In airports, stadiums and other public places, security checkpoints are set up to help identify anyone who may pose a risk. They may not seem like they’d be all that effective, but they’ve helped catch plenty of people trying to sneak something past security in the past. Security checkpoints are set up at many locations to check for things like drugs, weapons and other banned items. Sometimes you’ll need to check your bag or leave it with a third party while you pass through the checkpoint. Other times you might only need to show identification or remove shoes and coats before entering. In some cases, you’ll need to pass through different types of checkpoints simultaneously – one for bags and another for body scanners. This can feel confusing, but there’s usually a good reason for it.
How a basic security checkpoint works
To start, you may be asked to show your identification or ticket to a ticket-checker. If you’re carrying a bag, you’ll then be directed to drop it off at a designated area. Then you’ll pass through a metal detector, walking or shuffling through while a security officer watches the readout. If nothing shows up, you’ll be free to go. If there’s a problem, you’ll either be directed to another area or asked to remove any items that set off the detector, like keys or coins. You’ll then be cleared again, either right away or after you’ve been rescreened. If you’re carrying a laptop or other electronics, you might be directed to a different area to pass through a bag scanner. This machine checks for unusual weight or density, which might indicate a concealed item. If something is detected, you may need to remove the item and go through the metal detector again.
Some airports use body scanners to screen passengers for hidden contraband. During this process, a computer generates an image of your body using electromagnetic waves. These scanners are controversial because they reveal passengers’ bodies, including any undergarments they may be wearing, in enough detail that the person looks like they’re dressed in a bikini. While it’s up to each government to set its own policies, the U.S. Transportation Security Administration currently prohibits a scanner operator from viewing a passenger’s naked image. Instead, a computer algorithm creates a generic outline of the passenger’s body. That said, critics have expressed concern about the potential for abuse, bias or hacking since the software is proprietary and therefore not open to public scrutiny.
If you set off a metal detector, you may be asked to go through a secondary screening. This could involve a swab of the hands or a pat-down with the back of hands facing the screener, legs crossed and groin area avoided. If you’re carrying a medical implant, like a joint replacement, you may not be required to go through a secondary screening if you’re screener is certified to handle this. If you’re traveling with young children, you might be asked to put them through the metal detector while you hold them in your arms or stand beside them with hands at your sides. This is to avoid false alarms caused by a child’s smaller body size.
If you’re carrying a bag that needs to go through an X-ray machine, you’ll be directed to enter a screening area. You may be asked to stand still with arms and legs crossed while the machine passes over your bag and then pull it back out. Alternatively, you might be directed to place your bag on a conveyor belt with the zipper facing away from you. Some machines are also equipped with a metal detector to catch any items that may be hidden inside your bag. If something is detected, you may be asked to open your bag for inspection. If you’re carrying cash or other valuables, you could be asked to declare this at the checkpoint and provide an estimate of its value.
Certain items are prohibited at airport checkpoints, and the list can vary by location. For example, you may not be allowed to bring scissors or knives larger than a certain length. You may also be asked to discard prohibited items before going through a checkpoint, even if they’re in your checked bag. If you have liquids in a bag, they must be in a re-sealable, clear plastic bag that’s less than one quart (one bag per person). Some airports have stricter rules, like no liquids at all, even if they’re in a bag. If you have a medical reason to bring liquids, like an asthma inhaler or dietary supplements, you may be able to obtain a sticker to put on your bag to exempt it from the rule.
Security checkpoints are there to help keep people safe and identify anyone who may be trying to bring contraband into a location. While the process can feel invasive at times, it’s important to remember that the people working these checkpoints are just trying to do their jobs. If you’re nervous about the experience or know you’ll be nervous, you can prepare yourself by knowing what to expect at each checkpoint type.
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