Flying with Firearms: Everything You Need to Know

With recent reports of travelers trying to carry firearms in their carry-on luggage, we thought it’d be a good idea to help everyone brush up on the correct way to fly with a firearm (hint: don’t just throw it in your bag and hope for the best.)

Between long waits at the airport, strict security regulations, and inevitable delays, flying can be a pain even for the average traveler.

Atlanta Airport
And living in the Atlanta area, I know nightmare airports.

It may seem like adding a gun to the mix would only make things more complicated, but traveling legally with a firearm can actually be pretty simple, if you know what you’re doing.

This guide will show you how to pack your gun, ammunition, and accessories to keep them safe and legal for air travel, what you need to do at the airport to make flying with your gun easier, and exactly whose rules you need to make sure you’re following.

If you use this guide and a bit of common sense, traveling with your firearm will be just as painless – well, only equally as painful – as flying without it.

Plane Landing
Get off the ground and to your destination with ease.

Packing to Keep Your Gun Safe and Legal

First things first, you need to know the TSA’s rules for firearms.

In a world where pocket knives, snow globes, and even gel insoles can’t be stored in carry on bags, it should come as no surprise that you can’t take a gun in your carry on.

Snow Globe
Too dangerous for air travel.

They also must be unloaded and stored in a locked hard-sided container, which can’t be easily opened and totally prevents access to the gun.

This case can then be placed inside your checked baggage or, in the case of large cases, is a checked bag itself. Multiple guns can be placed in the same hard sided case.

Check out our case recommendations for a variety of solid cases for all price points.  Master Lock also makes a variety of inexpensive but heavy duty lock options that you can use on your case.

7
at Amazon

Prices accurate at time of writing

Prices accurate at time of writing

Mobile gun safes can also be a good choice, but be mindful of weight limits on checked baggage if you want to avoid extra fees.

Bear in mind that you shouldn’t use a regular TSA approved lock used for regular luggage, which are actually illegal to use for firearms storage because they can be opened by anyone with a TSA master key.

You should have the key on your person, and there shouldn’t be a copy in your checked luggage.  Otherwise, what’s the point of the lock?

You don’t want to skimp on your protective case for both your peace of mind and for the TSA’s.  After all, your case is the primary protector of your gun while your bag is being tossed around by less than careful baggage handlers and sliding around the hold of the plane.

Pistol and magazine in egg crate foam lined case
Pistol and Magazine Packed for Air Travel

In addition to being sturdy and durable, many gun owners also like to travel with their firearms in cases that don’t obviously like gun cases in order to prevent theft.

If that’s your jam, try a case that looks like it could just as easily be carrying sports equipment, a musical instrument, or small electronics.  For example, a rifle or shotgun could be carried in a hard case intended for golf clubs like this one from Samsonite.

200
at Amazon

Prices accurate at time of writing

Prices accurate at time of writing

Just be sure to cut foam inserts to keep everything protected and in place during transport.

Picking Up Your Gun From Baggage Claim

Once you land, large gun cases that are checked as an individual piece of luggage rather than stored in checked baggage may have to be picked up with large or unusual items, like skis, instead of with other checked baggage.

Usually they’ll just come down the carousel with everything else though.

Baggage Claim
Just grab your rifle case alongside your suitcase.

Ammunition also has to be checked, and must be stored in containers specifically designed for carrying small amounts of ammunition.

Shotgun shells and ammunition .75 caliber or less can be stored in the same hard case as a firearm (still in the container specifically for ammunition), but don’t have to be.

Loaded or empty magazines and clips have to be stored the same way as guns, but firearm parts like bolts and firing pins just have to be stored in checked bags.  

Even though the TSA says boxes made out of flimsier materials like cardboard are alright for storing ammunition during air travel, you may want to go with a more solid container to avoid the risk of having your ammo box fall apart mid-flight, leaving your ammunition to scatter across your bag.

4
at Amazon

Prices accurate at time of writing

Prices accurate at time of writing

Sure, you might be able to use every remaining piece of ammunition, place them in a new container, or leave them behind, but considering how seriously the TSA takes loose ammunition, it’s not worth the risk.

Lightweight but sturdy options are going to be the best bet for most travelers.

 

4
at Brownells

Prices accurate at time of writing

Prices accurate at time of writing

Breeze Through Declaring Your Firearm

When checking your baggage, you also have to declare any guns or ammunition to the airline.

You have to do this every time you travel, so don’t forget to declare your firearms and ammunition again if you switch airlines during the same trip.

Firearm Declaration Slip
Firearm Declaration Slip

What exactly does it mean to declare your gun, though?

Declaring a firearm is not a big deal and it won’t get you funny looks or suspicious treatment.  

After all, lots of people fly with firearms, and your gun probably won’t even be the weirdest thing the agent will have encountered since starting their shift.

Just go to the ticketing desk inside the airport (you can’t declare a gun curbside) and tell the agent that you need to declare a firearm.

Airport ticket counter
No Special Stop Needed

They’ll give you a card to fill out with your contact info, verifying that you’ve properly stored your gun.  The agent will then check that the case is locked.

After a few questions to make sure any accessories or ammunition are stored properly,  you’re usually good to go, but the agent may also want to look inside the case.

You should unlock combination locks yourself. TSA and airline staff are not supposed to ask for your combination or a copy of your key.

Declared Firearm
Declared Firearm

Your agent can open the lock with a key if they give the key right back to you. Remember, you should have a key on your person, but not in your checked bag.

TSA and airline agents also shouldn’t handle your firearms.  If they feel it needs inspection, they are supposed to call over a law enforcement officer.

Once you’ve finished declaring your firearm, stick around the desk for 20 or so minutes in case they need to call you back for an inspection.   If you go through security and they need to call you back, you’ll have to go through all over again.

Airport Security
And the last thing you want to do is have to work your way through this mess a second time.

Declaring is usually a quick and easy process, but you want to allow yourself at least an extra hour in case of one of the rare occasions where it does take longer.

It’s much better to have more time to browse duty free stores or grab a Cinnabon than to miss your flight.

Note: Air rifles and air guns are not considered firearms, but must be stored in checked bags. They do not require declaration, but air tanks must be inspected.

Other People’s Rules

The TSA isn’t the only person who makes rules about flying with your firearm, and you need to know which ones will affect you.

Most airlines have rules for flying with guns on top of the TSA’s, and exactly what these rules are varies from airline to airline, so you’ll also need to check what your airline of choice requires.

For example, Delta requires that guns be stored in a manufacturer’s case and puts a weight limit of 11 pounds of ammunition, among other limitations.

Delta Declaration Slip
Delta Declaration Slip

American Airlines also puts an 11 pound limit on ammunition and only allows empty magazines.

These rules and regulations generally be found easily by searching your airline’s name and “firearm” or “gun” or by looking on their website under the section for baggage.

Delta and American Airlines are linked above, but we’ll give you a head start in finding the rules for the most popular airlines by linking you to their pages here:

Southwest Firearm Declaration Slip
Southwest Firearm Declaration Slip

You’ll also need to know the laws for wherever you’re flying to.  Airport staff is only checking to make sure you’re following the airline and the TSA’s rules, so even if your gun is checked legally, you may be in violation of local laws once you reach your destination.

For international travel, booking direct flights as much as possible minimizes the countries you pass through, and cuts down significantly on the number of customs requirements that you have to deal with, making the whole process easier (and minimizing the chance of missing luggage).

You’ll need the have the customs rules of all countries you’ll be visiting.  You’ll also need a US Customs Form 4457, which must be signed in-person by a US customs official before you leave.

US Customs Form 4457
US Customs Form 4457

This form allows you to bring your firearms back into the country without having to pay duty on them. This is especially important for foreign made guns. This useful form can cover other foreign made items as well, and can be used multiple times, so hold on to it for future trips.

You’ll want to get all this information together early so you have plenty of time to get it filled out properly before you leave, especially if you need a visa.

Final Thoughts on Traveling with a Gun

revolver and ammo packed in case
Revolver and Ammo Packed to Fly

So, to sum everything up:

  • Guns and ammunition both need to be in checked baggage,
  • Store your gun unloaded in a hard case with a non-TSA approved lock,
  • Using a solid container to store your ammunition is safer and easier,
  • Be sure to declare your firearm,
  • Know your airline’s rules, and
  • Know the laws of wherever you’re going.

That’s about it. Using this guide, you should be able to fly with your gun with relative ease, but when in doubt, contact your airline or the TSA directly. For international travel, refer questions to the local consulate or embassy of the country or countries you’re visiting.

handgun, magazines, and knife in hard case
Packed Safe and Secure

Have you ever flown with your gun? Have any tips or tricks? Let us know in the comments below!

14 Leave a Reply

  • bobcul

    I have a few points and questions on this subject. 1) In the past the declaration form was signed by the passenger and counter signed/stamped by the check in agent and then PUT INSIDE THE GUN CASE. This is the procedure shown in the TSA video at There is supposed to be no identification of any form on the baggage that it contained a firearm - no sticker, no secret code on the bag tag, no NOTHING. Has this been changed? Such outside tags scream STEAL ME. 2) According to Delta Airlines, "All firearms checked as baggage must be picked up at the Baggage Service Office upon arrival at your final destination. ID will be required to claim your checked firearm". I understand that this MIGHT be the case with oversize cases, they wind up automatically with the skis, golf clubs, etc. Pickup required at the service office with ID indicates a violation of the "no identification" of the bag contents practice cited above. 3) Locked cases will include those with combination locks. I used Halberton aluminum camera cases. The passenger is supposed to retain the key at all times but the case may be opened for inspection in the presence of the passenger who unlocks the case or gives the key temporarily to the agent. HOWEVER, with a combination, if you give it to the agent he then has possession of it after you leave the screening. Even if you offer to activate the combination (so they are not given it) they often refuse to let you touch the case. I have gone round and round with various agents on this (and other firearm issues). Furthermore, this situation would appear to EXCLUDE TSA-recognized locks even though their use is approved on the above web site. The universal master keys are held by TSA (and possibly others) and can be used any time and at any location inside a TSA secure area or by an unscrupulous agent. What is the experience with this? How can the combination lock situation be handled? What are your thoughts on all this. Bob in Wyoming

    1 month ago
  • Michael Vialpando

    Hey Guys, I fly a lot for work but never with firearms. I am flying southwest this weekend and want to know if I can put my soft sided gun bag inside my hard sided golf travel bag, and then lock the whole golf bag. Is that okay? I have many soft sided cases, but no hard sided cases at this time that will fit 3 rifles. Thanks!

    1 month ago
    • David, PPT Editor

      I'm not sure, the best way would be to ask Southwest directly - they should be able to give you exact information!

      1 month ago
  • Dumbfounded

    The fact that my luggage with declared and screened firearms comes up the normal baggage claim carousel is idiotic and ludicrous. These should be picked up at a manned location and positive ID required. That TSA/ATF etc. do not require this is insane. No airports verify claim checks anymore so why give them too?

    2 months ago
  • Shane

    Going to Alaska on American Airlines. Can we put a pistol and rifle in same case?

    4 months ago
    • Jack Doyle

      There is no limit to the number or type of firearms (rifles/shotguns/pistols) per case. Different firearm types may be in the same case as long as each type is properly packed. Cut and pasted the above from Alaska Airlines, Special Baggage. Transporting Firearms section of their website.

      2 months ago
  • Scott F.

    I have flown dozens of times with multiple firearms for competitive shooting. I always use a pelican case with my own keyed locks. I have flown with well over 11 lbs of ammo and never been questioned. I think if you have your stuff packaged looking professional they won't flag you. The trickiest part is every airport and airline has their own little quirks. Just give yourself a little extra time and you'll be fine. The hardest part is keeping everything under 50lbs to avoid extra charge. I have had many TSA agents look inside my cases and say WOW, looks like you know what you're doing! I fly mostly Delta and have never used an original manufacturers case. Spend the $ and get a pelican and customize the foam for what you want to bring and lock it at every point that can be locked.

    8 months ago
    • mark

      Hi Scott, Question for you since you said you fly delta, if I say fly in to Atlanta but then catch a connecting flight to FL, will I have to redeclare the firearm in Atlanta? or will they just see it is declared already and transfer my luggage as usual onto my next flight?

      1 month ago
  • Chris

    I just did my first cross-country, multiple-stop, multiple-airline trip with firearms. In Seattle, Alaska Air had me sign an "unloaded" tag and taped it to the pelican case. Then I had to carry my bag to a TSA check who did a search and swab of my luggage. Finally I carried my bag to the oversized bag drop off. In Salt Lake City, I just picked up my bags and left. Leaving SLC, American Airlines questioned me the hardest, but then just dropped the "unloaded" tag into my luggage on top of my case. I personally carried my bag to the oversized/special luggage drop off and waited for it to go through xray, then I was good to go. In Charlotte, NC, I picked up my bags and left. Leaving Charlotte, the American agent was a bit easier, but then I waited to meet with a TSA agent who took me to a room behind the check-in counter, had me unlock my case and examined it. This made me the most concerned, because I had two sidearms in one case (no problem), and because I had my daily carry ammunition packed in one of the magazines instead of a box. He had no problem with that either - he picked it up and we spoke about it. He was only looking for loose ammunition. He also complimented the case and the locks, commenting on how often he saw folks trying to use manufacturer's cases that were pry-able or flimsy and the flexible cable locks or TSA-compliant locks. He picked up but did not attempt to work the slides on either sidearm, saying he would need a firing chamber to do so safely. So the only way he could have possible confirmed they were unloaded was by weight/feel. I asked if other airports had such chambers, and he said he wasn't aware. Afterwards we re-secured everything, then he had me watch him carry the bag to the luggage check to confirm it was in the system. This check-in took the longest, but it was the most educational and informative. Back in Seattle, I was startled when baggage claim took my luggage off the carousel before I reached it, and insisted I show ID. I lost my temper a bit on this one. "Its policy because there's a firearm" I was told, but they were unable to show me where it was written down. My retort was that my ski equipment costs more than my firearm, but they don't require ID for my ski bag, and if they wanted to see my luggage receipt fine, but they had no right to my ID. They also couldn't explain how it could be American Airlines policy in Seattle but not in Charlotte. I'm writing a letter to the airline to complain about this further and will follow up with Eric if he's interested. All told it was an interesting experience that I'll probably repeat now that I know more. The only consideration is that it was a trip I could have done with only carry-on if I hadn't been bringing a firearm with me.

    11 months ago
  • Bob

    After an hour on hold with United airlines they said I could carry 11 lbs of ammo on each checked bag- not 11 lbs per individual person .

    1 year ago
  • Rob

    I recently flew Delta. They REQUIRE TSA locks. I complied. When I arrived at destination my revolver was damaged. My bag had been inspected because I use TSA ziplocks to verify. I had to spend a half a day finding and going to a gunsmith. It turns out the gun was probably opened to check for ammo but slammed back into the frame thus causing the cylinder to become out of sync. What is one to do about TSA required locks & TSA damage ??

    1 year ago
    • Jeremiah

      Just visited Delta site and couldn't find anything stating they "require" TSA locks. TSA does currently allow them to be used, but it is a bad idea IMO. You can file a complaint with the TSA for the damage and attempt to recover it. The article also states that Delta requires a manufacturer case, but that has never been true in my experience in reading their rules and flying with firearms with them. That is one of 3 options and ONLY if it is sturdy enough to protect the firearm from being accessed.

      7 months ago
  • Michael M.

    Thank you for the insights. I fly with 1-2 guns when I am traveling to states that honor my carry license. Good tip on the TSA approved locks. All of mine are, but after your coments, I am switching to something that only I have the key for. If they need to open the case, is rather be there.

    1 year ago
    • Eric Hung

      Glad we could help out, Mike!

      1 year ago
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