TSA Locks: The Complete Guide

How Do TSA Locks on Cases Work?

Suitcases from major brands will list ‘TSA Locks’ among the features. This is always as a positive. TSA stands for ‘Transport Security Administration’. They are the customs officers for the USA. When you see TSA lock, you should always read this as ‘lock with TSA override’. The case will come with a regular lock of some kind – along with a special lock that the TSA can use to open your luggage if they want to check it.

This page covers the common questions about why you might need a TSA lock, what they do well, and what they don’t do.

It also comes with a strong warning about using TSA padlocks in places like gym locker rooms.

Why a TSA Lock Can be Useful

One thing you can say about the Transport Security Agency is that if they want to check your luggage – they will always find a way.

If your case needs checking, and they can’t open it, the TSA will simply break the lock. You get no comeback on this. They may try and reach you via the airport tannoy system first or may not. You will get note stuck to your case, explaining that they wanted to check it. They take zero responsibility for the fact that it is broken beyond repair!

A TSA lock is an override. These customs agents hold special keys, which can be used to open your case. If your case has a combination lock or key lock, then their master key will get around this – opening your case.

The benefit is that your case will not be smashed or cut open. Ironically, by having a lock that they can open, you might even reduce your chances of the case being checked in the first place.

Travel Sentry Logo

You can tell a genuine TSA lock in two ways. First, they have a logo showing a red diamond. Second, they have the number of the key that will open them – for example 007.

Having this logo is a plus (you can tell that it will work for US travel), it is also a minus when you are using a TSA lock for anything not related to travel.

TSA Locks Travel Sentry Logo

Types of Luggage Lock with TSA Override

Every time you see a case with TSA lock advertised, it has a separate lock.

The most common type is a combination lock. These have 3 barrels, with a 4th an occasional addition. For modern cases, the combination lock will hold on to the zip heads, which are looped to make this possible. Older or retro cases might have a mechanism like briefcases, where you set the combination and then slide a stud outward to release hooks.

There are key lock cases, and ones which come with additional padlocks. See below for some great reasons why padlocks are dangerous!

Finally, you get straps which wrap around your case for added security. These will often have their own TSA lock – in addition to the one on the case. Most wrap-around luggage straps have combination locks.

Are TSA Locks Safe?

No lock on your luggage is secure – including the TSA override locks.

Combination locks, padlocks and straps have one key use. This is to deter casual thefts while your bags are in transit or left in a hotel room (for example). Any determined thief – and especially a professional – will be able to open any locked case within seconds.

Yes. This applies to cases with that red diamond Travel Sentry logo.

Don’t worry, thefts from locked cases in transit are extremely rare. A mix of deterring casual thefts, and security at airports, means that the chances of being a victim of this type of crime are miniscule.

Deterring casual thieves is plenty enough.

Anything valuable should be kept in your hand luggage as an added precaution. This keeps you safe in the event of lost luggage, as well as causal thefts.

Are TSA Locks Safe?

Warning on TSA Padlocks

Keys which open TSA locks are available on the black market.

Professional thieves can get them cheaply and easily online. Combine this with the red diamond logo, which proudly declares that a lock has an override, and there is an obvious problem.

Picture a row of lockers in a gym.

A professional thief gets in, scans the row of lockers and spots a lock with a red diamond logo – a TSA over-ride. All that crook needs to do is check the number, get the right key, and they have the contents of your locker within seconds.

Simple solution, TSA override locks are for luggage and only for luggage!

Examples of Great Cases with TSA Override Locks

Even lower-price luggage is Travel Security Authority proof these days. You have the popular mid-range cases from Samsonite, IT and American Tourister all compliant, and of course – the quality / luxury brands such as Briggs and Reilly and Tumi.

Here are some popular examples:

  • Samsonite Cosmolite Cases: These are super-light, amazingly strong and have that ‘wow’ factor the first time you pick one up when it is empty. Check out the glossy finish and range of colours available.
  • Antler Richmond Cases: If you are fed up with everyone having cases that look broadly the same, check out Antler’s range. These are not garish or crazy designs, I’d say they are distinctive in an understated, subtle yet stylish way.
  • Briggs and Reily Spinners: If you have the money for real quality, real style and those quality extras with the finish, then this is the case you should be going for.

Wrapping Up: How Important are TSA Locks?

These locks have a big plus – they stop the TSA smashing open your case if they need to search it going through US airports.

They work using a master key system. The override is provided in addition to a low security ‘standard’ luggage lock, like a combination lock or padlock system. They are great for preventing casual or opportunistic thefts, though not tough enough to prevent a pro or determined thief from opening your luggage.

I go for TSA locks on my luggage for US travel – though would never use one in any context outside of travel.

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