Everything You Need to Understand About TSA's Liquid Rules
Updated: May 4
Having TSA rifle through your luggage is never fun. On the outside you put on a sweet and innocent act, but on the inside you know darn well you're packing. Yea, you've got the heat packed in your bag for sure - fig jelly from the farmer's market, creamy hazelnut Nutella for the kid stolen from the breakfast buffet (I can't resist those tiny jars), and there may even be some (god forbid) 3.5 fluid ounce applesauce pouches too. But the sweet act remains, until TSA inevitably comes over to tell you,
"Jam is a liquid. So is peanut butter. Jelly, jams, honeys, all liquids!"
A very frank TSA agent yelped this at me recently traveling through Portland's PDX airport. I just kept insisting sternly, "it's JAM! it's....JAM!". Completely befuddled, I thought, how do you possibly classify this as a liquid? And peanut butter? Are you high?
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TSA Liquid Rules to Consider at the Security Check
Does Your Item Look Suspicious?
I've seen people eyeball my jars of strange foods and spices from exotic markets, wondering are they drugs? Is this contraband? What is this gold paste from Dubai in Islamic writing? Oh lord what is tiny vial of liquid? She looks like a sweet American girl, but she's got two passports! Is she a spy!?
Consider what you are bringing back - is it easy to explain? I had a jar of garlic aioli from Spain and the unknowing TSA agent in JFK airport examined the plastic sealed jar with curiosity. I had to explain to her that it was basically a mayonnaise. By the above "jelly rule" as I'll call it, they should have confiscated it. But, in many cases it is up to the agent. She shrugged and let me through with the aioli.
Are you bringing back spices with foreign writing on it? Or maybe no writing at all? "It's pencil shavings, ma!" isn't going to cut it here. Be prepared to explain that they are cooking spices from the Turkish market, or whatever the story may be.
What Counts As a Liquid?
I love this endless back and forth of "what can I bring?" and "what will wind me up the customs jail?". Get this - in London Stansted airport practically all your cosmetics are liquids.
Gel deodorant? Liquid. Toothpaste? Liquid. Shampoo? Hand lotions? Liquids. They must be smoking what the PDX guy is smoking, because last I checked those aren't drinkably juicy like a liquid. So what the heck constitutes as a liquid?
This site gives a good account at BudgetAir's website: https://www.budgetair.com/en_us/blog/what-counts-as-liquid-on-a-plane , but basically it's anything that oozes and goos, so jokes' on me.
Bottom line is, keep it under 3 ounces if it has any type of gelatinous, smearing, creamy, blobby, wavelike essence to it.
Kids Do Get Special Treatment
It's amazing to me what gets through security and what doesn't. Tiny nail clippers in my cosmetics bag? No problem. Full sized, oversized, 3 ounces or 10 ounces of goopy fruit or juicy juice? No problem, so long as it is for your baby.
Bottles of milk, apple juice, even kids water are all passable.
They'll do a little bomb test swipe on it, or maybe try to sniff at it (are you a bomb sniffing dog now too, Mr. TSA?) and then ultimately you'll be approved to pass.
Your Duty Free Items Shall Not Pass (Over 3 ounces)
Folks, listen to me closely - when you travel home from overseas and you are CONNECTING to your home airport, you cannot take the things you bought at duty free through security.
You will lose your liquor purchase, your ceramic jar of olive oil or balsamic vinegar from Modena. They will take your high end perfume (over 3 ounces!) and the mega liter bottle of water you bought to help you survive the legs home.
Hear me again - if you are CONNECTING from overseas, you have to pass security again after customs.
Things to Consider at Other Types of Security Checkpoints
Things to Consider at an Agricultural Check
You cannot bring meat, cheese or fruit across borders. Period.
Now, despite my knowledge of this, for some reason there is always an event like I experienced in Miami recently. People look for incoming flights from places with good food, I swear it!
As my husband and I were sent down a maze to the bowels of the security area to agricultural check I wondered why we were chosen to be randomly searched for illegally smuggled meats or produce.
“Does he have a jamon loving face or something?”, I joked with the TSA agent as she rifled through our bags for the smuggled contraband. “Any fruits? Vegetables? Meats?” Inside I was sweating, I always stash an orange for the airplane or a vacuum sealed package of jamon for snacking - but did I eat it all? Was the ham-sniffing dog about to pounce on me?
“Nope!”, I sighed a sigh of relief remembering we’d wolfed down our jamon serrano bocadillos earlier on the airplane from Madrid.
Although a relatively stress-free and streamlined experience, we didn't have much time for these shenanigans and honestly there was no concrete reason for us to be sent to agricultural check. All that to say - don't get caught with your pants down if you are sent there for some reason.
Always abide by the rules.
Things to Consider Cruise Ship Security
Let's also go on to realize that this does not just apply to airports. Once at the security line boarding my Royal Caribbean cruise to the Bahamas from Florida, I was questioned again, "Any fruits? Meats?" Yes I had bananas and little oranges for my kid, is this a problem? I mean, I'm just going on a boat to the Bahamas. Well friends, yes! It is a problem.
Not only could you cross-pollinate whatever they have going on in the Bahamas, you are also messing with the feng shui of the cruise kitchen. Don't bring your own fruits, they have them on board.
Also, there's oodles of different alcohol rules for cruise ships, but the general rule of thumb is that each 21+ passenger may bring on one bottle of wine, not liquor, on board for consumption in their stateroom.
I've Heard Some Weird Things Pass Security, What Gives?
I literally hand carried a turn of the century Edison phonograph and it's odd shaped horn in my backpack on a Frontier flight many years ago. No one batted an eye or asked any questions.
It's so curious what causes a fuss and what doesn't. Shall we go back to the "jelly rule"!?
This led me to get the truth, right from the source. I was digging around TSA's website to look up wine allowances and I have to say, the things that are OK in your carry-on are truly baffling. Check some of these oddballs:
Artificial skeleton bones
Harry Potter Wand
Laser hair remover
Live coral and live fish
Night vision goggles
The Bottom Line
Overall, I really want to give the TSA a hard time, but they've got a job to do and we need to do our best to be educated and stick to the tsa liquid rules. Do I agree with them? I can't remember the last time a plane went down because I brought too much jam on board, but rules are rules, I guess.
Be smart, make good choices, and be willing to let your beloved carry on item go, if it comes down to it. You can always go back to check-in and check your bag if it is that important to you, or mail your stuff home.