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The TSA have been requiring that all suitcases be checked at the airport, unlocked. This is not only adds to your risk of having things stolen, but also increases the risk of the suitcase accidentally opening.

Now there are a range of special TSA approved locks. You can open them using your combination, and the TSA can open them using a special master key.

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TSA Approved SearchAlert Suitcase Locks

The red diamond clearly shows the TSA that they have approved this lock and can open it with a special key if they need to. If the lock is opened, the indicator changes from green to red so you know.



This is a simple combination lock that securely keeps your suitcase closed, deters casual pilfering, and also shows you if the lock has been opened by a TSA key.

In addition to immediately showing you if the TSA have opened your bag or not, these locks might help you prove a claim for damaged/stolen items if such a misfortune occurs.

What You Get

Each lock is blister packaged on a display card. Inside the pack is the lock and a sheet of instructions.

The instructions tell you how to change the factory preset combination to any number of your choice, and how to reset the red color back to green if the TSA have opened the lock and triggered the red warning indicator.

Only you can change the red warning indicator back to green. The TSA can't do this, and neither could a petty thief (unless he knew your secret combination).

The lock has a lifetime guarantee. And it also has an interesting extra warranty - if the TSA ever cut your lock off your bag, then the manufacturer will replace the lock for free. Of course, because the TSA have master keys for the lock, they should never need to cut it off the bag.

The locks are priced at $19.85 for a pair and are available through Magellan's.


The combination padlock looks acceptably strong and solid, and gives the impression of being heavier than its actual 2.2 ounces. On the other hand, it also is reasonably non-descript and its presence doesn't call unwanted attention to your bag.

The combination wheels have big bright white numbers on them, making it easy to see and open the lock, even in poor light.

The green/red color indicator is clear and obvious.

TSA Issues

These days all checked bags are screened by the TSA, typically by going through a huge mini-van sized 3D X-ray type machine. If the machine thinks it might have seen something suspicious (and the machines have a high rate of 'false positives'), then someone has to open the bag and search through it to resolve the issue.

For this reason, the TSA have formerly been requiring all bags to be unlocked. And, if they came across a bag that had been locked, they'd have to destroy the lock so as to open the suitcase.

They have now agreed to allow suitcases to be built with special locks, and/or add-on special locks to be used with any suitcases - these locks have a dual keying system. One 'key' (either a physical key or a combination lock) belongs to the owner, and this key or combination has many different variations, so that your key is unlikely to unlock the next guy's suitcase as well as your own.  You will have better odds at an online casino then opening some-else's lock with your key.  But the second key is a 'master' key that only the TSA has (in theory!) and this master key can open all locks in that series. This means the TSA can now easily unlock and relock your suitcase if it needs to inspect it.

If the TSA does open your suitcase, it will insert a piece of paper that tells you they have done this. In theory, if someone else opens your suitcase, they will not insert one of the TSA slips (although it would seem to be the easiest thing for a gang of professional luggage thieves to simply photocopy off a bunch of the TSA notices!).

If, when you get your bag back at the end of your flight, and the lock's indicator is red, you should immediately open it - at the airport. Check to see if anything is missing. If something is missing, and there is no TSA slip, go and see your airline's baggage claim desk. If something is missing and there is a TSA slip, go and see the TSA, or, if you're in a foreign airport, again see your airline's baggage claim people. Your ability to successfully claim for stolen items is greatly increased by the fact that you are making the claim as soon as you received your bag, and by the fact you can point to your lock and show that the telltale indicator is red, indicating someone has opened it.

Note you should never leave film in any checked bags these days, because the strength of the X-rays can completely destroy the film. The linked article has some fascinating 'before and after' examples of film damaged by these new machines.

Functionality and Security

The lock is easy to use, and it is a great extra feature that you can change the combination, any time, and as many times as you like, to any number you wish.

A combination lock is vastly preferable to a keyed lock, because you never have to worry about losing the key.

If your lock's indicator does turn from green to red, it is easy to reset this back to green again, although only you can do this (you need to use your combination code as part of the reset process).

As for security, the expression 'locks are for honest people' definitely applies any time you're considering a lock that costs only $10.

The lock should be considered primarily as a way of stopping your suitcases from accidentally being opened, not as a way of securely thief-proofing them.  You need to decide if its worth playing roulette with you belongings.  But of course a dishonest baggage handler will first choose to pilfer completely unsecured suitcases, and then will open suitcases with totally insecure locks that anyone can open with a paperclip.

Only a dedicated thief will choose to try and open a suitcase that has a more serious lock on it, such as the SearchAlert. And such a thief could simply break in through the side of the suitcase, or cut the lock off entirely, or steal the entire suitcase! So all that any type of lock can do is reduce the chance of pilfering, not eliminate it entirely.

It is possible to open the lock via the TSA key slot without an official TSA key. The lock uses a simple warded system to control this function, and I was able to defeat this with an imaginatively shaped piece of iron. However, although I could open the lock this way, I couldn't prevent the indicator changing from green to red, and this indicator feature is as much the prime benefit of the lock as is its 'security'.

It may also be possible to defeat the combination lock, but this requires a bit of uninterrupted time and some luck as well. I was able to open the lock once with my eyes closed (so as not to know what numbers I was dialing in by feel) but after having done that once, I couldn't repeat it the next five times I tried! Of course, no luggage thief in a busy airport is going to want to spend five minutes trying to open a combination lock when the next bag on the conveyor belt is completely unprotected.

Summary and Recommendation

A pair of SearchAlert locks are priced at $19.85 from Magellan's, making them affordable as well as convenient.

The lock admirably discharges its two roles - protecting your bag from accidental opening, and adding a measure of security to its contents.

Other TSA approved dual key type locks are also making their way to the marketplace, but this is the only one I've seen that includes the green/red indicator feature.


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Originally published 26 December 2003, last update 21 Jul 2020

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

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