Traveling with electronics used to be really simple, but now times have changed. You see, the TSA (Transport Security Administration) has recently started restricting electronics with lithium batteries, such as laptops, mobile phones, and power banks because of potential safety concerns.
In this article, we’ll tell you everything you need to know about traveling with electronic devices. We’ll tell you which devices are allowed and which are banned, what you should know before going through airport security, what are the rules for international flights, how to pack electronics for travel, and other useful tips.
Which Electronics Are Allowed on Airplanes?
The FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) and TSA restrict electronic devices with lithium batteries on airplanes.
External batteries, such as power banks and spare batteries, are allowed only in hand luggage and are banned from checked bags. And portable electronic devices with built-in lithium batteries, such as laptops, tablets, cameras, and mobile phones, are allowed in checked luggage and hand luggage. When portable electronic devices are packed in checked luggage, they must be turned off, and safely secured from accidental damage and accidentally turning on.
Furthermore, only lithium batteries with less than 100 Watt-hour capacity are allowed. Batteries with 100-160 Watt-hour capacity are restricted to two batteries per passenger and require airline approval, and batteries over 160 Watt-hours are banned.
Electronics That Are Allowed in Hand Luggage and Checked Luggage:
- Cameras. *Spare camera batteries are banned in checked luggage, and should only be carried in carry-on luggage.
- Mobile Phones.
- Smart suitcases with removable lithium batteries. *The lithium battery must be below 100 watt-hours and must be carried in hand luggage. Smart suitcases with the battery removed can be checked-in.
- Electric razors.
- Electric toothbrushes.
- Most plug-in-type electronic devices without a battery.
Electronics That Are Allowed Only in Hand Luggage:
- Power banks with less than 160 Watt-hour capacity. *100-160 watt-hour lithium batteries require airline approval and are limited to two batteries per passenger. Batteries with 100 watt-hours don’t require any approval.
- Spare lithium batteries for electronic devices.
- External battery chargers.
- Electronic cigarettes and vaping devices. *Smoking electronic cigarettes and vaping devices during the flight is illegal.
Note: To convert from mAh to Watt-hours, you need to multiply mAh with the output voltage. If the output voltage of your power bank is 3.7V, then 100 watt-hours equal 27 000 mAh, and if the output voltage is 5V, then 100 watt-hours equal 20 000 mAh. Here’s a Wh to mAh calculator that’s handy for the conversion.
Electronics That Are Allowed Only in Checked Luggage:
- Microwaves. *Depends on the airline.
- Metal detectors. *Depends on the airline.
Electronics That Are Banned from Checked Luggage and Hand Luggage:
- Power banks over 160 watt-hours.
- Samsung Galaxy Note 7 phones. *This model was recalled due to the battery issues.
- Apple Macbook laptops. *Recalled 15-inch Macbook Pro models sold between 2015 and 2017 are banned on all airlines. However, some airlines, such as Virgin Australia, have banned ALL Macbook Pro laptops, regardless of the specific model.
- Segways. *Depends on the airline.
- Smart suitcases with non-removable lithium batteries. *Even if the lithium battery is below 100 watt-hours, if it isn’t removable from the smart suitcase, you won’t be able to use the suitcase as a carry-on or a checked suitcase.
- Hoverboards. *Depends on the airline.
- Electronic lighters.
Why Is TSA Restricting Electronics with Lithium Batteries?
Lithium batteries are very unsafe because if they’re accidentally damaged or shorted, they can catch fire or explode. Sometimes, they’ll even ignite by themselves due to a manufacturing defect. Naturally, you wouldn’t want anything spontaneously igniting in a closed capsule, while cruising up at high altitudes.
In one instance, a Samsung Galaxy Note 7 phone caught on fire just minutes before take-off. It ignited in a passenger’s pocket, and the cabin quickly became filled with toxic green smoke, and the toxic flame even burnt through the floor. Luckily, the plane still hadn’t taken off, and everyone was quickly evacuated. Since then, the restrictions for lithium batteries have become much stricter.
Going Through Airport Security with Electronics
It’s very important to remember that you should always charge your electronics before packing them in your luggage. When going through the security, or when checking-in your suitcase, the screening agents may ask you to turn your device on to prove that it isn’t modified. If you wouldn’t be able to turn it on, they wouldn’t let you bring it in your luggage.
All electronics larger than a mobile phone, such as laptops, cameras, tablets, and power banks, will have to be removed from your bag and you’ll have to place them in separate bins. That’s because large electronics obstruct the x-ray image. You won’t have to remove hairdryers, electric razors, or toothbrushes, because they don’t obstruct the image too much. This means that you should pack large electronics somewhere on top, so you can easily take them out and later put them back in.
Although chargers don’t have to be placed in separate bins, it’s a good idea to do that anyway. If you have a lot of chargers, they’ll obstruct the x-ray image, so removing them just makes the job for the screening agents easier.
Consider Joining the TSA Precheck Program
Maybe you’ve noticed separated “TSA Precheck” lines right next to regular screening lines. These lines are for passengers who have registered for the TSA precheck program. Essentially, for a small commission, TSA lets American citizens without any criminal offenses to join their program, which makes the screening process within the U.S. faster and easier.
Precheck passengers don’t have to remove electronics and toiletries from their luggage, and they don’t have to take off jackets, shoes, belts, and hats, because the TSA has already done some background checks on them. If you’re a frequent flyer, in our opinion, applying for the precheck is worth it.
How to Pack Electronics for Travel
If you’re traveling with one or two electronic devices, it’s not too complicated. But if you’re a tech geek like me, you’re traveling with A LOT of devices and their chargers. For instance, here’s what electronics I usually take: A laptop, a power bank, an e-reader, a mobile phone, a wireless mouse, sometimes a portable second monitor, a DSLR, an electric razor, Bluetooth headphones, and some smaller gadgets.
If your bag doesn’t have a padded laptop/tablet pocket, you should get a padded laptop sleeve. DSLR’s should be packed inside their dedicated bags, which will also store the chargers, batteries, lenses, USB wires, e.t.c
Make sure that any other large electronics are wrapped in something, for example, a large hoodie. You can store all the smaller electronics inside zippered compartments in your carry-on luggage, or in your backpack.
How to Pack Chargers for Flying
Most people pack their chargers jumbled up, without worrying too much. But as I’ve personally found out, this damages the chargers pretty quickly. I used to change my laptop charger every six months because every day I’d stuff it in my backpack, and eventually the wire would break or just stop charging. Instead, you should always roll up your chargers and use velcro straps to keep them in place. Since I’ve started doing that, my chargers don’t get broken that quickly.
If you’re bringing one or two chargers, you can just squeeze them in somewhere and you’ll be fine. But if you’re bringing five to ten chargers, I suggest you get a separate bag for organizing the cables. You can find dedicated electronic travel organizers for this purpose, which neatly organize all of your chargers in one place. The Bagsmart Electronics Organizer on Amazon is a really solid choice, which even has some space for several smaller electronics, such as power banks, power adaptors, and others.
Packing Electronics for International Flights
When traveling internationally, always remember to check that your electronics are dual voltage. You see, in the U.S., electronics are designed for operating on a 110V grid, but in most other places around the world, the grid is on 220V. If you’d plug a 110V electronic device that isn’t dual voltage to a 220V grid, it would fry in seconds. To check that it’s dual voltage, find information in small letters on your device or the charger. If it says “100-240V”, it’s dual voltage and you can use it all over the world.
Also, it’s worth checking what electric outlets your destination country uses. Some countries use two flat prongs, while others may use three round prongs or god knows what other weird combination. Get a travel adapter that works in that country or get a universal travel adapter, that works everywhere. The EPICKA Universal Travel Adapter on Amazon is a really solid choice that works all over the world.
Another important thing is to be careful when bringing multiple electronic devices of the same kind, such as three identical laptops. Usually, customs allow only one or two devices for personal use. If you bring too many, they might ask you to pay an import tax, even if the devices are used and you’ve bought them 10 years ago. They’ll ask for receipts and if you can’t prove that you’ve bought them inside the country, you’ll have to pay a tax.
And lastly, if you’re traveling with very valuable gear, such as professional camera equipment, you’ll need an additional permit for each country, called a carnet. If the gear is over a certain sum (10 000$ – 70 000$), the customs need to make sure that you won’t be reselling your gear there without paying import taxes. So they’ll ask for Carnets, which are basically visas, just for expensive equipment. You need to get them months before your trip for some countries and be prepared to pay high fees.
Other Tips for Traveling with Electronics
- Pack electronics in your carry-on, not checked luggage, especially if they’re valuable. Quite often, stuff gets stolen from checked bags, or the checked suitcase itself gets lost, so avoid packing electronics in your checked bag.
- Get travel insurance for valuable electronics. First, check your credit card, because a lot of banks offer some kind of travel insurance for credit card owners. If insurance for electronics isn’t included, get separate travel insurance, which usually is pretty cheap anyway. Also, always keep the receipts for valuable electronics, because if they get stolen or lost, the insurance company will ask for the receipts.
- Use Zip-Lock bags for keeping your electronics dry. Whenever I travel or hike, I always store my electronics in a waterproof Zip-lock bag. This summer, I didn’t do that for my phone while hiking the Tatra mountains in Slovakia, because my new jacket was supposedly waterproof, and my phone was stored inside a “waterproof” pocket. Surely enough, it wasn’t waterproof, and for the next few days I had to live without a phone, and in the end, I had to get a new one. So learn from my own mistakes, and always make sure that your electronics are stored inside waterproof bags. Don’t trust the manufacturer!
- Back up your data before you go. You never know what’s going to happen with your devices while you travel. They could get wet, damaged, lost, or stolen, so always make a backup before you leave. You can set-up automatic backups in your phone through Gmail and other cloud solutions. And I’d recommend getting an external hard drive for your laptop, which you can leave at home and back-up your data every few weeks.
- Get a VPN before you go. Using public Wi-Fi is risky, especially when you’re abroad. Hackers can hack you through public Wi-Fi networks fairly easy if you aren’t using a VPN. To stay safe, get a VPN subscription, and always turn it on every time you connect to a new public network.
- Don’t use public USB charging ports. Have you noticed those publicly-available USB ports in airports, metros, and cafes? They’re quite convenient, aren’t they? Well, they’re also incredibly unsafe. All it takes is for a hacker to plug-in a flash drive there, and it will automatically store a virus there. Next time you connect your phone for charging, you’ll also get a virus, which will steal your credit card data. So don’t charge your phone there or use a cable, that doesn’t transfer any data and can be used only for charging.