What counts as a personal item when you go through security screening?

The TSA security regulations can be the most nerve-wracking part of traveling. Not only is it inconvenient to go through the screening, but sometimes questions nag at the back of the traveler’s mind. Are the liquids in my carry-on 3-1-1 compliant? Is the carry-on the right size? Then there’s the personal item: If a traveler is allowed a carry-on, a jacket or an umbrella, and a personal item, what does that mean?

The guidelines and restrictions about TSA personal items

The TSA guidelines for carry-on bags are specific, although they vary slightly depending on the airline. In contrast, the rules about personal items are rather vague. Certain things, like golf clubs and hockey sticks, can’t be carried onto a plane, while other items like vaping devices and lighters can be brought on only in a carry-on.

As to personal items, the term generally means something like a purse, a briefcase, a laptop bag or a camera. A pet carrier can be considered a personal item or a carry-on, and a child safety seat, an umbrella or a coat does not count as either. Mobility devices and walking canes do not count against the items a passenger is allowed to bring on a plane.

Backpack or handbag?

Because the rules are fairly vague, people sometimes take advantage of them which is, at best, rude to other passengers. At worst, it can result in items being taken from the passenger at the gate and checked as baggage. To avoid that kind of situation, it’s best to bring a personal item that will fit under the seat in front of you. A handbag fits into that category. A backpack may as well, as long as it’s a small backpack – a daypack will usually work. When deciding what to bring as a personal item, think of a bag, not luggage. Remember, a personal item is not an additional carry-on bag.

Airline-specific restrictions

Ultimately, each airline has its own restrictions for personal items, and some are more specific than others. Southwest and Delta, for example, do not have any explicit rules about personal items except to say that they include purses, briefcases, cameras, food containers or laptop bags. United and American Airlines, on the other hand, both specify the size of personal items – 9 inches by 10 inches by 17 inches for United; 8 inches by 14 inches by 18 inches for American Airlines. Each of those airlines states that, for those traveling on a basic economy ticket, the personal item is the only carry-on allowed.

Because of the varied guidelines, visit the website of the airline you’re flying, before packing for the trip. While the TSA may not be strict about personal items, the airlines control what is allowed on board at the gate. It’s better to know ahead of time whether or not a particular bag will be allowed so your travel plan can proceed without a problem.