Concealed Carry

Flying With a Firearm While Traveling

Guy is standing with luggage near window in waiting room. He is glancing at plane taking off outside. Copy space in right side

Between the large crowds and long wait time delays, traveling is already filled with a ton of headaches. We all want a hassle-free experience and for things to go as smoothly as possible, which is why many people elect to leave their firearms at home. However, while traveling, we are in a new, often unfamiliar, setting surrounded by strangers. Criminals are aware of this disadvantage and frequently target travelers. 

If possible, it’s important we retain our means of self-defense while out and about, even if that means a bit more effort. But don’t worry, traveling with a firearm is not as hard as it may seem; plenty of people do it successfully every day.  Whether it’s for a quick weekend trip or an extended vacation, here’s everything you need to know about flying with a firearm

Disassembly and cleaning Maintaining a 9mm semi-automatic pistol on a wooden table.
Your factory case will not always be accepted by TSA, but some thicker, more durable ones work in a pinch.

Storage and Transport

The TSA requires all firearms be transported and stored in a hard case that locks securely. Firearms and ammunition must be declared at the airline counter when you check your bags. Be aware that the original container that the firearm was purchased in may not be adequate for travel. 

Depending on what — and how many — firearms you intend to bring, this could be anything from a small Hornady lock box to a large Nanuk or Pelican case with custom foam inserts. Some people like to travel with a long gun and handgun combo. This offers more capabilities, but will extend your time with security some. A lone pistol will be a bit quicker of a process. They’ll want to inspect your case of AR-15s and extended magazines more. 

Be sure to check all local and state laws in every location you’ll be traveling. Check that your license to carry holds reciprocity and for any requirements for firearms in vehicles. Many states have different carry laws or magazine restrictions, and you don’t want to end up behind bars. For international travel, it is important to look into the U.S. Customs and Border Protection website for any specific limitations and regulations where you are traveling. 

How to Pack

You’ll need to be sure to pack everything securely to handle the fast and loose hands of the TSA — we’ve all seen how they handle our underwear! Make sure your firearm and magazines are unloaded, it’s the law! It is recommended that you store your ammunition in the original factory box. If you don’t have the original box, a small plastic field case used by reloaders works well. 

All of your firearms, magazines, and ammunition must be contained inside the lockable case.  Pack things tight to avoid things rattling around and bashing together. If you have any free space or want an added layer of protection, place cut up bits of foam inside to help fill things out. You should not feel anything jostle around when shaking the case. Of course, be sure to put your locked firearm case inside the bag you intend to check, and not your carry-on. 

a pack full of unused 9mm bullets isolated on white
It is best to have your ammunition stored in the factory box, but a plastic field case is also acceptable.

I usually just pack a defensive pistol with a spare magazine or two depending on my destination. The further and longer I’m gone, the more I tend to bring. The SIG P229 and HK USP-C are my typical go-to firearms. Sometimes I’ll switch to a Glock 26 if I want more concealment.  With a box or two of defensive ammo (depending on size), I feel well armed just about anywhere. Your requirements may be different. 

Airport Protocol

When you get to the airport, you need to head straight to the counter and declare the firearm. The TSA will take and inspect it, lock it up, and replace it in your bag in front of you. 

Your firearm case does not require a TSA-approved lock, you can use whatever you like, provided it operates securely. In fact, you should not use a TSA lock for the actual gun case, as they have master keys for all these models and you risk potential theft. Once the firearm has been checked in, the TSA does not need to have access. I recommend something from Master Lock or ABUS because they are hard to tamper with and provide good value. Use an additional, TSA-approved lock on your checked suitcase holding the gun case. This adds a security layer to ensure your firearm arrives at the same destination as you. Unfortunately, there are plenty of sticky fingers working for the airlines. 

Once you arrive at your destination, you may collect your firearm with your other checked baggage. If you don’t see it with your other bags, it may have ended up in the oversized baggage area. 

AR-15 rifle with optic and laser laying on a hard rifle case
An AR-style rifle is allowed (depending on where you’re traveling), but it will turn more heads at security and may require additional time for inspection.

Alternative Options

If all this is just too much and you’re realistically saying, “I’ll never do that,” there are a few alternatives to traveling with a firearm that don’t leave you unarmed. If it’s geographically possible, you can drive to your destination. It may take longer, but you’ll be able to bring along all the firearms you can haul (still be sure to check all the local laws). 

Additionally, if you’re traveling somewhere where friends or family reside, you can choose to fly to your destination and borrow a firearm when you get there. This isn’t a sure-fire solution and should definitely be discussed beforehand, but plenty of people would be glad to help out a responsible gun owner. 

If having a firearm isn’t a necessity, there are other self-defense options that are better than thoughts and prayers. You could pack a knife in your checked bag. This is not all that different from traveling with a firearm, but does alleviate some security concerns. You will still need to look into local laws where you’re traveling and act in accordance. Many areas have restrictions on blade lengths and locking mechanisms for knives carried on your person. 

modern pistol on the table in case
Flying with a firearm doesn’t have to be difficult. A compact pistol is a good option for traveling by plane.

There are some other “plane-safe” self-defense options, but most of them are hokey and not very practical in real-world use. I would rather buy an inexpensive knife when I arrive and trash it before the return flight than go that route. If the financial hit is too much to take, you can always mail it home. 

Final Thoughts

In the end, it’s not all too difficult to travel with a firearm, provided that you have the time and patience to wait through a few additional steps. After all, isn’t your safety worth the hassle? Be sure to pack your unloaded firearms securely and that all your ammunition and magazines are locked up, and you’ll be good to go. 

Have you ever traveled with a firearm on a plane? Do you have any tips and tricks? Share your thoughts in the Comment section.

About the Author:

Alex Cole

Alex is a younger firearms enthusiast who’s been shooting since he was a kid. He loves consuming all information related to guns and is constantly trying to enhance his knowledge, understanding, and use of firearms. Not a day goes by where he doesn’t do something firearms-related and he tries to visit the range at least a couple of times a month to maintain and improve his shooting skills.

His primary focus is on handguns, but he loves all types of firearms. He enjoys disassembling and reassembling firearms to see how they work and installs most of the upgrades to his firearms himself, taking it as a chance to learn. He’s not only interested in modern handguns and rifles, he appreciates the classics for both historical value and real-world use.
The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, The Shooter's Log, is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (14)

  1. Ammunition does not have to be in the same locked case as the firearm. Check to see what your airlines’ ammo restrictions are. On United they limit ammo in checked luggage to be no more than 11 pounds. I have carried ammo within that weight restriction for years (3 or 4 50 rd. boxes of 9mm for example) inside my checked luggage. Of course it must be in the mfg. box or a plastic case.

    Also the check in procedure is different at every airport. At some airports, it’s as simple as declaring the firearm, opening your checked luggage at the counter and then the agent putting the orange tag inside the luggage. Other airports will require you to open the case for them to see the weapon. Then in Phoenix, after declaration at the gate, you and the agent walk the luggage to another part of the airport where a special TSA screener opens the luggage and swabs down the interior adding about 15-20 minutes to the check in process. There is no uniformity.

  2. Good article. Just one comment about a phrase you used at the end, in the Final Thoughts section. You said, “…provided that you have the time and patience to wait through a few additional steps.” I think you meant to say: “…the time and patience to wade through a few additional steps.”

  3. I have found it advantageous to carry an additional lock of both types in case one is damaged or Malfunctions. I have had a TSA approved lock damaged by personnel on final inspection and had to replace it. Luckily had one with me.

  4. Being an Alaskan I have of course traveled to many parts of the country and world with various firearms. I have never had an issue in all the years of doing so. There is only one simple rule.
    Do your research and follow the guidelines provided for transport and there is no problem.
    Be patient and courteous with the TSA folks … they are just doing the job they were trained for.
    One could say more and at times the process is made more difficult and stressful. Deep breath, smile, and you will get thru it.

  5. You stated “Once you arrive at your destination, you may collect your firearm with your other checked baggage.” I have travelled many times with a pistol (on American Airlines) and I always have to collect my checked bag in the AA baggage office.

  6. I have traveled several times with my XDS 45 ACP and have never had a problem. Once I get to the airline counter, I declare that I have a firearm and show them the locked case. (I use the Vault by Pelican) Then, we filled out the firearms card, which is taped to the case. and off it goes in my checked luggage. Super easy!

  7. Things may have changed but ENSURE the agent marks your weapon(s) as in you check-in luggage. Had a newbie agent mark that my weapon was in my carry on. After a 30 minutes flight delay, and being pulled off the plane to be searched….again, along with my traveling companion, we finally got to fly home. Also what the author didn’t address is flying to states that dislike guns (New York, Kalifornia, Washington, etc.).

  8. I recently flew Delta Airlines from Salt Lake City to Atlanta Georgia for training at Glock Headquarters located in Smyrna GA.

    Here is my experience:

    I purchased an APACHE 5800 (not-expensive) “cut your own foam” Weatherproof Protective Rolling Carry-On Case, size X-Large. This hard plastic case has a pull-out handle and accommodates two locks. I used two ABUS locks (expensive) which have a unique key pattern. These locks MAY HAVE BEEN approved by TSA, but it is not a requirement anymore.

    I cut the foam to accommodate four (4) Glocks, and ten (10) empty magazines. I also cut a large space to place a smaller plastic case which held 6 boxes of 9mm ammo tightly. Packing loose ammo, or loaded magazines is not allowed. One can only check about 9 lbs or so of ammo on a plane.

    Upon approaching the Delta ticket counter with my clothing suitcase and my double locked gun case I stated, “I have firearms to declare.” The ticket personnel handed me a card to for me to complete which only stated that my firearms were unloaded – not how many. The ticket personnel never asked to inspect the contents of the gun case. I had to unlock and open the case and place the signed and dated card inside the gun case, which I re-locked. Keep your key readily accessible.

    The ticket counter person took possession of my gun case and placed a special tag on the gun case which stated in BOLD Letters: DO NOT PLACE ON BAGGAGE CAROUSEL. After tagging my bags, they both when off to places that I could not see.

    On arriving at Atlanta, a special area is reserved for picking up oversize bags as well as gun cases. They do not allow individuals to wander around and pick up their own gun cases. I presented my identification, and then airport personnel brought my gun case to me as my ID checked out.

    Going back the other way from Atlanta to Salt Lake City the process was a bit different. At the Atlanta Airport, after I went to the ticket counter and they checked my clothing bag, I completed another gun declaration card, and then ticket personnel attached the DO NOT PLACE ON BAGGAGE CAROUSEL tag on my gun bag, I then physically took my locked gun case to a special area where TSA personnel took the case from me, X-Rayed it while I stood nearby. As my gun case checked out OK, the TSA individuals stated that I was good to go, but they kept possession of my gun case. My locked gun case was then placed on my plane to Salt Lake City.

    At Salt Lake City, once again there is a special place to pick up oversize luggage and gun cases. When I provided my ID, airport personnel brought my gun case to me. All is well. No issues with firearms or gun cases.

  9. Sending a firearm to yourself is also an other great option. Fedex to where ever you are heading.

    BATF: A person may ship a firearm to him or herself in care of another person in the state where he or she intends to hunt or engage in any other lawful activity. The package should be addressed to the owner “in the care of” the out–of–state resident. Upon reaching its destination, persons other than the owner may not open the package or take possession of the firearm.

  10. Just flew from Spokane to Phoenix and back last week. Two airports that are used to seeing packed guns. I used a TSA lock on my gun case. I also had several loaded magazines packed (unlocked) elsewhere in my bag both going and return and had no issues. In Spokane the airline agent took my bag directly to TSA and I was allowed to leave. In Phoenix I had to hang around while TSA check my gun and went through the rest of my bag. Again, no problem with loaded mags as long as they were separate for the gun. I would suggest that you go to your airlines website and look at their rules for packing firearms in your checked luggage.

  11. When flying with a firearm I try to route non-stop. If non-stop is not an option I try to avoid stops or plane changes in states that are hostile to gun owners.

    I have a Pelican case and use Master Locks with titanium shanks. That case is where I also put expensive valuables such as photography equipment and jewelry.

  12. Why did you recommend using a TSA-approved lock on your checked suitcase when you previously said not to use one on the gun case itself?

  13. Did they change the rules? Last time I flew I presented my locked case to the TSA special checking in point. They weren’t allowed access to the case,

  14. Great article. Having flown with handguns before, I can say that the process is very simple as long as you follow the TSA’s guidances. My only correction to the article is that ammo is not required to be in the same locked case as the firearm. It may be, but it isn’t mandatory.

    “Ammunition may be transported in the same hard-sided, locked case as a firearm if it has been packed as described above. You cannot use firearm magazines or clips for packing ammunition unless they completely enclose the ammunition. Firearm magazines and ammunition clips, whether loaded or empty, must be boxed or included within a hard-sided, locked case.”

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