What will they do if I CAN'T turn on my laptop?
December 17, 2007 5:32 AM   Subscribe

TSAfilter: will there be any problem getting a laptop without a battery through the carry-on checkpoint at my local (American) airport?

I got my partner a new laptop for Christmas, but the airline I'm taking to visit next week has something of a history of checked baggage being broken into and having expensive items stolen. As a result, I'm concerned.

At this point, the best solution I can think of is to open the packaging and take the laptop itself out of the box and carry it on with me.

However, because I want it to look as not-tampered-with as possible when I give it, I'd also prefer to not have to unwrap the unit itself and put the battery in. The problem is that I seem to have this idea that the checkpoint guards will require all laptops to be turned on, in order to somehow prove that they aren't bombs.

If I just take the still-wrapped laptop out of the packaging and don't put the battery in, are they likely to give me much trouble about the fact that I can't turn it on? It'll still be sealed at that point, so can I safely claim that it's never even been opened? I'm looking to not be detained, if at all possible, so if I'll get in trouble and/or delayed for trying to take a laptop on a plane with me that can't be turned on, that would be decidedly less than ideal.

What, in short, is the best course of action to get this laptop there without worrying about it being stolen?
posted by anonymous to Travel & Transportation (26 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Is there time for a trip to Fedex? Advantage: no TSA crap. Disadvantages: an extra prep trip, cost (roughly $50 last time I did it), possible lack of surprise for the recipient, etc.
posted by gimonca at 5:40 AM on December 17, 2007

the airline I'm taking to visit next week has something of a history of checked baggage being broken into and having expensive items stolen.

That's all airlines, then. And none of them will cover your losses from checked items of this type, so don't ever check a computer.

I've never ever been asked to turn a laptop on. I don't think that is done commonly this day, as it provides very little proof that the laptop is not a bomb. You should take the battery in your carry-on luggage as well, and you can always offer to plug it in if necessary.

You could FedEx the laptop to a trusted person in your partner's town, and insure it for full value.

At least one TSA supervisor hangs out at the FlyerTalk Travel Safety/Security forum, so you could ask there for suggestions as well.
posted by grouse at 5:41 AM on December 17, 2007

I travel by plane in the US at least once or twice a month with my laptop and I have never been asked to turn it on. If you are looking to not be detailed because maybe there is something *else* in your luggage you don't want them to see, that's a different issue, but otherwise there's always going to be a certain amount of poking around with your stuff but having to turn the laptop on is superduper unlikely. If you want to follow-up with me or someone else abot what airport you are travelling out from, maybe someone can chime in with more specifics.
posted by jessamyn at 6:00 AM on December 17, 2007

I have never had to turn my computer on either. A thought though - will the computer start if it is plugged in but doesn't have a battery? If so, carry the power unit with you, and if asked to turn it on, just ask for a power outlet to plug it in.
posted by procrastination at 6:05 AM on December 17, 2007

I've only ever been asked to turn my laptop on at airports without the x-ray scanners (small pacific islands with one flight a day).

Otherwise, they just put it through and don't really ask anything. Although I can't guarantee that they won't look askance at a battery-free laptop--I've never tried to bring that through.
posted by that girl at 6:11 AM on December 17, 2007

It's all down to how technically minded your partner is, as compared to you. If s/he's the geek in the relationship, I expect the laptop will be in his/her hands maybe thirty seconds before the packaging's ripped off, the battery is in it, and s/he is contemplating whether to wipe Vista and install XP or wipe Vista and install Linux. If you are the geek in the relationship, I honestly doubt your partner will even know that laptops don't normally come with their batteries in. :)

Either way the best course of action IMO is to take it out of the packaging, put the battery in, set it up, charge the battery, make sure it works as much as you can, and present it to your partner in a nice carry bag with plenty of extra pockets and space for cables, along with all the manuals and CDs and warranty info and such. Ideally it has an OS installed on it already (for this purpose, Vista is considered an OS), but if it doesn't, and you have concerns over airport security, install one; this will at least get you past the suspicious look that you being concerned about them messing with the laptop could instill.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 6:13 AM on December 17, 2007 [1 favorite]

I was once asked to turn my laptop on in the Portland, Oregon airport, but other than that in the countless times I've flown since then, no security screener in, the US or otherwise, has asked me to do anything other than sticking it in a tray by itself. You'll be fine.
posted by cmonkey at 6:21 AM on December 17, 2007

aeschenkarnos has it, this is the way to give a laptop. Unless it's a macbook and she's a mac freak and will be mad that you unboxed it.
posted by By The Grace of God at 6:22 AM on December 17, 2007

Safest way is to ship it.

But they don't regularly ask everyone to turn on their laptops anymore. Allow considerable extra time to get through security, just in case. If you're not stressed out about getting to your plane, it won't be a big deal if they want to pull you out for extra screening.
posted by desuetude at 6:24 AM on December 17, 2007

Yeah, I travel a lot with a laptop, and used to travel a lot with a battery-less laptop, and have never had them ask me to turn it on. The thing I think you might run into more trouble with is that they always want the laptop to be out of any bags and by itself in one of the plastic bins. Depending on who you get screening you that may mean they don't want you leaving it in any of its packaging.
posted by yarrow at 6:26 AM on December 17, 2007

Fedex it. Don't even consider checking it.

The TSA agents aren't particularly smart, and are trained to investigate anything strange. An incomplete laptop with some of the packaging still on will probably look strange and cause them to ask questions. You don't want them to ask questions, you want them to stay bored. If you are going to carry on, take all the plastic wrapping off, and boot it through the install screens.

Also, be polite. I find it is much harder to punch someone in the face when I've just told them to have a good morning. Even after they've taken my half-empty contact lens solution bottle because it was just over the limit. Speaking of that, expect some new stupid regulation when you go flying this year. That's how they celebrate the holidays.
posted by b1tr0t at 6:35 AM on December 17, 2007 [1 favorite]

If I were you, I'd hand-carry the still sealed box. Plenty of people carry gifts with them on the plane, that they can't fit in their luggage. If they make you open it, you open it. Since it was sealed, they would know the battery was not charged / installed.
posted by smackfu at 7:06 AM on December 17, 2007

I'd agree with smackfu, although I'd have to wonder whether carrying a boxed laptop through an airport would be an invitation to a mugging or, alternately, the box finding a way to walk off on its own when you aren't looking.

Maybe someone else here knows if it's okay to carry a gift bag onto a plane.
posted by DoctorFedora at 7:14 AM on December 17, 2007

I have flown weekly or semi-weekly for the past three years straight and I haven't been asked to turn my laptop on to prove... whatever that was supposed to prove during that time. Actually, I don't think I've been asked to turn it on since maybe 2000 or early 2001.

That said, it is a pain to carry extra stuff that you are worried about with you, particularly during the holidays, and especially if you are not used to traveling by air. I would NOT check it, as valuable items tend to go missing from checked baggage no matter which airline you fly. I'd either FedEx it ahead of time or carry the whole, sealed box on with you. You can carry it unwrapped, but in a large gift bag, if you want. (In other words, whatever wrapping you use must be easy to take off, like a gift bag; the TSA doesn't like wrapped gifts and will make you remove wrapping paper. I've seen them do it.)

In any case, don't worry about putting the battery in; I doubt anyone will ask you to turn it on. If you are really worried, carry the sealed laptop and the battery and power supply with you in your carry-on luggage. That way, if the TSA takes a second look, you can just say "this is brand new and is a gift, and here are all of its parts" and that should satisfy them.
posted by bedhead at 7:34 AM on December 17, 2007

Here is the extreme of what could happen to you if you take the battery out and go through security. From my perspective it's pretty benign. I travel weekly and haven't been asked to turn on my laptop in five years.
posted by Xurando at 7:38 AM on December 17, 2007

It might depend on what airport you're going out of. Every. Single. Time. I fly out of Winnipeg they make me turn on my laptop. Everywhere else they just swab it.

So if you're flying out of Winnipeg beware.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 7:41 AM on December 17, 2007

I travel regularly with a laptop (sometimes multiples) and nth the consensus that you will NOT have to turn the laptop on when travelling through domestic TSA airport checkpoints. When I was flying shortly after 9/11, I remember having to turn the laptop on at the checkpoint, but that has not happened for a long, long time.

You may be confused with reports of customs requiring people to turn on laptops when entering the country. This has never happened to me, and in any event none of the reports I've read involve domestic-only travel.

That said, as mentioned above, standard TSA policy is that laptops and other "large" devices (i.e., game consoles) need to be placed separately in a bin when sending them through the xray. For the convenience of everyone in line behind you at the checkpoint, please don't try to send a laptop in a sealed box or a gift back through the xray. That will cause the TSA folks to get all excited and "Bag Check!"-y. You will delay yourself (having to open things up and re-send it through the xray) and delay the already long line.
posted by QuantumMeruit at 7:54 AM on December 17, 2007

The exception to 'you'll never be asked to turn your laptop on' is smallish airports, and I'm not sure how many of even them anymore. They mostly have those machines that do chemical swabs now, and that replaced the 'turn it on' check. I used to have to turn my laptop on at the smallish airport in Prince George, for example, while I never did in Toronto. Prince George now has a swabbing machine so I don't do it there, either.
posted by jacquilynne at 7:58 AM on December 17, 2007

Make sure you have sufficient time. In the unlikely event that they want it turned on, explain that it is brand new, and must use wall power.

Or, break in the battery according to the instructions, so your sweetie doesn't have to. 1st use of the battery has specific requirements, and you could get that out of the way.
posted by theora55 at 9:02 AM on December 17, 2007

my old laptop can't charge the battery anymore, so I don't even carry it with me. i've never been asked to turn it on, though I always put the laptop in my carry-on luggage.

my wife got some strange looks from TSA last week because the laptop has two gaping holes in front where the battery and floppy drive would sit, but they didn't give her too much trouble. she just joked with them that they need to tell her husband to buy her a new laptop....oops, probably a bad idea to suggest joking :)
posted by jacobsee at 9:50 AM on December 17, 2007

I've flown 5 times in the past year and have brought a laptop each time and have never been asked to turn it on.
posted by shmegegge at 11:04 AM on December 17, 2007

You can fedex it to yourself c/o another fedex store location. So if you're very worried about it showing up at your home, just have it sent to the nearest fedex/kinkos to your home, and no one will be the wiser.
posted by Kellydamnit at 1:08 PM on December 17, 2007

data point: i have been asked to turn on my laptop probably 80% of my trips since i got it three years ago, through both large and small airports. (i've never been through an airport without x-ray; is that even possible?) this is ballpark 16-20 security checks.
posted by loiseau at 9:12 PM on December 17, 2007

^^ what i'm getting at is that i'm shocked so many people have never been asked.
posted by loiseau at 9:13 PM on December 17, 2007

any portmanteau in a storm: It might depend on what airport you're going out of. Every. Single. Time. I fly out of Winnipeg they make me turn on my laptop. Everywhere else they just swab it.

So if you're flying out of Winnipeg beware.

Based on my report above I'm thinking it's more common in Canada.
posted by loiseau at 9:16 PM on December 17, 2007

I've been asked to turn on my laptop before and couldnt because I was out of battery and I didnt have a travel adapter for a US socket with me. They recognised this, and just looked at the laptop carefully. Was no big deal.

I've travelled domestically and internationally through the US a few times since and not been asked.
posted by kaydo at 4:40 AM on December 18, 2007

« Older Out of the Frying Pan into the Ire   |   Responsibility for damages to car which struck our... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.