Travel

Do Luggage Locks Make Your Luggage More Secure?


Most suitcases on the market have locks. This added protection makes travelers feel more secure, but does it actually work? I spoke with Nathan Bahr and Jeff Church, supervisory transportation security officers at the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), and Lorie Dankers, a spokesperson for the TSA, to find out.

Different Types of Luggage Locks 

There are two main types of luggage locks. The more prevalent kind is one that is built into the suitcase — you’ll see these on many checked bags on the market right now. The other type of luggage lock is detachable and can be purchased separately from the suitcase. Most travelers with separate, detachable locks use these for duffle bags, backpacks, or other luggage without a built-in lock. Surprisingly, not all built-in locks are TSA-approved, so it’s important to look before purchasing a new suitcase.

According to the TSA, locks appear more often on checked bags than carry-ons. However, this will depend largely on where the traveler is heading and what they are traveling with. If you’re curious if your lock is TSA-approved, this is how you tell: “There’s two different manufacturers,” explains Church. “[A TSA-approved lock] will have a diamond shape on the lock, and [at] the bottom of the lock, it will say TSA with some numbers.”

Why People Use Luggage Locks

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Everyone wants to make sure their belongings stay safe while in transit. There are several reasons why people might use luggage locks, ranging from protection against theft to keeping the suitcase together. If you have a zipper that won’t stay shut, a lock can effectively ensure your suitcase doesn’t fall open while going through the conveyor belts until it reaches your final destination.

If the concern is the safety of your items while the luggage is in the custody of TSA, you have nothing to worry about. The TSA has heavy accountability measures, including CCTV footage during any potential physical inspection. You never have to worry about theft by TSA officers, so don’t purchase a lock solely for this reason.

However, people outside of the TSA, like third-party baggage handlers or even people waiting at the baggage carousel, could have access to your suitcase. A visible lock, whether built-in or external, could dissuade potential thieves from looking into your suitcase.

How the TSA Handles Luggage Locks

After leaving the check-in counter, all checked bags go through an explosive detection system. This system uses a 3D scanner to identify potential explosives. If the scanner flags a suitcase, an officer reviews the X-ray image and can either clear the bag or flag it for a physical inspection. “In our checked baggage room, we have a set of keys,” explains Church. “There’s nine different keys for nine different locks.” If your suitcase is flagged and has a TSA-approved lock, it will be searched and resecured before it makes its way to the plane.

It’s important to know that only select TSA officers can access the keys to open TSA-approved locks. You don’t have to worry that dozens of sets of keys are floating around, able to open your suitcase at any moment. They are securely stored and tracked for further accountability.

“We have to secure our keys every morning and night to make sure we have control of the keys and that we haven’t had someone wander through and collect the keys that shouldn’t have access to them,” explains Bahr.

If you have a lock that is not TSA-approved and your bag is flagged, the lock will get cut. Bahr explains that the TSA has a set of bolt cutters to remove the locks if necessary. Although the lock cannot be repaired, the officer will try to use zip ties to secure the bag before sending it along.

Only around 5 percent of bags are opened for physical inspection, so you likely won’t encounter issues, regardless of your lock type. If your suitcase does need an inspection, it will be opened by any means necessary. Of the 5 percent that gets inspected, Bahr estimates that between 25 percent and 35 percent of bags are locked, so it certainly makes the process much more streamlined if it’s TSA-approved.

Carry-on bags are a slightly different situation. Since carry-ons remain with the passenger while they go through security, a TSA-approved lock isn’t as necessary. If an officer needs to perform a physical inspection after the carry-on goes through the scanner, the traveler can open the lock for the officer, whether it is TSA-approved or not.

Bottom Line

As a full-time traveler, I highly recommend having a suitcase with a built-in TSA-approved luggage lock. I know my suitcase is secure while in transit, but it won’t need to be broken into for the TSA to do a physical inspection. If your suitcase doesn’t have a built-in TSA-approved lock, there are plenty of external locks on the market that are still TSA-approved. Look for the Travel Sentry marking, a little red diamond, to know if it falls into this category.


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