New Study: The Top 3 Mistakes That Are Slowing You Down at Airport Security

Avoid these common missteps to get through TSA checkpoints faster—and get to the airport earlier in a few particularly "inefficient" states

Whether you’re flying for work or play, there’s a good chance you break into hives just thinking about going through airport security. After all, even if you’re doing everything right, there’s a good chance that other people aren’t, which can make the security line super long—and make you worry that you’re going to miss your flight. But let’s be honest: There’s a good chance you’re also making a misstep or two. We’ve all been there, forgetting that we have a prohibited item in our carry-on or wearing something that sets off literal alarm bells. In fact, a new poll reveals the top three mistakes you’re most likely to make.

According to the results from USA Today Blueprint, 59% of all travelers have made a mistake at a TSA checkpoint in the last five years … and we think the other 41% are probably lying (or, if we’re being generous, misremembering). Read on to find out what they are, along with which states’ residents are the biggest offenders at airport security.

Get Reader’s Digest’s Read Up newsletter for more travel, tech, humor, cleaning and fun facts all week long.

How were the most common mistakes determined?

USA Today Blueprint surveyed 5,000 American travelers, all of whom had taken at least one flight in the last five years. The poll, which was conducted between Oct. 3 and Oct. 9, 2023, included representative samples from all 50 states.

Survey respondents were asked 15 questions in three categories: luggage and overpacking, overall preparedness and TSA checkpoints. From there, the questions focused on topics including online vs. in-person check-in, reasons for being stopped by TSA agents, luggage issues and the deplaning process. Next, the answers were used to devise an overall Inefficiency Score, which determined the states where travelers were the most and least efficient, as well as the most common mistakes at TSA checkpoints.

What do travelers struggle with the most?

Trust us when we say you’re going to recognize these airport mistakes—especially if you’re from (or traveling from) a few specific states. According to the poll, travelers from North Carolina, West Virginia, Arkansas and New York are the most inefficient in the country, and those from Utah and Illinois particularly struggle at TSA checkpoints.

With that in mind, the top mistakes that travelers nationwide make at airport security are …

Mistake #1: Forgetting to take off belts and shoes

Come on, guys: Taking off your belt and shoes has been a TSA rule for 20-plus years! But we know, we know: It’s an easy mistake to make, and in fact, it’s the most common of the bunch, with 28% of poll respondents admitting they’ve done it. And it can cost you—and your fellow travelers—precious time. When you forget to take off your belt and shoes, TSA agents will send you back to the conveyor belt to grab another plastic bin and place your items in it, and then make you go through the whole process again.

Mistake #2: Walking through the scanner with phones, jewelry and/or keys

This mistake shares the top spot on the survey, with another 28% of travelers fessing up to forgetting to put these items in the plastic bins before attempting to walk through the full-body scanner. Scanners are designed to alert TSA agents to metallic and non-metallic items that may pose a threat, but sometimes benign items, including these, can set them off. (Note: You can wear fine jewelry through metal detectors and scanners, but “magnetic metals” such as iron, nickel and steel, will be a problem.) Back to the conveyor belt for you!

Mistake #3: Not removing electronics from a carry-on

Clocking in with 23% of respondents, this mistake may be the worst of the bunch. TSA agents really do need to inspect laptops, tablets and e-readers for safety reasons. For starters, these items can block TSA agents from seeing other items inside your bag, including ones that might pose a risk hidden behind or even inside of it. TSA agents also want to make sure your items are the real deal and not something more nefarious. That’s why they may ask you to turn on your laptop—to prove that it is a genuine, functioning computer.

Tips to speed through airport security

If you avoid the mistakes above, you’ll be in good shape. And here are some additional, expert-approved tips to make your next trip through airport security a lot smoother.

Arrive early

How early, exactly? For domestic flights, give yourself at least two hours from your departure time to check your bags and navigate through TSA checkpoints. For international flights, allow three hours. There’s nothing more stressful than trying to cut the security line to avoid missing your flight, and it’s much easier to make mistakes when you’re stressed.

Sign up for a pre-screening program

TSA PreCheck is a godsend when you’re traveling domestically: You get to keep on your shoes, light jackets and belts when going through TSA checkpoints, and you can leave your larger electronic devices inside your carry-on luggage. If you travel internationally on a regular basis, opt for Global Entry, which includes TSA PreCheck.

You may also want to consider CLEAR, which relies on iris and fingerprint scans to verify your identity. It can be used in tandem with TSA PreCheck for an extremely efficient security experience. Just be aware that it’s pricey and you’ll have to apply for TSA PreCheck separately.

Check your luggage

Yes, you’ll have to deal with baggage claim after you land, but you’ll be a lot less likely to run into trouble at airport security if you’re not trying to cram everything into your carry-on. While baggage fees can be costly, many co-branded airline credit cards offer free checked bags when traveling with that airline. While many of these co-branded cards have an annual fee, it’s worth it if you’re a frequent flier.

Review airline luggage guidelines in advance

Airlines have different requirements for carry-ons and personal items, and knowing them before you fly can save you a lot of time and hassle. For example, some airlines allow you to bring a carry-on and a personal item on your flight, while others restrict passengers to a personal item no larger than a backpack. You’ll definitely want to know that ahead of time!


  • USA Today: “Study reveals which states’ residents cause the most delay in air travel”

Nina Derwin
Nina Derwin is a Brooklyn-based writer with a passion for the art of storytelling who covers the latest trends in popular culture, entertainment, health and personal finance. Nina has written for a number of publications, including Beyondish, Redbook, Country Living, Esquire, Delish and Digital Trends, as well as several episodes of scripted television.