What is the TSA Hand Swab?

What to Expect at the TSA Security Checkpoint

For the most part, the TSA is really good about preparing travelers for what they'll experience at the airport's security screening checkpoint. The agency shares tons of information about what can and can't be packed in carry-on bags, why joining the PreCheck program is beneficial and what type of screening methods are usually used for children. But the agency's use of hand swabbing tests isn't something many travelers know a lot about, in part perhaps because they're not often deployed. Here's what you need to know before your next flight.

So What's the Deal with Hand Swabbing?

Like other TSA screening procedures in this post 9/11 world, swab tests are used to help identify travelers who plan to cause harm to fellow passengers during a flight. It's scary to think about, but this screening method is used to make sure that no one passing through the security checkpoint has recently handled explosive devices. It's called an Explosives Trace Detection, or ETD, test.

If you're chosen to be given an ETD test, don't worry. It's super quick and noninvasive. After you get through the metal detector or body scanner (or decline those screening methods in favor of getting a pat-down), an agent may ask you to step aside and move over to stand next to a small machine. The agent will then attach a swab, which looks like a small swatch of white cloth, to one end of a black wand. The agent will rub the swab across the palms of your hands and place it inside the machine, which will check the swab for any signs of explosive residue.

When the test comes back negative, you'll be free to go. Swabs are disposable, so each person who is tested gets a new swab. The test only takes a minute, and it shouldn't cause you any pain or discomfort.

If for some reason the test comes back positive, you'll be taken into a private room, where you and your belongings will be tested further. It's rare but possible to get a false positive on the ETD test, especially if you've been handling fertilizer or nitroglycerin.

Will I Be Chosen? Can I Refuse?

The TSA uses ETD testing at random, and few people are selected for the test. It's possible to fly regularly and never be selected, but certain circumstances make you more likely to be chosen for ETD testing. For instance, agents may give you an ETD test if you're traveling with a dog or other pet. And if you're traveling with mobility devices or have any external medical devices, those may be swabbed too. Basically, the TSA wants to make sure that no passengers sneak explosives through security on their bodies, so having a cast or traveling with a walker makes you more likely to be chosen for extra screening. Your carry-on bags may also be swabbed.

If you're chosen for an ETD test, you won't be allowed through security if you refuse to cooperate. After all, the test isn't invasive in any way, and refusing will raise the agent's suspicion.

Does the TSA Swab Kids' Hands?

The TSA does reserve the right to administer the ETD test to children, but it's really unlikely to happen to your child. The agency uses modified screening methods for children and aims to be as gentle and sensitive as possible.

If you're chosen for the test, your kids can wait with you until you're done.

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