What You Need to Know Before Flying With a Gun

What You Need to Know Before Flying With a Gun

Can you fly on a commercial airline with a firearm within the USA? Yes, you can, as long as you follow the rules and guidelines carefully. Whether you’re traveling for a hunting trip, a firearms training course, business, or recreation, and you want to take firearms and/or ammunition with you, you need to be aware of the laws and regulations regarding the legal transportation of guns aboard commercial aircraft. We’re here to help you understand what you need to do to make this process as convenient and stress-free as possible.

TSA Security Checkpoint at Airport

Please note: This article is provided for informational purposes only. We have made a reasonable attempt to provide accurate information as of the time of publication. Neither Liberty Safe nor the author assumes any liability for the use or misuse of this information. It is YOUR responsibility to understand and conform with all local firearms laws as well as TSA and airline regulations regarding the transportation of firearms and ammunition.

Understanding TSA and airline regulations regarding flying with firearms and ammunition

First, you need to understand that the TSA’s rules may differ from the rules of your particular airline. Usually, when there is a discrepancy, the airline’s rules are more stringent or specific than the TSA’s rules. Additionally, these rules have changed over the years and may change in the future. However, you need to conform to both sets of rules. So, even if you’ve flown with firearms recently, be sure to visit the TSA’s website, as well as the website for your airline, within 24 hours of your flight and print out the latest rules. Do this each time you fly with a firearm, even if it’s only been weeks or months since your last flight. Review the rules, and take these printouts with you to the airport in case of any confusion on the part of the airline ticketing/counter agent.

Video: Tips for Traveling with Firearms

Note: Consistent with the new ATF definition of firearm, the TSA now considers frames, receivers, and 3D-printed guns to be firearms under its civil enforcement program. These items remain prohibited items and must be transported in accordance with TSA regulations in a checked bag. When in doubt about an item, declare it at the airline baggage check counter.

Flying with firearms

As far as the TSA is concerned, these are the TSA rules about flying with firearms at the time of this writing (remember, your airline may have additional restrictions or rules):

  • You may transport unloaded firearms in a locked, hard-sided container as checked baggage only.
  • Declare the firearm and/or ammunition to the airline when checking your bag at the ticket counter.
  • The container must completely secure the firearm from being accessed. Locked cases that can be easily opened are not permitted. Be aware that the container the firearm was in when purchased may not adequately secure the firearm when it is transported in checked baggage.
  • When traveling, comply with the laws concerning the possession of firearms as they vary by local, state, and international governments.
  • If you are traveling internationally with a firearm in checked baggage, please check the US Customs and Border Protection website for information and requirements prior to travel.
  • Declare each firearm each time you present it for transport as checked baggage. Ask your airline about limitations or fees that may apply.
  • Firearms must be unloaded, locked in a hard-sided container, and transported as checked baggage only. As defined by 49 CFR 1540.5, a loaded firearm has a live round of ammunition, or any component thereof, in the chamber, cylinder, or magazine inserted in the firearm. For civil enforcement purposes, TSA also considers a firearm to be loaded when both the firearm and ammunition are accessible to the passenger. For example, if an individual has a firearm, inaccessible baggage, and ammunition in his/her pocket or any combination where the individual has access to both, the firearm is considered "loaded" for purposes of assessing a civil penalty. Only the passenger should retain the key or combination to the lock unless TSA personnel request the key to open the firearm container to ensure compliance with TSA regulations. You may use any brand or type of lock to secure your firearm case, including TSA-recognized locks.
  • Bringing an unloaded firearm with accessible ammunition to the security checkpoint carries the same civil penalty/fine as bringing a loaded firearm to the checkpoint. You may find information on civil penalties at the Civil Enforcement page.
  • Firearm parts, including magazines, clips, bolts, and firing pins, are prohibited in carry-on baggage but may be transported in checked baggage.
  • Replica firearms, including toy replicas, may be transported in checked baggage only.
  • Rifle scopes are permitted in carry-on and checked baggage.

How do I check baggage containing a firearm when flying?

The basics for easy mode at the ticket counter are:

  • Be fully aware of the laws of the city/state you’re flying from and the city/state you’re flying to. You must comply with all local firearms laws.
  • Visit the TSA website AND your airline’s website (links provided below) within 24 hours of your flight and print out the rules for traveling with firearms and ammunition. Bring these printouts with you.
  • Unload your firearms and magazines at home before you go to the airport. Cable locks through the action or chamber flags are recommended. Ammunition should weigh below 11 pounds in total and must be stored in factory ammo boxes or another durable container designed for holding ammo. Smaller handguns and ammo must be stored in a lockable, hard-sided case, and that case must be placed within checked baggage that is also lockable. (Generally, you want to keep your ammunition and your firearm/s in the same hard-sided case, but some airlines allow ammo to be separate but within a larger, outer piece of luggage.)
  • If your handguns won’t fit in a typical hard-sided handgun case, if you’re flying with multiple handguns, or if you are traveling with long guns, they must be transported in a lockable, hard-sided case that can be checked as luggage. If it’s overweight, you’ll have to pay the extra fee.
  • Go to the main ticket counter, where you check your baggage. DO NOT attempt to carry on luggage containing a firearm. Calmly inform the ticket agent that you need a declaration or that you are traveling with firearms. Both mean the same thing. The agent will ask you to open your case for them to inspect. Turn your luggage so other passengers can’t see what’s happening, and open the luggage/case just enough for the agent to see. The agent will ask if your firearm is unloaded. You say yes. You do not have to allow them to handle your firearms (and you shouldn’t handle them in open view of other passengers, either).
  • The counter agent will ask you to fill out a FIREARMS UNLOADED card with your name, date, and signature, and the agent will sign it as well. Place this card inside the case containing the firearm. The agent may ask you how much ammunition you have in the case. You say less than 11 pounds, or whatever the actual weight of the ammo is (generally, it must be under 11 pounds). The agent may or may not ask whether your magazines are loaded. We prefer transporting unloaded magazines for less hassle.
  • You will then lock the case containing firearms/ammo with a padlock and lock the outer luggage (if applicable).

The agent will either say you’re good to go, or they may ask you to hand-carry your luggage to a TSA check station, or they may accompany you. Once the TSA agent has scanned your bag, they’ll let you know you’re good to proceed through security. That’s all there is to it! However, there are a few more tips and things you should be aware of, so be sure to keep reading below.

Flying with ammunition, clips, and/or magazines

The TSA’s current rules for transporting ammunition, magazines, and clips are:

  • Ammunition is prohibited in carry-on baggage but may be transported in checked baggage.
  • Firearm magazines and ammunition clips, whether loaded or empty, must be securely boxed or included within a hard-sided case containing an unloaded firearm. Read the requirements governing the transport of ammunition in checked baggage as defined by 49 CFR 175.10 (a)(8).
  • Small arms ammunition (up to .75 caliber and shotgun shells of any gauge) must be packaged in a fiber (such as cardboard), wood, plastic, or metal box specifically designed to carry ammunition and declared to your airline.
  • Ammunition may be transported in the same hard-sided, locked case as a firearm if it has been packed as described above. You cannot use firearm magazines or clips for packing ammunition unless they completely enclose the ammunition. Firearm magazines and ammunition clips, whether loaded or empty, must be boxed or included within a hard-sided, locked case.
  • Please check with your airline for quantity limits for ammunition.

As with many things related to the TSA or other government entities, these rules can be somewhat confusing. They obviously allow for loaded magazines to be transported (since they mention magazines whether loaded or empty), but then they also say that ammunition must be packaged in a fiber, wood, plastic, or metal box specifically designed to carry ammunition. So which is it? Most people agree that unless an airline specifically prohibits loaded magazines, transporting ammunition within a magazine is permitted as long as it conforms with the other rule (completely enclosing the ammunition). However, depending on your airline, a ticket counter agent may ask you repeatedly if your magazines are unloaded.

Video Accidental gun discharge sparks panic at Atlanta airport

What do magazines that completely enclose the ammunition mean?

This is an area of confusion with the TSA. Your airline may or may not have additional tips. For example, United says Packaging should also fit over any exposed ends of the magazine or clip. This doesn’t really clarify things very well.

We’ve had counter agents ask that we remove ammunition from loaded handgun magazines and replace it in factory ammo boxes, and we’ve also had counter agents ignore loaded handgun magazines. So, just be prepared if you deal with an agent who is particular about this specific issue. For AR-15 rifle magazines, Magpul sells dust covers for their PMAG magazines that will certainly qualify for completely enclosing the ammunition.

To avoid the issue altogether, we recommend simply unloading your magazines and storing any ammunition in factory boxes or something like plastic MTM Case Gard ammo boxes.

The main concern the TSA is trying to avoid is boxes of ammo aren't rattling around in your luggage and bursting open. That’s why boxes of ammunition should NOT be transported in a loosely packed (or otherwise empty) suitcase. Ammo boxes and/or magazines should be secured within your luggage so they don’t move around.

Airline-specific rules about flying with firearms and ammunition vary

Remember, just because you’re following TSA’s rules about flying with firearms, you might not be in full compliance with your particular airline’s rules, as they can differ. That’s why you should always review and print out both the TSA’s rules and your airline’s rules within 24 hours of your flight and bring printouts with you. For your convenience, here are links to some of the major US airlines’ rules about flying with firearms and ammunition:

Line at the Airport

Additional tips for flying with ammunition

There’s no official TSA limitation on how much ammunition you can check in your luggage, but each airline has its own standard. Delta’s and Frontier’s limit is 11 pounds, for example, and most others are similar (but can differ, so be sure to check).

Eleven pounds of ammunition actually isn’t very much and certainly won’t get you through a 2-day rifle or handgun class, let alone a shotgun class. So, if you need a lot of ammo where you’re going, arrange to ship your ammo ahead or make plans to purchase it at your final destination.

Ammunition packaging is one area where the TSA and airline employees may not understand their own rules, and they may hassle you about how your ammunition is packaged. The easiest way we have found is to use factory ammo boxes. Yes, they are cardboard and plastic, but if your ammo is inside factory-printed, factory-labeled ammunition boxes, you have less of a chance of running into questions or concerns. The regulations have mentioned factory packaging in the past, and some ticket agents still look for it.

Some airline rules may specify that each round of ammunition is separated from every other round (like in its own slot in an ammo box rather than dumped into a plastic bag or similar).

If you use your own plastic ammo boxes, it’s a good idea to label it with the caliber of ammo and the actual weight of the ammunition so you can demonstrate that your total ammo weight in the case is not over the allowed 11 pounds.

As an example of how airline rules can differ, here are the current requirements for flying with ammunition from United.com:

  • Ammunition can be packed in the same container as the firearm or separately.
  • Ammunition must be packed in its original container or in securely packed fiber, wood or metal containers.
  • The ammunition inside the container must be protected against shock and secured against movement.
  • Loaded magazines or clips must be removed from the firearm and securely packed in boxes or other packaging designed to carry small amounts of ammunition. Packaging should also fit over any exposed ends of the magazine or clip.
  • Ammunition with explosive or incendiary projectiles is not allowed.
  • Black powder, for black powder weapons, is considered hazardous material and can’t go in your checked baggage.

Case and lock selection for flying with firearms

For transporting one or two handguns, a lockable, portable, hard-sided handgun vault that fits inside your lockable luggage is perfectly acceptable. As long as you use a hard-sided container that can be securely locked and either checked inside another lockable piece of luggage or checked as a stand-alone piece of luggage, it conforms to the TSA and airlines’ rules.

For multiple handguns, or for long guns like shotguns and rifles, a dedicated hard-sided travel case with sturdy foam inserts is strongly preferred. Pelican cases are the gold standard for hard cases to protect pretty much anything valuable in transit. Cameras, computer equipment, electronics, firearms and optics, etc. Pelican cases are pricey and can be pretty heavy, so take those factors into consideration. There are a couple models that are close to exceeding airline baggage weight limits even before you put anything in them.

Also note: some TSA agents are sticklers for requiring that each hole for a lock actually be fitted with a lock. So if your hard case has 4 locking holes, you must have 4 locks in place. Sometimes, they don’t care, but sometimes they do, and if you don’t have all locking holes occupied with a lock, they may force you to purchase additional locks at the airport.

This may seem excessive, but having multiple locks is actually a good idea, particularly in long-gun cases. If the case is only padlocked at one end, the case latches can often still be opened and thieves can pry the case open far enough to get some of the items out of the case, even with one or two padlocks in place. Not good.

Don’t try to fly with soft handgun bags, range bags, or soft rifle cases, even if they can be locked. You might get lucky and find a counter agent who isn’t familiar with the regulations, but you will most likely get stuck on the return flight, and then what will you do? Get a proper, sturdy, hard-sided case and whatever type of locks you feel comfortable using.

Consider using gaffer’s tape or other sturdy tape to secure the locks once the counter airline agent has instructed you to lock up your case. Taping down the locks can prevent them from catching on the edge of equipment and breaking off.

Should I use TSA or non-TSA-compliant locks?

What’s a TSA lock? A TSA-approved or TSA-recognized lock is one that can be opened by TSA agents using a master key. However, when flying with firearms, as far as TSA’s regulations are concerned:

  • Only the passenger should retain the key or combination to the lock unless TSA personnel request the key to open the firearm container to ensure compliance with TSA regulations. You may use any brand or type of lock to secure your firearm case, including TSA-recognized locks.

So, you have the choice of whether or not to use TSA-keyed locks on your checked baggage containing a firearm. We prefer to use high-quality non-TSA locks because we don’t want random TSA or airport employees messing with (or stealing) our stuff without our knowledge. If you use non-TSA locks, they will have to contact you and get the key or combination to open your bag, and we feel this forces greater accountability from the agency. If you trust the TSA and don’t want to be bothered once you check in your luggage, you might opt for TSA-recognized locks.

Are combination locks or keyed locks better for flying with guns?

If you use non-TSA-compliant locks with the intent of being present if the TSA wants to go through your luggage, you have two main options: combination locks or keyed locks. Keyed locks are easier and quicker to open, but you absolutely must retain your key (as well as a backup key).

Combination locks can be more difficult to pick and are more inconvenient to open. However, with combo locks, you don’t have to worry about retaining a key (just remembering the combination). Additionally, if the TSA wants to open your bag, you can just give the agent your combination over the phone, and you won’t have to return to a scanning location and potentially go through security again.

If you want to be present if/when the TSA goes through your case, then you might choose keyed, non-TSA locks. You will be required to return from your gate to the TSA inspection checkpoint and unlock the case for the TSA agent (or give them your key). They will not care if this makes you miss your flight.

Airport procedures for flying with firearms

We’ve covered the key rules and some tips for flying with firearms and ammo. So now let’s go more in-depth about ways to make things easier at the airport when flying with guns.

Firearms must be unloaded BEFORE you arrive at the airport

This is vital. Don’t wait until you get to the airline counter, or even at the parking lot, to unload and double-check the empty condition of your firearms. You don’t want to be taking your guns out of your case in the middle of the airport. The counter agent will ask you probably 4 or 5 times if your firearm is unloaded. Simply answer yes, and don’t be surprised if they ask you again.

They may ask you if your magazines are unloaded. As we mentioned above, the TSA (and most airlines) allow the transportation of loaded magazines as long as they are stored in accordance with the rules. However, if you want to remove a point of hassle, simply unload all of your magazines and store your ammunition in factory ammo boxes (or sturdy aftermarket ammo boxes).

Allow extra time if you are flying with a firearm

We don’t like to be rushed, and for standard domestic flights without transporting firearms, we try to arrive at the airport at least 1.5 to 2 hours before scheduled departure. However, if you travel with firearms, you might want to bump that back to arriving 3 hours early. You have to allow time to wait in line at the airline luggage/check-in counter and for them to potentially learn their own rules about whether you are allowed to fly with a firearm. We’ve had the firearms check procedure at the ticket counter take up to half an hour in rare cases.

If the TSA calls you back through security to unlock your case, you can lose another hour going back through security if it’s a busy day. Waiting around at your gate because you arrived extra early is far better than being stressed out and rushed because the TSA decided to take their time approving your luggage. Or worse yet, missing your flight.

Remember, different airlines may have slightly different rules or requirements, even different from the TSA.

If you have questions about how your particular airline deals with people traveling with firearms, you may be tempted to call the airline. In our experience, this is not ideal. Depending on whom you speak to, you may get very different responses. The best way to get a good understanding of the requirements of your particular airline is to visit their website and text their help number (if available) so you can get a canned response from their FAQ/customer service bot. And we always recommend printing out the requirements listed on their website. Why is this important? Occasionally, you will have to deal with an airline counter staff member who isn’t familiar with the rules of their own airline (and, as a bonus, may be terrified of guns). They might ask you to do something that is contrary to their own rules, and it’s helpful if you have their rules printed out and handy so you can courteously educate them. Usually, major airline counter staff members are used to passengers checking firearms and ammunition and are familiar with the proper procedures, but on the rare occasions that you have to deal with an ignorant employee, it can be extremely frustrating.

Keep your cool, and be familiar with both the TSA’s regulations and your airline’s rules, as well as the local laws of the cities/states you’re traveling to and from, and things will go a lot better for you.

You must follow local firearms laws at your departure and destination points

Remember, airports count as part of the city/state where they are located, so all local firearms laws apply. Don’t assume that since you’re traveling, you will be immune from restrictive local firearms laws. Many states have specific safe transit laws that permit 24 hours of immunity for people traveling through a particular state, but some don’t, and these laws generally apply to people who are driving through a state rather than people traveling by air.

New York is notoriously harsh regarding firearms transportation by visitors, and there have been several prominent cases where people have been arrested for traveling in New York with firearms that would be legal in most other locations.

Be friendly and courteous at the airline baggage counter

When you arrive at the airline’s baggage check counter, tell the counter agent that you are traveling with firearms, or you need a declaration (their term), or that you need to check luggage containing a gun, and let them proceed with moving through the next steps. Even if you’ve done it a hundred times and you know the airline’s rules better than they do, be polite and courteous and let the agent tell you how they want to proceed. If there is any confusion, you can offer to have them look at the rules (which you have previously printed from the airline’s website, remember?).

Generally, we’ve found that the majority of airline counter agents are familiar with passengers checking firearms and you will likely not have any problem. However, being frustrated or belligerent with agents is not going to help you out in any way. Be a good ambassador for the shooting sports.

After checking your baggage containing a firearm, wait 20 minutes before proceeding through security

This may seem like a strange tip, but trust us, it can save a lot of trouble. Sometimes, after you check your baggage at the airline counter, the agent will ask you to carry your case to a TSA checkpoint for them to scan it. Or they may ask you to hand carry your bag to an oversized baggage counter. Other times, they will ask you to just hang out for a few minutes until the luggage clears that TSA checkpoint. However, even if the airline counter agent says you’re all set, it’s a good idea to wait for around 20 minutes before you move through security.

Sometimes, the TSA will want to open your checked and locked luggage to confirm something. If you use non-TSA locks (as discussed above), they will have to call you back to have you open it for them (or sometimes they just cut off your locks). If you are called or texted to return to an airline ticket counter or TSA checkpoint, it’s a lot easier if you haven’t already gone through security.

We’ve found that 15 or 20 minutes is usually long enough to wait to avoid having to pass through security twice. So find a Starbucks or a Cinnabon and spend a few minutes enjoying the lovely airport atmosphere before you move through the TSA security checkpoint. It might save you a lot of hassle. This is also one reason we recommend you arrive 3 hours before your scheduled departure. It allows more time for these little inconveniences.

However, in some cases, you may already be at your gate when you are contacted or hear an announcement that they need your key or combination to check your luggage. A gate agent may contact you, and you might be able to provide them with the key or combination so you don’t have to return to a TSA checkpoint and go through security again. Stay flexible and alert.

Luggage containing firearms is not supposed to go to the baggage carousel

Your checked baggage, if it contains a firearm, should be available for you to claim it at your airline’s baggage office, usually located near the baggage claim carousels. They are supposed to confirm your ID and check your luggage tags before releasing that bag to you.

HOWEVER, it often happens that your bag containing a checked firearm DOES come out on the standard carousel, or it may show up in the oversized bag drop with the skis and golf bags. Sometimes, your bag is just sitting in an empty airline baggage office. So please be vigilant. It’s not an ideal situation from a firearm security standpoint, as there’s a greater increase of risk or loss, but sometimes airport procedures are not followed correctly. So, check at the office first, but keep your eye on the baggage carousel for your flight, just in case.

International travel with a firearm

People fly internationally with guns for several reasons, including African safaris, international shooting competitions, or general hunting. However, let’s just cut to the chase and tell you that it’s a huge pain in the butt. Depending on the country you’re traveling to, going through customs with firearms and ammunition can be a bureaucratic and logistical nightmare.

Our best advice here is to consult a trusted source from your destination country who is familiar with the regulations, rules, and procedures. A safari outfitter, for example, will be well-versed in all the procedures needed on both sides of your flight and can advise you on how to avoid expensive and lengthy delays.

You should also familiarize yourself with the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement rules about traveling internationally with firearms. There is a lot to learn, so again, we recommend consulting a local outfitter or knowledgeable expert based in your destination country who can guide you through the process.

Polaris Logistics is one firm that specializes in navigating international bureaucracy for people who want to travel with guns internationally for shooting competitions or hunting. It’s not inexpensive, but the time and hassle saved can be well worth it.

Video: How Did I Get My Guns to Finnish Brutality? Polaris Logistics.

Store your guns in a Liberty Safe

Whether or not you choose a Liberty handgun vault to secure your firearm within your luggage when flying, when you get home, be sure to keep all your guns safe from unauthorized access, theft, fire, and environmental damage in a US-made gun safe from Liberty. Check out our interactive online catalog, or find a Liberty Dealer.

*Made in the U.S.A. from U.S. and Global Parts.


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