Carrying a potted plant or a small bonsai tree through airport security will definitely earn you some double takes but, hopefully, no problems. Airlines usually don’t object to flight passengers traveling with plants. Certain restrictions come into play when it’s time to pass customs in a foreign country, however. Those restrictions vary by country and by plant type, and even a jet-setting botanist probably couldn’t keep them all straight. If you’re flying outside of the contiguous United States, permits and fees may be a necessary part of traveling with a plant in hand.

The TSA’s Verdict on Plants

TSA agents have seen it all at this point, so they probably won’t even raise their eyebrows at the sight of a passenger coming through security carrying a plant. The TSA allows passengers to transport plants either as carry-on items or in checked bags. Like the rest of your belongings, plants will need to undergo security screening. Plan to send them down the X-ray conveyor belt with the rest of your carry-on luggage.

Plants and Your Airline

Every airline sets its own policies regarding what passengers are and aren’t allowed to bring on its planes, but these policies are generally in keeping with the TSA’s restrictions. Basically, if the TSA allows it, your airline probably allows it too. Your plane’s crew won’t object to plants as carry-ons, assuming they comply with the airline’s baggage rules. Plants must fit either in the overhead compartment or under the seat. Check the airline’s size guidelines for carry-on luggage. A plant that exceeds that size won’t fit in the overhead compartment.

Plants count toward your personal baggage allowance. Coach passengers are typically allowed one carry-on suitcase and one personal item. Depending on the size of the plant, flight attendants and gate agents may decide to let it take the place of a carry-on bag.

Take care to pack the plant in a way that will keep soil, water and plant matter contained. The easiest method is to place the entire plant inside a plastic garbage bag. Let some air into the bag and tie it closed.

Plants and Travel Restrictions 

Flying across the state with a small fern or a bouquet of flowers shouldn’t cause any issues, but traveling internationally with plants can be troublesome. National agricultural departments generally have strict rules regarding which plants may be carried into or out of the country. One invasive plant or insect can cause a domino chain of damage when introduced into a new environment. Island nations such as Australia are particularly strict. Hawaii also has a long list of plants that are allowed into the country only if they’re permitted and possibly quarantined or treated. Even permissible types of plants have to be declared and inspected upon arrival, and they have to be free of soil, insects and signs of disease.

Because each country has its own rules and those rules often vary depending on the type of plant, do specific research before flying to another country with plant life. Contact the country’s department of agriculture at least a month (or ideally a few months) before traveling, as they may require a permit. Even if the department of agriculture gives you permission to carry a certain plant into the country, customs agents have the final say about what visitors can and can’t carry across borders. Don’t travel with a plant that you would be devastated to lose.