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I'm currently in the process of moving from France to Canada.

I have plenty of computer equipment that I just put in boxes and that will be sent by naval transport. One thing I'm scared off though, is that people handling my boxes and/or the container aren't really delicate when it comes to moving stuff that contains hard-drives (I'm mainly concerned about my Network Access Storage device which contains tera-bytes of data). Obviously hard-drives are really sensitive to movement and could break easily if wrongly handled.

Putting those in checked-luggage doesn't seem like a better idea (some would even say it's actually worse) so the only option I can think of is taking at least one of the disks with me in cabin-luggage.

So here comes the question: is one allowed to carry such a disk in cabin luggage ? I know people travel all the time with external hard drives, but in this case, I'm afraid a custom police officer unaware of what this device is, might be afraid of the looks of an unenclosed hard drive such as:

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I can easily imagine how one could use a sharp hard drive as a dangerous projectile, but I could say the same for many other items so my concern is more about "What is this metallic/electronic device that you can't turn on ? Is it a BOMB ?!"

I obviously made online backups of anything really valuable, but some of the data files are just too big to be uploaded in reasonable time now.

Should I prepare for the worst ?


Follow-up

I actually used an old case for hard-drives of that size and could go through both french & british customs/security checks without any trouble. They were more concerned about my shoes (you know, terrorist shoes, with small rings of metal to hold the laces) than about my hard drive.

  • related: travel.stackexchange.com/questions/16266/… – Dirty-flow Aug 28 '14 at 7:54
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    If you take some precautions, you can send it via courier just fine. Either package it as a heartwarming gift, like something you'd send to a loving aunt or grandma as a birthday gift; Or go the exact opposite route and label it with something no sane person would want to get covered with, like "urine sample" or "animal semen". As the courier from my source says, they will be extra careful with both of those. Source: cracked.com/…. – Nzall Aug 28 '14 at 10:06
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    I think answers should specifically address whether it would be considered an unpowered electronic device: nbcnews.com/news/world/…. Strictly only applies to US destinations, but I don't know whether departure security can be bothered to skip applying the additional security requirements to Canada-bound passengers. What if you bought two tickets, one to US and one to Canada, went through security on the Canada one and then got on the US bound plane? So figure out what checks you'll face. – Steve Jessop Aug 28 '14 at 10:51
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    You should always prepare for the worst. If you have two sets of this data (backup & master), you may want to consider shipping those separately. Travel with the master in carry-on luggage (according to the answers already given), and ask a friend to hold a package where you have carefully packed the backup drives until you call and ask them to ship it to your new location. That way, only a single copy is in transit at any time. If the data is truly valuable to you, a few additional drives may be a good investment. You can use them for plain storage or backups later. Also consider encryption. – a CVn Aug 28 '14 at 11:38
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    Do not follow @NateKerkhofs's advice.. I really wonder who +1'd that. "Animal semen" is definitely something subject to customs regulations and would likely be destroyed immediately by customs inspectors as a pathogen risk unless you have the proper documents for importing it. Nice way to get your data destroyed... – R.. Aug 28 '14 at 18:17
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I have done this a couple of times until two years ago - within Europe only though. And while it was never I problem, I always had to show the HDD separately etc - and in the last case was recommended (by security staff at Birmingham (BHX) airport) to buy a cheap (€15) external case, pop the HDD in that and less questions (if any) would be asked.

I have done exactly that ever since and had no problem flying with as many as five or six of them in carry on luggage.

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    +1 for external HD case. This is what I'd probably do. The only possible reason I can see for not doing this is that it makes it easier for them to plug in the device "to check that it's actually a working HD" and copy files off, [inadvertently] install malware, put illegal content on it and blame you for having the content, etc. – R.. Aug 28 '14 at 18:09
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    @R.. That's why you should consider encrypting what's on the drive. True, it won't keep them from making a copy if they want to, but it makes it a lot more difficult to get much of anything meaningful out of that copy without making it obvious that they are doing so. (If they are willing to make it plainly obvious, then external HDD case, encryption, etc. doesn't matter.) – a CVn Aug 29 '14 at 11:49
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I've traveled with hard disks in the past, both enclosed and unenclosed ones. I've never had a single issue with enclosed hard drives - nearly everyone seems to know what they are and understand that they pose no security hazard. The only time I've been stopped was by an elderly gentleman manning the security at JFK. He had difficulty understanding what it was, but one of his younger colleagues stepped in and made him understand that it was just a storage device and completely harmless.

More than the security, I would worry about the integrity of your data. Please do yourself a favor and buy a $15 hard disk enclosure. For added protection, I would also recommend splurging on a quality hard drive carrying case.

For even more security, backup all your data beforehand in the cloud. Dropbox recently dropped its pro plan price to $10/month for 1Tb of data. You can also consider using Amazon Glacier storage ($0.01/Gb for the first Tb) to archive your data before you travel.

You can never really be too careful with data.

  • Backblaze is $5/mo. for unlimited storage (for personal use). – Brad Aug 28 '14 at 15:41
  • How is Dropbox a viable solution for backing up that much data? I consider even USB2 speeds way too slow to copy that much data; certainly most non-insanely-priced residential internet service is too slow for uploading that much. – R.. Aug 28 '14 at 18:11
  • @R..to do it only once before you leave, and another in the unlikely case that one of the drives breaks is not so much. But one should already have backups anyway. – Davidmh Aug 28 '14 at 18:19
  • @R..I see it as a one time thing. Upload it once so you always have a record of the files. In either case, there's no way you'd be accessing all 1Tb of your files at once. The files you do intend to use regularly you can easily store in a separate Dropbox folder for regular use (smaller files, of course; not 5Gb of HD video). – shirleym Aug 28 '14 at 19:24
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    Once-only or not, it's still inpractical: most residential internet services where I am have upload speeds <1Mbps, typically about 0.5Mbps. It would take about 6 months to upload a terabyte at that rate. – Jules Aug 29 '14 at 3:30
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Hard drives are well known to security - they won't be bothered by it at all. The external cases mentioned elsewhere will make it look more normal, but an anti-static bag will not pose any problems.

However:

Obviously hard-drives are really sensitive to movement and could break easily if wrongly handled.

is not entirely true. Running drives don't like being moved around at all. Not-running drives don't like being dropped onto concrete or hit with baseball bats.

A bit of bubble wrap around the drive, well-mummified with some tape, and the drive will survive any reasonable transport handling. How do you think it arrived at the store in the first place?

However, as others have mentioned, there is the possibility of the ship sinking and taking your data with it. A really cheap and fast backup is to just borrow storage from someone. Copy your stuff to their drives (possibly filling their system up) then call them when it arrives at the other end so they can delete it. Uploading multi-terabytes to cloud storage will take a while.

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If you have TB's of data and haven't backed them up, then you have too much data or not enough TB's (for the backup). That data is already at risk, which is your choice!

So as Paul mentioned, re-wrap them. But I suggest going further than "a bit of bubble wrap". All HD's come in commercial packing, and shipping companies here don't honor those particularly. Drive + antistatic bubble wrap plus cardboard, inside another box isolated with peanuts or foam. Advantage here is that you can pack multiple drives in the master box, separated appropriately. As long as you are willing to make this box small enough to be cabin luggage, and not carry any other cabin luggage, you can carry it with. Or now you can just check the thing. Since you are going so far as to capably pack them, however, then there is no reason to go one more step to ship them by commercial carrier, and not have them munged with by airport security at all. So my best answer is, "don't carry them on." And my next best answer is, buy the backup capacity now, do it, then ship the two sets (packed as above) by different carriers on different days. Too expensive? Buy a BD-drive and spend hours writing the backups that you should have done, and ship those by different carriers on different days.

  • I'm not arguing about whether what you say is true or false, and having a second copy is good advice in general (I mentioned it myself in a comment to the question), but it seems that this answer doesn't really answer the question of whether taking hard disk drives as carry-on luggage is allowed. On Stack Exchange, answers generally should offer an answer to the question as asked. Maybe you can edit to fix that? – a CVn Aug 29 '14 at 11:54
  • @MichaelKjörling The original question is based on the assumption that disk drives are too fragile for normal shipment. This assumption is incorrect, therefore the question itself is subject to amendment. There is often a Better Way™ that moots the original question. – paul Aug 29 '14 at 14:04

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