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So I need to travel a very short domestic flight with a handmade box. It has some components I'm not so sure would be allowed through TSA, which are:

  • Metal Rails
  • Electronics Panel
  • Computer Fans with Wires

I'm especially scared about the fans with the wires -- will it look too much like a bomb? None of these things are hooked up electronically, it's just a dud. I'll also have to bring a screwdriver, but it's less than 7 inches.

As for the box size, it is 18 x 6 x 6 inches. Can I bring it as a carry on? It's super fragile so I would like to have it next to me.

Any input or advice would be appreciated. I rarely ever fly, and I need to bring this box on a time crunch, so it being taken at TSA would be a horrible experience.

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    Nothing original enough to be an answer but this might be a Educational read on challenges of flying with homebrew electronics. – Journeyman Geek Mar 11 at 7:35
  • I've gone through security with a robot for a university competition, I just had to open it up and show what was in the box, this was in Australia though. – user253751 Mar 11 at 9:37
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    My suggestion: Buy a reasonably priced plastic case for transporting delicate equipment (the kind of thing you might pack photography equipment in). These are hard cases, and they contain foam (or other packing material) inside into which you can create voids. You don't need a fancy (expensive) Pelican case, just something smaller. Customize it so that your metal case fits. Fill your metal case with foam or another packing material. In a pinch, get a solid cardboard box and some peanuts. Check it, rather than carry it. It's likely less likely to get damaged that way (if you pack it well) – Flydog57 Mar 11 at 17:52
  • I've flown with servers and cases full of hard drives to do customer installs. Never had a problem, I always give them a heads up so they can screen it. – Nathan Cahill Mar 11 at 20:01
  • The last time I flew, I packed a couple of books and a small alarm clock in my bag, wrapped in headphone cables. When it went though the x-ray machine, the guy pressed a button and a veritable clown-car of armed guards explained to me that I need to get on the floor. Top tip. If you plan to bring something that looks like an IED onto a plane, the security staff take a dim view. – Valorum Mar 11 at 22:27
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This assumes that you carry on meets the dimensional limits of your airline.

I'm certain that TSA agents have pretty well seen everything when it comes to people hand carrying electronic parts and systems. However, there seems to be no mention of miscellaneous electronics on the TSA's What can I bring site

But the TSA has this helpful advice:

For items not listed here, simply snap a picture or send a question to AskTSA on Facebook Messenger or Twitter. We look forward to answering your questions, from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. ET weekdays; 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekends/holidays.

I would do that as a first step anyway.

The TSA also says

Planning ahead and packing properly can facilitate the screening process and ease your travel experience at the airport. Know what you can pack in your carry-on and checked baggage before arriving at the airport by reviewing the lists below. Even if an item is generally permitted, it may be subject to additional screening or not allowed through the checkpoint if it triggers an alarm during the screening process, appears to have been tampered with, or poses other security concerns.

So even if you get an approval from their customer support, I would still expect that your carry on will be subjected to a secondary screening, and that you should definitely arrive earlier at the airport than usual in order to allow for the extra time.

As for worrying about being a bomb, the TSA has access to chemical analysis equipment and can easily take a swab and process it in a matter of minutes. So unless you work in a chemical/explosives factory you shouldn't be worried about that aspect.


Amusing anecdote. A colleague of my brother in the UK did work with various chemicals and once took his work laptop on a flight one day. It had so much chemical residue on it that it pegged the measuring device. The security staff were confused by this and came to the conclusion that the machine was broken, and let him pass. He of course kept his mouth shut as to why the measuring machine was acting strangely.

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  • Anecdotally: I've heard that marzipan can trigger whatever they use to detect explosives. Apparently explosives manufacturers add 'marzipan smell' to explosives, in order to make them easy to detect. – j4nd3r53n Mar 11 at 13:30
  • "I'm certain that TSA agents have pretty well seen everything when it comes to people hand carrying electronic parts and systems." In general, yes. If you got an inexperienced agent there may still be a lot of questions. I have some great anecdotes about flying with both professional and improvised testing equipment... – Mast Mar 11 at 17:59
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    "The security staff were confused by this and came to the conclusion that the machine was broken, and let him pass." - Ah, good to know that the swab is completely useless instead of only mostly useless. – Kevin Mar 11 at 19:28
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The screwdriver would have to go in your checked bag if it were longer than 7 inches, but under that size it's allowed. Make sure you have a bit of margin...

The metal box shouldn't be an issue, as long as they can see inside it and any compartments, and it has no sharp edges (including if you disassemble it). Since it will probably not be very friendly to scanners, they will most certainly have to inspect it manually. The risk they take it for a bomb is extremely low.

The size of the box is well within the usual sizes allowed for hand luggage, but of course you probably will have other stuff with you, as well as packaging to protect it, make sure the overall dimensions fit the limits set by your airline (they vary slightly from airline to airline).

Don't forget, though, that if your hand luggage it on the larger end of the allowance, it may be "gate-checked" (i.e. put in the hold) in at least the following cases:

  • the flight is very full and they are short on space in the overhead bins or they expect to be
  • the flight is operated with a smaller aircraft (usually regional jets or turboprops) which have very very limited overhead bin space.

Having hand luggage that is under the dimensions to "fit under the seat in front of you" usually guarantees you'll be able to keep it, provided you're not on the first row of any section or the emergency exit rows.

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  • To reduce the chance of it being gate checked, she could also try to ensure she is near the front of the queue for boarding. Many airlines will allow members with frequent flyer status or travelling on a more expensive ticket to board first. Check the rules of the specific airline. – thelem Mar 11 at 15:27
  • @thelem, the odds of a person who states "I rarely ever fly" even being a member of a frequent flyer program are somewhat low. A more expensive ticket, is, however, a possibility. Arriving at the gate early and talking to the gate agents to explain that the item is delicate and really needs to go carry-on, not gate checked, when approached with a smile & a nice attitude, is likely (though not guaranteed) to ensure the bag doesn't get checked. – FreeMan Mar 11 at 16:46
  • I have travelled with custom electronics and heard many stories from other people who have also. If they can x-ray it, and inspect it if necessary, I have never heard of something being rejected (not counting items that could be used as weapons). The biggest issue I have heard of is Electro-Static Discharge (ESD). The inspectors don't really know or care about ESD, so there is a risk of ESD damage during their inspections. – Mattman944 Mar 11 at 18:39
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This is more of a relevant anecdote that might give you an idea. I can only say my trip went smoothly and in the future I think I should engage TSA in advance and not rely on luck.

I flew on several international and domestic flights (Chicago-Taipei-Manila-Tacloban-Butuan) in early 2020 with the pictured case which contained 6 Rasberry PI Zeros and electronic parts (no batteries), the purpose being a 2-week Linux+C+circuits session for elementary students in a rural area. It filled one compartment of my carryon backpack and measures about 9x13x2 inches. More electronic parts were in my checked luggage. It never occurred to me that I might have trouble, but didn't get any, and didn't even remove it from the backpack during the many screenings I had to go through. This is a soft case and not a metal one, and I'm sure all those wires showed up bright and clear on the monitors. Your handmade metal box will certainly be more suspect (and opaque to the xrays) and require some explaining.

case of pi

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