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This is my first time travelling to US. All my check-in luggages are made of hard plastic and it has two side locks with key and one number lock in the front. I do not have any bags with TSA locks. Is it compulsory?

I do not even understand the concept of TSA locks. The bags are scanned in-front of the passenger and I do no realise why they need to open it in between transit. Another thing is that I am sure that its easy to obtain a TSA key, so how does it protect me as a passenger for thief trying to rob my bag or some smugglers from putting something in my bag.

Usually from travel in other places, if there is something suspicious in the bag. It will be marked and we will be asked to open it once we get the bag.

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    Checked luggage is not screened in front of the passenger at US airports (or anywhere else I'm aware of). Are you confusing TSA with US Customs? Because they're not the same; TSA is security screening for all flights in the US, Customs is customs. – cpast May 16 '15 at 14:55
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    If only TSA agents would reliably use the TSA locks, things would be easier; Cory Doctorow's experience shows they have trouble with even unlocked TSA locks on luggage (BoingBoing.net). – David Thomas May 16 '15 at 16:05
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    @lonetraveller They are not. TSA is focused on security screening before you get on the plane, and is looking for stuff that's a danger to the plane; they do this on all flights taking off from a US airport. Customs is run by a different federal agency and cares about what you're taking into the country; they check stuff coming in from abroad by any mode of transportation, and are looking for stuff the US doesn't want coming in (not stuff that poses a risk to a plane). The agencies are different, the officers are different, the goals are different, and the procedures are different. – cpast May 16 '15 at 18:52
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    My luggage has a built-in combination lock that's not TSA compatible -- I just put a label next to the lock with the combination, TSA has opened it a few times without a problem. The only reason I lock it at all is to hold the latch securely closed so if something presses against it it doesn't pop open. It would only take a couple seconds for a thief to force open the latch with a screwdriver, so the lock is not a real theft deterrent. – Johnny May 17 '15 at 3:52
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    @cpast Security folks at airports in Japan, Israel, several parts of Europe, and a few places in SE Asia will open your luggage in front of you and inspect things by hand. This is one way they get around accusations of theft and the requirement that you have some particular lock type. – zxq9 May 17 '15 at 16:11
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No, using a "TSA lock" is not compulsory. What using one does is enable TSA to physically inspect your luggage, if they so deem it necessary, without cutting your existing lock(s).

If you use a "TSA lock", it has been designed to allow TSA to use a master key to open it. Of course, this also means, as you have surmised, that anyone else with a master key can also open it.

If the locks on your luggage are not designed with a master key, available to TSA, then when you get your luggage at the destination, you may discover your locks have been cut off, or the combination lock has been pried open.

I would add that no lock has ever been designed, from the biggest to the smallest, that a determined thief cannot break, eventually. If you're worried about loss, that is what insurance is for. If you're carrying something truly irreplaceable, well... I don't know what to say as to why you checked it in anyway...

  • Great answer. And if your bag is opened the TSA is kind enough to leave a note saying so. – Andy May 16 '15 at 22:58
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    ... on at least some occasions, anyway. – E.P. May 17 '15 at 15:44
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    I've had my locks cut off, even with "TSA" locks. YMMV. – chue x May 18 '15 at 0:36
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    I've had my baggage with a non-TSA combination locked opened by the TSA (they left the note) and without having it cut. Seeing as the flight was delayed, I'm wondering if they just tried all the combinations until they were able to open the lock... – EdmundYeung99 May 18 '15 at 4:04
  • AIUI most cheap combination locks can be picked fairly easily without having to try all combinations. – Peter Green Apr 16 '17 at 3:53
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TSA locks are not "mandatory", in the sense that it's perfectly legal & allowed to bring any old suitcase with any old lock into the US. However, if you use a lock that is not TSA compatible, the TSA reserves the right to break it open if they need to check the contents of your bag.

The "other places" you describe seem to be more about Customs issues, where they're worried you're smuggling eg. drugs and can thus intercept you and your bag on arrival. However, TSA is concerned about security, so they need to screen bags before they get on the plane. They can't realistically do this with you present, not least because this would tip off if you were indeed a nefarious terrorist, so they need to be able to open your bags. And, of course, every country in the world scans checked bags and reserves the right to break into them or even blow them up if needed, lock or no lock.

Overall, TSA locks are a classic case of security theater: let's implement a back door only available to the "good guys" (TSA), and pretend it doesn't help the "bad guys" (thieves). In practice, of course, while distributing TSA keys to the public is supposed to be illegal, they're still easy enough to find online and a TSA lock will thus only defeat an incompetent thief.

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    Every airport in India (thats where I am from) has bomb sniffing dogs & various scanners to detect a bomb or any kind of explosive. I just presumed that US also has the better technologies and they did not have to open a bag to verify if there was a bomb. – lonetraveller May 16 '15 at 18:50
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    @lonetraveller One word, paranoid. – Ramchandra Apte May 17 '15 at 2:58
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    @lonetraveller The U.S. does, of course, have technology to scan bags. If they find something suspicious (or if they just feel like randomly checking your bag,) then they'll open it. In that case, if you have a non-TSA lock, they will break it off. – reirab May 17 '15 at 4:29
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    To be fair, a non-TSA lock won't defeat a competent thief either. – Relaxed May 17 '15 at 14:08
  • And, there have been plenty of cases where "good guys" (TSA), and "bad guys" (thieves) turn out to be the same people. – pkaeding May 18 '15 at 2:26
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TSA locks are one step above a rope as far as baggage security is concerned. I have locks on some bags, on all bags I use a coloured cable tie to secure the zipper. They cost 2 cents each at any electronics store and come in enough variety that no baggage thief will have another just like it. The seal is photographed at the check-in counter.

A plastic seal of course provides no actual security, it does provide tamper notice. I never pack anything worth stealing on checked baggage, and what I do pack is arranged in a way that looks good on baggage screening. Thus, security has no interest in my bag's contents and thieves tend to go for more expensive-looking (and not tamper-sealed) cases.

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    @DavidRicherby: fear of someone putting stuff in, I suppose. You can be the only person on the entire plane who, when asked "did you pack this bag yourself?" can answer "yes" with some degree of confidence ;-) Hopefully customs at the other end will also make provision for people who approach them saying, "I think my bag has been tampered with, there might be something in it that isn't mine, please help me search it". – Steve Jessop May 16 '15 at 15:49
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    What Steve Jessop said. My air travel is almost exclusively international. If you pick it up off the carousel, and the seal is missing, the first thing you do is wave at customs and declare that your bag has been opened in transit. You have photographic evidence that it was sealed, that seal is no longer present. If customs finds nothing, but you notice things missing, you have a much tighter claim than if you open it at the hotel. Several airline staff have commented that it is a very good idea and asked where I get the seals. – paul May 17 '15 at 3:06
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    This is interesting, but I'm not sure what it has to do with the question. – reirab May 17 '15 at 4:34
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    @DavidRicherby Though it's unlikely that a drug smuggler would ask a customs agent to come over and look through his bag. That's not to say they'd just let you go free and wish you a nice day, but I can see how it might help your credibility a bit. Having said that, as far as I know, sticking drugs in random people's bags without taking them out again before said person leaves with said bags isn't a common practice of drug smugglers, either. – reirab May 17 '15 at 10:20
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    @everyone: the most common use of the seal is you know immediately that everything is fine. – paul May 17 '15 at 13:10
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No, using a TSA lock is not mandatory. First, it is not mandatory to use a lock at all. Second, you can use any lock you want but, if the TSA decide to open your bag, they'll just break your lock if it's not one they can open with their master key. Note that they accept no liability for damage to your lock or your bag caused by them forcing a non-TSA lock.

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    You're probably right regarding damage as a result of using a non-TSA lock, but TSA is liable for other damage that they may cause. They have a claims form here to report such damage or suspected theft. – reirab May 17 '15 at 4:37
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No, using a "TSA lock" is not compulsory. That is because there is no U.S. law that mandates the use of such locks. On the contrary, there are situations in which the use of "TSA locks" are actually a violation of the law (49CFR 1540.111), even when a lock is explicitly required by law.

The primary example of when NOT to use "TSA locks", is when transporting firearms. Basically, the hard-sided container of the firearm must be locked, and "...only the passenger retains the key or combination."

So, since the TSA retains keys to "TSA locks", the use of such locks is an explicit violation of the law.

References:

https://www.law.cornell.edu/cfr/text/49/1540.111

http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/CFR-2014-title49-vol9/pdf/CFR-2014-title49-vol9-sec1540-111.pdf

  • Oh, the irony... – Sean Oct 8 at 3:56

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