TSA Searches For Large Sums Of Cash : Why Its Wrong

The topic of passengers being questioned by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) when flying with cash comes up somewhat often and it’s a truly troubling question.

In the past week I was contacted by two travelers who encountered similar TSA incidents of being questioned regarding flying with cash at two different airports, headed to two different destinations.

The first email came from Karen Phillips, who was flying from New York’s JFK International Airport (JFK) to Las Vegas (LAS) for a long weekend bachelorette celebration. Karen wrote that she was pulled aside by a TSA Transportation Security Officer (TSO) and assumed it was due to her leaving her iPad in her bag. Rather than having her iPad removed the TSA TSO pulled out her bank envelope with US$6,000 in cash in it and proceeded to question why she was traveling with “such an extravagant amount of money.

The second email comes from a doctor, who requested his name not be used, who is part of volunteer medical organization that brings medial aid to rural area in Central and South America.  The doctor states that he passed through security and upon a search of his bag was questioned about traveling with US$25,000 in cash … despite producing a US Treasury FinCEN Form 105, that legally declares the currency he was traveling internationally with in excess of US$10,000.

Incidents where people are questioned by the TSA about traveling with cash, of any amount, are troubling for a number of reasons.  The primary reasons for the TSA questioning passengers about cash are problematic in that TSA TSOs are not law enforcement and that cash is not a danger to travel or the “movement for people and commerce.

People fly with cash for many reasons, not to mention that possessing legal currency from any nation is not illegal.  But lets go back to the two readers who emailed regarding this incidents.

In Karen’s case, she says she was questioned for between three and five minutes regarding her traveling with US$6,000 in cash. Karen claims that once she explained that she was traveling with cash because she didn’t want to exceed the budget she and her husband agreed upon for the long bachelorette weekend in Las Vegas the TSO called their Supervisor who asked her similar questions.  She says she felt intimidated having to explain that US$6,000 was not “such an extravagant amount of money” for her and that she didn’t like having to explain her personal business to the TSA.

First off for Karen, the TSA should not be shocked that people may be flying to Las Vegas with larger than average sums of cash in their possession. Secondly, the US Treasury only requires the reporting of traveling with an amount in excess of US$10,000 and only when that travel is internationally. Thirdly, the TSA should not be questioning people about where they may have gotten their money from, it is none of their business if someone has money or not.

For The Doctor, I can understand why the TSA may question a large amount of cash flying between Miami and Central America, but once The Doctor produced a US Treasury FinCEN Form 105 declaring that he was leaving the country with the cash, the questioning should have stopped.   Should the TSA have felt The Doctor, who says he was questioned for around 10 minutes, was engaged in illegal activities they should have contacted law enforcement to question The Doctor.  Yes, Miami is a primary airport for those engaged in less-than-legal activities, but generally those engaged in smuggling and illegal actives don’t file the proper paperwork with the US Treasury.

The Transportation Security Administration is not a law enforcement agency and its Transportation Security Officers are not engaged in investigating services. The TSA’s front line is not trained in the legalities of investigations or the collection of evidence; this must be handled by law enforcement.

The TSA has repeatedly engaged in mission creep, in an effort to further its role in Homeland Security, but in the process fails at an unacceptable rate when it comes to their core mission of securing the safety and security of commercial aviation security.

The TSA should refer back to its Mission Statement “The Transportation Security Administration protects the Nation’s transportation systems to ensure freedom of movement for people and commerce.”

If the agency believes there is some wiggle room in their Mission Statement to question passengers about cash, the TSA should  refer back to their 2009 policy adjustment that states “screening may not be conducted to detect evidence of crimes unrelated to transportation security” and “traveling with large amounts of currency is not illegal.”

Questioning travelers about their cash, an issue that has come up time and time again as exceeding the agencies role and authority, is in fact impeding the “freedom of movement for people and commerce.

Happy Flying!



  1. Thank you for bringing this WIDESPREAD TSA practice out into the open. It’s a big problem not only in NY and Miami but also in Houston. Your article helps all travelers know what the cash rules are. I hope the Doctor pursued this with senior TSA officials, having legal cash and proper Treasury form, he should have been apologized to NOT harassed. I hope he reported the names to the TSA supervisor and his members of Congress.

  2. Gene,

    You may carry US$10,000 without filing with the US Treasury. However if you have $10,000.01 then you must file for being over the amount.

    Domestically you can fly with any amount you want and not declare anything.

    Happy Flying!


  3. It would almost be worth it to get a large sum of cash and buy a domestic ticket just to be able to say “None of your business. Read the rules.” to a TSA Agent and their Superior…


  4. The TSA has the authority to conduct administrative searches with respect to airline safety. As cash is not a security threat, it is outside of the TSA’s mandate.

    That being said, any material discovered during the search that is evidence of a crime maybe reported to a LEO. For example, while a bag of weed is not a threat to security, it can still be seized.

  5. John,

    You state “while a bag of weed is not a threat to security, it can still be seized” … no its not a threat but it is illegal to possess in the United States, with limited medical exceptions. Cash however is not illegal to posses and is issued exclusively by the governments that issue it.

    You are comparing two very different things.

    Happy Flying!


  6. @fish

    The fact that the weed (or any other item) is illegal in principle does not make it legal for a non-LEO to seize it.

    Report it? Sure, they are actually obliged to.
    Detain you until the duly notified LEO comes? Certainly, on the same principle as you are allowed to detain a shoplifter or anyone else commiting a crime.
    Seize the bloody thing? Nope.

  7. Over here in the UK we are trained to a similar nature to stop people with a large amount of money and to call customs if they are carrying anything over £5000, HMRC and the police want to know what high amounts of monies are leaving the country and where it is going to – under a counter terrorist/illegal activities basis but it is up to the control authorities to deal with not us!!

  8. Roo,

    When departing the UK travelers can fill out a HMRC C9011 Form for declaring cash over certain amount. In the UK, like in the US, this should satisfy the questioning regarding the legality of the cash. It is unlikely someone will be declaring money when they plan to commit a crime.

    As you said though, questioning is handed over to law enforcement.

    Happy Flying!


  9. I recently had the same question asked of me at at IAH. I had presented my boarding pass at the gate and was on my way to the jetbridge when a TSA agent asked me how much currency I was carrying with me. I was on my way out of the country (Belize) and was carrying several thousand dollars (though well below the $10k limit). While I wasn’t shy about answering him, I suddenly did feel very nervous that anyone within earshot now knew I was carrying that sum of money…

  10. I normally travel with less than $20 cash and use my debit card for everything, which would be disastrous if there were a disaster or emergency. If I were carrying a large sum of cash, as a law-abiding citizen I would not want to explain my personal business to the TSA agent.

    What would be a good way to respond to the TSA agent’s unreasonable line of questioning about my perfectly legal activity? Should I respond, “I’m not comfortable with everyone within earshot now knowing that I am carrying that sum of money.” or “According to U.S. Treasury rules, I’m only required to declare sums of ten thousand or more IF traveling abroad. I am traveling domestically and I am a law-abiding citizen.” Those retorts sound like they would get me a few hours in a little room and lots of questions from agents and LEOs.

    My major problem is that I get pulled aside for special screening all the time, even without a eyebrow-raising amount of cash, and I would be worried that if the TSA agent didn’t feel that I was being properly obsequious to their ridiculous line of questioning, they would call over a real LEO for questioning about the (legal) amount of cash. I just want to get through security with a reasonable amount of my privacy intact.

  11. While very interesting…WHAT are we supposed to do? Im retired and collect high end coins. Traveling to Tampa twice a year, NYC once a year and whatever the ANA worlds fair of money is held (chicago last year). I travel from Texas by air with usually $25k – $50k and normally a few coins to trade with. For those who may not understand coin addiction one must examine the coin in person and when dealing with a dealer that doesn’t know me cash is preferred; not to mention King! Does the TSA really think the aforementioned dealer is going to accept an out of state check. And before you ask about using a local bank upon arrival I use a small local credit union. Not to mention I worked hard for my money and am not breaking any laws…Where do we get/demand answers?

  12. I share Rosie’s concerns even if you were to quote their regulations or policies i still think it’d be more trouble than to simply admit to it. I feel like if you gave them any kind of resistance they’d still detain you and just be a bad situation. Would you be able to press any kind of charges? What would stop them from creating some other issue to excuse their invasion of privacy?

    after refusing a police to search my trunk and just generally giving me a hard time (i was moving and had the entire car filled very carefully to fit and he wanted to individually search them) and then resulted in me waiting for K-9 and was cited a ticket for obstruction of view for having a rosemary hanging from my rear view mirror.

  13. What about situations where someone is carrying say $300,000? There are folks who want to pay cash for art, land, homes, cars, etc. The way the TSA and police treat people with cash, someone could end up doing time just for carrying large sums of cash.

    This is bad for US citizens, freedom, and even the federal government. When law enforcement becomes concerned about how much cash you are carrying, then cash loses its value. It becomes something that is “no good” for doing trade. So, people will resort to using other methods of transporting wealth such as diamonds. Diamonds are legal, small, don’t smell and can simply be hidden or worn in plain view when traveling within the US.

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