Can we fly to the USA from Europe and back without being touched at the airport? Do you have a choice to go through a body scanner? Do all airports have them? Does it matter your country of origin?

  • 3
    Country of origin does not matter since TSA screeners do not have any way of knowing what your country of origin is when they decide how to screen you.
    – phoog
    Mar 13, 2017 at 17:06
  • 4
    @JonathanReez I agree with your decision to revert to Dorothy's edit, but I note that the original title is problematic not only because it is "politically charged"; it also invites the trivial and unsatisfying response that a properly conducted pat down is (legally, at least) not sexual molestation even if it includes contact with sexual body parts.
    – phoog
    Mar 13, 2017 at 17:45
  • 1
    of course you can ...
    – user428517
    Mar 13, 2017 at 17:52
  • 2
    @phoog It's true that the people working the scanner won't necessarily know your country of origin, but the TSA systems that decide whether or not to slap the dreaded SSSS (the request for extra special harassment) on your boarding pass presumably do know your country of origin (or at least the country of the passport you're traveling on in cases of multiple nationality.) Also, the TSA agent to whom you must present your passport and ID at the entry to the screening lines will presumably know your nationality (especially if you use your passport as your ID, which most non-nationals will.)
    – reirab
    Mar 13, 2017 at 22:02
  • 2
    @reirab that applies to international flights only, and the ID screener does not communicate with the security screeners. They do scribble something on the boarding pass, but the security screeners don't typically see the boarding pass (and the scribble doesn't likely encode your nationality in any event).
    – phoog
    Mar 13, 2017 at 23:13

5 Answers 5


Most travellers will not be physically screened however there's no certainty alas. The TSA prefers what they call "Advanced Imaging Technologies" (AIT) compared to what they call "physical screening". However, if the AIT produces an alarm you will be get the "physical screening" as you can find in the Privacy Impact Assessment Update for TSA Advanced Imaging Technology. And to make things worse, recently they have added that now the "front of the hand may be needed" to the Security Screening page:

A pat-down may include inspection of the head, neck, arms, torso, legs, and feet. This includes head coverings and sensitive areas such as breasts, groin, and the buttocks. You may be required to adjust clothing during the pat-down. The officer will advise you of the procedure to help you anticipate any actions before you feel them. Pat-downs require sufficient pressure to ensure detection.

TSA officers use the back of the hands for pat-downs over sensitive areas of the body. In limited cases, additional screening involving a sensitive area pat-down with the front of the hand may be needed to determine that a threat does not exist.

You will receive a pat-down by an officer of the same gender.


If the concern is Haphephobia, then yes, you are likely to pass through all screening without being touched. However, be aware that this is not guaranteed.

The biggest risk is when entering the terminal because if you set of any alarm, either in the mag or scanner, it will have to be resolved, usually by a pat-down of the suspected area.

The reduce this possibility, be sure to wear no metal or dense items, including jewelry, while passing through TSA line. And, be sure your clothes are dry as water spots confuse the image processor.

You would only be touched by CBP if sent to Secondary Screening and they suspect you may be concealing something on your person.

You will be physically searched if drugs are suspected and possibly for currency. Much, much less so for an Agriculture or Duty violation.

So, carry no food products or illicit drugs through Customs. Nothing that would give the detector dogs reason to even look at you.

Country of origin for the arriving flight is a factor in screening methods due to the prevalence of drug trafficking from certain regions.

  • 1
    Do you have any evidence for the claim that country of origin is not a factor?
    – FooBar
    Mar 13, 2017 at 18:38
  • 1
    You are not screened on arrivals only on departure.
    – user4188
    Mar 13, 2017 at 18:55
  • 2
    @chx Uh...you are absolutely 100% screened by CPB on Arrival. And that screening can lead to a physical search. While CBP is more subtle in their methods, you are screened.
    – Johns-305
    Mar 13, 2017 at 18:57
  • 1
    Ah I get what you mean. But that's really really rare compared to the TSA groping.
    – user4188
    Mar 13, 2017 at 19:01
  • 8
    Another important thing: don't have any ambiguity in your gender. I used to get the patdown ALL THE TIME because a certain body part (now removed) threw off their scanners when they pushed the button that corresponded to how I present, rather than what was between my legs.
    – fluffy
    Mar 13, 2017 at 21:53

TSA uses advanced imaging technology to safely screen passengers at the checkpoint. Advanced imaging technology uses automated target recognition software that eliminates passenger-specific images and instead auto-detects potential threats by indicating their location on a generic outline of a person.

The full-body scanners used in all airports since May 2013 are called "millimeter wave" machines, which bounce electromagnetic waves off the traveler to provide an animated image where a suspicious item might be located. The TSA no longer uses the backscatter scanners that produced near-naked images of travelers.

Passengers may decline, in some instances, and opt for a physical screen, in which an officer of the same gender does a pat down search, and which, on request, can be done in a private area away from public view.

“Generally, passengers undergoing screening will still have the option to decline a (full-body) screening in favor of physical screening,” said Bruce Anderson, a TSA spokesman. “However, some passengers will be required to undergo (full-body) screening if warranted by security considerations in order to safeguard transportation security.”

And, as reference, TSA has a video where you can watch both methods in operation.

  • 1
    To be clear, the machines still produce the 'naked image' since that is the native output of the sensor. However, a separate program processes that image to produce the outline figure which is displayed.
    – Johns-305
    Mar 13, 2017 at 18:18
  • @Johns-305 so to 'fix' the privacy problem with the old machines, they replaced them entirely rather than update the software for the old ones to censor the displayed images? SMH Mar 13, 2017 at 18:46
  • @DanNeely Yes. L3 developed the stick figure method first then "convinced" members of Congress that should be a required privacy feature. RapidScan was caught very off guard and could not meet the new requirement. They basically got out-lobbied. The x-ray factor didn't help either. Neither machine is particularly effective, L3 just had more...influence;)...to share.
    – Johns-305
    Mar 13, 2017 at 18:54
  • @DanNeely The mm wave technology was a competing technology with the backscatter-based scanners. Many (most?) airports had the mm wave-based scanners from the beginning. Both types produce "near naked" images natively. As Johns said, L3 developed the software to automate detection and highlight an area to be physically searched rather than actually showing the near-naked image to the operator. When RapidScan couldn't meet the requirement, the backscatter installations were replaced. Generally, this is kind of a good thing, since frequent exposure to x-rays isn't great.
    – reirab
    Mar 13, 2017 at 20:42
  • @DanNeely Incidentally, many passengers also still just go through normal metal detectors instead of the body scanners, particularly those who have TSA PreCheck.
    – reirab
    Mar 13, 2017 at 20:43

There are also the airports in Europe. You might get a security screening at the departure airport in Europe. They are not all equipped with body scanners.

It also depends on the specific airport. Security screening in London (UK) is quite tight, while in Thessaloniki (Greece), you might be lucky and walk just through without screening (especially when you arrive late at the gate). However, it might just happen that even in those more "relaxed" locations, security procedures can be changed without prior notice. Sometimes, random people are picked for a more thorough screening.

At some airports with the tighter security procedures, you are given the option to remove parts of your clothing (like shoes or the belt) so they can be inspected without someone getting too close to you. Belts and shoes are often touched by officials as they are assumed to be good places to conceal illegal items.

if you carry medical equipment on your body (an insuline pump, a CGM, a heart monitor or such things), this equipment might receive additional attention. Some insuline pumps can be detached, others will need to be replaced when removed from the body. CGM sensors will also typically be unusable once removed and need to be replaced as well. If you insist that these devices remain stuck to your body, security officials might want to touch them (not necessarily with their hands, but with a "broom" to collect chemical traces from the surface of this equipment).


On an unpredictable basis I would say we have been touched roughly 1 time in 20. Beyond that we have drawn searches for things that we had some control over:

1) Two layers of clothing will likely prompt a search. A couple of times flying out of a cold place I was wearing thermal underwear--which has always drawn a search.

2) Large areas of solid or quasi-solid material in your carry-on baggage will confuse the x-ray people and generally lead to a search. Avoid anything that's going to look like a blob on the x-ray.

3) On my last flight I got a full pat-down due to medical liquids--something that has never happened in the past. I'm not sure if it's changed procedures or that I drew a guy who didn't really know what he was doing (kept asking other agents for guidance.) Previously it's always just been their test strip waved over the bottle (I've never been carrying anything that had to remain sterile.)

This has only been the security people when boarding an airplane. Never once have we been touched by the customs and immigration people other than incidental contact while handing documents one way or the other.

  • 1
    Camera lenses (big ones) can require secondary inspection, but there is little to be done about that (you'd be crazy to check them- they would stand a good chance of being stolen). Maybe have the traveler in your party least sensitive to groping carry the lenses. Mar 15, 2017 at 5:14
  • I carry a 28-200 superzoom, the bag it is in has only been opened once and that was due to the box of batteries, not the glass. (Chinese security--at least with foreigners they usually describe or show what they are seeing on the x-ray and ask you to produce it rather than digging on their own. A much better defense against sticky fingers.) Mar 15, 2017 at 22:28
  • Several large Zeiss lenses seem to pique their interest- apparently the glass is opaque to X-rays so they want to look through the lenses if the volume is big enough. I don't have such $$ glass, but I am told it is almost assured. Agrees that I have good confidence in Chinese security with much less touching of stuff and person. Mar 16, 2017 at 5:26
  • @SpehroPefhany I could imagine it with pro-level long lenses. I've never so much as touched such stuff, though. Mar 17, 2017 at 0:26

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.