Getting Through Airport Security with Film

One of the most common questions that people ask me is "What do you do about x-rays at the airport when traveling with film?" I actually have a few different thoughts on this based on different situations and personal experiences. 

First, we'll start with recommendations from Kodak directly. You can find all of this information here, but the gist of it is:

  • Always carry your film onto the plane and never put your film in your checked luggage.
  • Ask for a hand check at security if you have high ISO film, cinema film, or if you will be going through multiple x-rays with the same batch of film.
  • Be patient because it will take you longer to go through security than normal.

Within the US, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) will physically inspect your film by hand if you request them to do so. They will often have you submit your film to a swab test in order to bypass the x-ray machine. I have never been denied a hand check for my film within the US, but I have been denied by the TSA on the Canadian side while flying back into the US from Calgary. This was not Canadian airport security, this was US border patrol and TSA operating at this terminal and despite my request they have been the only agents to deny my hand check within the states. 

Traveling internationally is a completely different story. I have been denied in multiple airports while traveling abroad and it has happened so often that (for the most part) I have stopped even trying to ask for hand checks while I am out of the country. So far I've been pretty lucky and haven't had a single roll ruined by x-ray damage!

For my regular film I usually place the loose rolls into a large, clear ziploc bag, but I do take some preventative measures when traveling abroad with high speed film (over ISO 800) by using a Domke Filmguard Bag. There has been a ton of debate on whether or not these bags are effective and the bottom line is I haven't found any conclusive evidence to say they aren't and I've yet to have any issues while using it so I'll continue to use it until something happens. Some people say that the x-ray operator will increase the power of the x-ray until they can see through the bag and some people say that even if they increase the x-ray power, the bag will still protect the film somewhat. 

One thing I should note is that I do try to position the Domke bag inside of my carry-on luggage in a way that it won't obstruct the view of the operator. That means, I'll put it on the side of the bag that is facing the opening of the x-ray machine because I know that they aren't looking THROUGH my luggage and the film bag from that direction. If they can see through my luggage from the top and the sides, then a lot of the time they just let my luggage pass through. I find that most of the smaller airports don't even seem to care if I have a film bag in there, but there is one airport outside of the US that consistently will see my film bag and have me remove it from my luggage and that is Narita airport in Japan.

If you're curious as to just how many x-rays I've let my film pass through with this method before developing them, you can find some loose itineraries listed below:

  • Los Angeles, USA → Reykjavik, Iceland → London → Madrid, Spain → Marrakech, Morocco → Barcelona, Spain → Geneva, Switzerland → Venice, Italy → Istanbul, Turkey → Los Angeles, USA

  • Los Angeles, USA → Tokyo, Japan → Singapore → Bangkok, Thailand → Hanoi, Vietnam → Singapore → Denpasar, Indonesia → Singapore → Tokyo, Japan → Los Angeles, USA

  • Los Angeles, USA → Toronto, Canada → Copenhagen, Denmark → Bergen, Norway → Stockholm, Sweden → Copenhagen, Denmark → Toronto, Canada → Los Angeles, USA

If you would like to see for yourself if there has been any x-ray damage, then just head over to the photo blog portion of this site and find any photos taken at just about any of these locations.