What exactly are the liquid restrictions for air travellers with carry on bags? Three years after they were introduced, much confusion still abounds concerning the details of the regulations. This isn’t helped by the lack of a worldwide enforcement body with a single information source.

Carry on liquid restrictions, in a nutshell

Given that the TSA regulations are supposedly harmonised with the restrictions in the EU and elsewhere, I’m basing the following on a combination of the published TSA rules, the information I’ve found on various European websites, and my own personal experience.

- All liquids purchased before the security check, except those exempt for medical reasons, must be in containers no larger than 100ml (3.4 oz).
- All such containers must be placed in a transparent, resealable plastic bag with a maximum capacity of 1 litre (1 quart).
- Only one such plastic bag is permitted per traveller.
- This transparent, resealable bag must be removed from your hand luggage and presented separately at the security checkpoint.
- Items which are exempt for medical reasons may be carried in containers of more than 100ml, and need not be in the plastic bag, but must also be removed from your hand luggage and presented separately at security.
- “Exempt for medical reasons” is intended to cover medical items (including baby food) you might reasonably require while in flight. You should try to only bring what you’ll need aboard – where possible place larger items in your checked baggage. You may be expected to make a declaration as to why you need the item, and where possible it’s a good idea to bring something like a prescription or a doctor’s letter to back you up.
- Any liquids bought in the “airside” shops after the security check can be larger than 100ml. I’m not sure what happens in cases where there’s a second security check at the gate – it’s probably best to keep your receipt just in case. Note that in airports with a duty free shop before you reach security, you might not be allowed bring purchased items on board.

Why is there such confusion regarding the regulations?

Clarity versus confusion

The two main regulation sources are the European Union and the United States TSA. While the restrictions put in place by both are similar, they unfortunately differ greatly in how they communicate the details. The TSA website clearly states the regulations and provides helpful related information, including a list of countries signed up to a harmonised system of security rules.

The EU on the other hand published an update to their aviation security regulation which contained an annex detailing the liquid restrictions, which was then kept secret from the general public for “security reasons”. It was then left to individual airlines and airports to pass the details on to air travellers, but without a single reference point, it can be difficult to find the correct answer to some questions – e.g. is contact lens solution counted as a medical item? Answer: In the US, yes. In Europe, yes or no, depending who you ask).

The current regulation requires that “methods … for detection of liquid explosives¬† should be deployed on an EU-wide basis at airports as swiftly as possible and no later than 29 April 2010″. Since this is clearly not going to happen in the next six months, the EU will “propose the necessary addition” to the annex which lists the prohibited items. Assuming it’snot secret, this should go some way towards clearing up the confusion.

That, in not quite a nutshell, is a summary of the current hand luggage liquid regulations in place in the United States, the EU, and other airports that have implemented the common rules. If there’s something I haven’t covered, or if you’ve encountered different restrictions, please comment below. Likewise, if you’ve any questions I haven’t covered, please ask them in the comments and I’ll try to find an answer.

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