Flying With a Firearm While Traveling

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.

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