chances. I've got some different pants I could try to, or could buy something different.

What would you wear to avoid the x-ray machine setting off a false positive?

I'm an average looking man.


Update

Thank you for all the great answers.

TLDR: Pull up those pants and empty those pockets is what worked for me through the terminal entrance this time. Although the officer needed to do a pat-down hand sweep over my waist, it was completely within bounds and appropriate. At the return trip airport, they waved most folks through the metal detector instead of the wave scanner. I do believe certain airports are more efficient at getting people into the terminal.

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    Do bear in mind that, as per this question, some machines are programmed to occasionally beep people at random. There is thus no "perfect" solution that will prevent you from ever getting beeped. – Chronocidal Oct 14 at 12:33
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    I would recommend an on-duty airline employee uniform and lanyard with identification. This has some benefits, such as being able to use the crewmember lane. One unfortunate downside is that you will have to work during the flight. – Jacob Krall Oct 14 at 14:35
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    I consistently get patted down by the TSA. Reasons have included a bit of paper (luggage receipt) in my pocket, and "wearing shorts with zippers on". – Flyto Oct 14 at 22:21
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    Having titanium knees, I am virtually always patted down. If it occurs again, ask for a private room pat-down. Otherwise, take the train. – M.Mat Oct 15 at 1:12
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    To be clear, you say "...grabbing my crotch". Are we to understand this is not the usual "back of the hand sweep over the crotch area" that is standard? AFAIK "grabbing" the crotch is not standard procedure... – BruceWayne Oct 15 at 14:10
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Cloth Drawstring

As others have noted, metal will often get you flagged. For this reason, if you need to wear pants with some type of suspension, you should definitely opt for something like sweat pants with a cloth drawstring. Of course, there are many belts which have no metal parts, but if your pants have a zipper or button or any metal fasteners, then having a non-metal belt will likely be insufficient to avoid a pat-down. I have a pair of outdoor hiking pants with removable lower legs and a nylon belt with a plastic buckle. All the zippers are very small/lightweight; but because it has zippers near the knee (which I'm sure shows up as anomalous density in the pant legs), I get a pat-down when wearing them.

Empty Pockets

As others have said, having a scrunched-up tissue in your pocket is enough to trigger a pat-down. So when they say "empty your pockets", make sure there is nothing more than tiny pieces of lint left in them.

I like to wear shorts myself (athletic wear, not Dockers), but the plane can get cold depending on time of day/airline/duration/alignment of the planets/etc. So baggy sweat pants with no metal is likely the safest bet. FWIW, I think tight-fitting pants would reduce your chances of getting a pat-down, because the fibers would be stretched, and therefore more transparent to scanning. However, as long as your pants are not unusually thick, I don't think it is really necessary to resort to such measures.

Millimeter Naked

If you want to maximize your clothing transparency to millimeter wave detectors, which is the same as saying "look as naked as possible at millimeter wave frequencies", then you can tweak things even further with your material choice, courtesy of the US Army. Take note of Figure 5, on page 6. Transparency, ranked from best to worst is:

  • rayon
  • nylon
  • silk
  • naugahyde
  • denim
  • leather
  • linen
  • wool

Of course, I'm hand-waving a bit here, as each material overlaps the other on some data points (frequencies), and I have no idea what wavelength is used by actual scanners, or whether it's common or varies a lot. The ultimate source for this data comes from another study (again paid partly by the US Army), which has this helpful summary in the abstract:

All samples were usefully transparent at millimeter-wave frequencies (up to 300GHz) based on a 3dB criterion, but became progressively opaque at higher frequencies in a highly sample-dependent manner. This is explained by the samples becoming “optically dense” in the THz region, so that the transmission becomes exponentially dependent on sample thickness. The attenuation in the IR region is very high (⩾25dB) except in two samples (rayon and nylon), whose exceptional transparency (e.g., −12dB in nylon) is attributed to pores intrinsic to the material.

So, if you really wanna get your "airport security naked" on, then go for the thinnest nylon or rayon pants sans metal that you can find. I'd recommend pantyhose, but that will probably get you flagged for other reasons. ;) Note that material thickness also matters, so if you go the sweat pants route, thick, heavy sweat pants will work against your goal. Silk or nylon pajama pants sounds like the winner.

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    A very complete answer. Just to add that if you want to wear nylon or rayon pants, the best option is likely to be lightweight nylon track pants which will be comfortable, and have minimal zips or other features likely to provoke suspicion. (I'm surprised that the list doesn't include cotton e.g. twill or sweat-pant material.) – Stuart F Oct 15 at 14:55
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Wear trousers without metal and by preference ones that stay up without a belt. It is not a given that you will not be checked but it will make it less likely and you will feel better when you are standing there.
Take everything out your pockets, including hankies and odd pieces of paper. You can put them in your bag or a coat you take off and send through the machine.

And most important, do not worry when you need a pat down (not even when they feel close to those parts of you where you'd rather not have hands.) They do not mean anything but making sure that everybody is safe in the planes. You surely are not the only one that is patted down.
This may sound not helpful, but the way you stand makes an impression on the officer doing the patting and being self assured and feeling you can look him/her in the eye makes a different impression and makes it less likely they feel the need to search your crotch area.

I am a woman in my fifties and dress in activity trousers going when flying, no metal but a few double layers and here there are the 'look through' machines more often than not. Over the last 5 years I have been patted down so often that I am now surprised if it is not done. This is because of the machines not being able to 'look through' those trousers but I am not willing to change as they are the perfect choice for my travels otherwise. I take the patting, (although it seems that the machines are getting better at handling them.)
I never trigger the metal scanners on the airports that use those.

Make sure you feel confident, look the officer in the face and let them do their work.
It is not against you. You are just the person where the machine beeped. Those machines are often beeping where nothing is found by the patting.

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    Note that the "you are not the only one that is patted down" is not very helpful. Many transgender people do a pat down instead of the scan because the scan will trigger specifically on their crotch and breasts, which can be quite triggering. – Gyðja Björnsdóttir Oct 12 at 21:38
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    Willeke - I appreciate the answer. I really do. But if it happens "so often that you are surprised when it is not done", then your strategy is not very reassuring. :) There's no confident feeling I can have or glare I can have in the face that's going to make a TSA employee's grab on my genitals an acceptable experience. – koncurrency Oct 13 at 1:05
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    R, you likely object to the 'do not worry...' bit but I know it does make a difference if you are relaxed about it and go into it self assured but not overly smart-ass. – Willeke Oct 14 at 15:40
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    Responding to "How can I keep people from grabbing my genitals" with "it will happen, don't worry about it" seems unhelpful. In any other circumstances, in many places in the world, this behavior would be viewed as criminal. In this specific situation, an exception has been made, and OP is not even complaining about the fact that it happens at all. OP has asked "How do I make it less likely to trigger and get grabbed?" To say "Just get used to it" to such an invasive and otherwise criminal behavior seems inappropriate. – Aaron Oct 14 at 16:23
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You want clothing that appears invisible to the millimeter wave scanner, so you appear naked i.e. no false positives. Any metal will obviously show up, but anomalies in fabric density can also appear as a suspicious object. When I travel I avoid:

  • Velcro fasteners,

  • Cargo pockets (multiple layers),

  • Tucking in my shirt (rumples),

  • Baggy clothing or undergarments,

  • Shirts with thick collars, and

  • Sweating or wearing wet clothes.

At least once for each of the above, the scanner instructed the blue-shirt to pat me down in the relevant area.

Also, to avoid hassles with security, don’t wear:

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    And don't forget that for airport security, LEDs stand for "Light Explosive Devices", so don't call them that when asked. Call them "Christmas lights" :) – Dmitry Grigoryev Oct 14 at 7:14
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    @DmitryGrigoryev Why not just call them "Light Emitting Diodes"? – Kapten-N Oct 14 at 11:57
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    @Kapten-N Because such a transcript will sound like something you made up on the spot in an attempt to hide a bomb from them? – Dmitry Grigoryev Oct 14 at 12:02
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    @DmitryGrigoryev But who would talk about explosives at an airport? Talking about Light Emitting Diodes makes way more sense than Light Explosive Devices. Light Emitting Diodes are used in almost every piece of electronics. I can't think of a scenario where it could be mistaken for you trying to hide bombs. If you were hiding bombs you wouldn't mention them, would you? – Kapten-N Oct 14 at 12:06
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    @DmitryGrigoryev they reacted that way because the thing looked like a bomb, not because she said "LED". – Celos Oct 15 at 5:31
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This will not help you this week, but if you're eligible to do so, you could sign up for TSA Pre✓ (or another program like Global Entry, if you travel internationally, that includes the same benefits).

Precheck lanes at most airports have regular metal detectors, not millimeter wave scanners, so they're unaffected by how your pants fit. There is no guarantee — you could be chosen for a patdown search or sent through the millimeter wave scanners for a further check after setting off the metal detector or randomly — but it's much less likely to be an issue as long as you remove all metal.

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    Source on most precheck lanes having metal detectors and not millimeter wave scanners? That hasn't been my experience (also, you have a comma after your em dash). – Azor Ahai Oct 13 at 15:55
  • I have trouble seeing how a metal detector would decrease the chances of a pat-down. In fact, I would think the opposite: since they won't be able to detect anything non-metal, they would pretty much always require a pat-down in addition! – Jörg W Mittag Oct 13 at 18:39
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    @AzorAhai See, for example, here: "Instead, travelers will be able to pass through the dedicated Precheck line, which includes passing through a metal detector." Some airports don't have dedicated precheck lanes, but this is generally the case at major airports for those with precheck. – Zach Lipton Oct 13 at 18:43
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    @JörgWMittag I'm certainly not here to vouch for the efficacy of the TSA's security programs. Usually with precheck, you just go through the metal detector (and send your bags through the X-ray), and if you don't set it off, there's no patdown. Occasionally, people in the precheck lane are randomly selected for an extra check. I've had that take the form of having my hands or electronics swabbed or a shor and limited pat-down. I've heard it could sometimes involve being sent through the millimeter wave scanners as well. Presumably they think the random possibility of such checks is enough. – Zach Lipton Oct 13 at 18:48
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    This isn't foolproof, but it definitely will reduce your chances of a patdown by a lot. It's the main reason I have precheck. I used to get patted down every time I flew, I think it's only happened once or twice since I got precheck. – Kat Oct 15 at 18:18
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I used to have the same problem, needing secondary screening about 60% of the time. Now, after I enter the scanner but before I raise my arms, I pull my pants up and forwards, so at least there's contact with my hips and lower back. Usually it'll hold there long enough for the scan to complete. Since I've been doing that I've never had any secondary screening. That said, this probably won't work for all body shapes.

  • One of the better and more concise answers. To complete this answer: Prior to entering the line for the wave scanner, take everything out of your pockets and shove whatever stuff you have into your carry-on bag. – koncurrency Oct 19 at 5:13
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Wear a kilt.

The last two times I've flown, I wore a kilt, and (even after being frisked) could have smuggled an inflated beach ball through security.

  • Nice answer. But the kilt thing isn't really for me. – koncurrency Oct 19 at 3:41
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While not a frequent traveler, I have gone through airport security at least 20 times with a LOT of stuff in and attached to the outside of my bags that I would think would warrant additional screening. However, I dress very... hoboish, and have never needed a patdown.

What I mean by that is sweatpants, a single plain white undershirt, and a plain weather appropriate overshirt (which I usually send through the belt scanner). If it is a very early flight, I will actually wear sleepwear pants instead for comfort on the plane. The pants are indeed baggy, but low density poly/cotton blend so they are basically transparent to the scanner. There is simply nothing there to show up as something unusual. Jeans are what I would call a high density fabric, especially around the zipper and belt areas.

Additionally, wearing minimal clothing tends to prevent me from sweating, which is a red flag in a security line. I would rather be cold for a few minutes than pulled aside for looking suspicious.

I have had by bags checked a few times, the funniest time was taking a block of fudge back home, according to the scanner tech it look like a block of plastic explosive. Only pro-tip I can give inside the scanner is to keep the legs and arms spread as wide as you can, so nothing is bunched up. I have observed the people in front of me, and those that do not use the correct stance sometimes need to get scanned again, or patted down.

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Don't wear underwire bras

Okay, maybe not very useful for you per se, but for other people. I tend to get frisked due to underwires that are likely somewhat larger than on average female traveller.

Personally, I don't think there is fireproof way to avoid patdowns though, so I don't have better answer for what to wear.

  • Once I was patted down and wanded for a while, until they discovered a wire in the brim of my extremely stylish felt hat. I hadn't known it was there either. – RedSonja Oct 15 at 7:24
  • Have you considered fibreglass or carbon fibre underwires? Or some other non-metallic substance like whalebone? – Criggie Oct 15 at 8:35
  • I have not. Luckily, I don't fly that often for this to be too big issue. And I've never yet seen any place advert for the material of the underwires (here). I guess I could go manually changing them, but it might be too much work for too little gain. However, it is a good point, if I end up doing my own bra some day (not impossible, I've been thinking of it), it would bee good idea to see what other options there are and use something else than metal. – Mer Oct 15 at 11:10
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Unfortunately, sometimes, you're just out of luck. I fly often enough and I've definitely had unpleasant experiences, including being touched, um, yeah, there. Under my underwear (if you ask me that would be sexual assault in any other scenario). But generally, I've managed to keep those experiences to a minimum by following certain rules that I've conjured from experience:

  • Take off everything other than your pants, your socks and your shirt. That way you generally won't set off anything. That also means: Empty your pockets (entirely), and take off your belt, shoes, sweater and anything else you may have on top. Even if they say you don't have to. I've been told I don't have to take off my shoes, only to have something detected most likely because of my shoes, leading to a pat down.

  • Dress well, even if you're on a casual vacation. It doesn't have to be a suit if you're a man (although a suit never does any harm), but wear dress pants, dress shoes and a good looking shirt. For women, something similar should probably do (although I've almost exclusively been flying alone lately so I don't have too much experience in that department). You want to give off the impression that you are cooperative and friendly with airport security, but if they do something that isn't acceptable you won't hesitate to hire a lawyer and sue their ass. More on that later.

  • Make sure to look well groomed. If you're a man, shave, I don't care how much you love your beard. I also like growing my beard out, but when I fly, if possible, I shave. Unfortunately, beards are associated to a certain extent with terrorists for some people. Make sure your hair also looks neat and professional.

  • Don't mess up anything while putting your stuff in the scanner. Take your time, if necessary, to do everything properly. Show your empty water bottle without them having to ask you. Take your laptop out and put it in a separate bin right away. Don't worry about the people behind you, do things thoroughly. Even if your previous flight was late and you need to catch a connecting flight - that will take less time than a potential patdown and God knows what else.

  • Be friendly (assuming they don't start doing anything weird). And not snobby-friendly, genuinely friendly. Greet them (good morning, good evening, whatever), don't forget your please and thank you. Essentially, you want to gain their respect and trust, and courtesy definitely goes a long way there.

To sum it up, you want to make their jobs easy, prevent anything from popping up on the scanner, and gain their respect in that short period of time through the way you present yourself, both in a manner of being courteous but also by looking like someone who, as I mentioned earlier, won't hesitate to hire a lawyer if they do something that's uncalled for, regardless of if you can afford a lawyer or not (but to emphasize: look that way, don't try to pull off an act out of it). That has definitely helped me along the way. It's unfortunate that this is where we've arrived, but unfortunately, I often don't have any other choice than to fly, and I am guessing you're in the same boat (actually, for that matter, I would much rather be on a boat than on a plane... Oh well).

  • "I would much rather be on a boat than on a plane" says trainman261. How ironic! :) So what you're saying is A) Appearance matters and B) treating people with respect gets you respect back. What novel concepts! </sarcasm> I agree 100%. – FreeMan Oct 15 at 19:47

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