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I had a business trip with some free time in the evening, so I took my photo gear with me, but on the last moment, decided to leave my film camera at home because I did not want to ruin the film with X-ray scans in airports. I wasn't going to stay long enough to buy, shoot and develop a film during my stay, which seems to be the best way of avoiding X-ray scans.

I want to be better prepared next time, so what would the best practice to travel with undeveloped film?

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7 Answers 7

up vote 6 down vote accepted
  • The scanners for checked baggage are a lot more powerful, so take it through in your carry-on.
  • If you've only got slower films (ISO 100 or so), there's not really a concern.
  • If you have faster films, ask to have them hand-inspected. With anything ISO 400 and below you should be fine but you can have issues if they go through the scanner too many times or decide to blast your bag with more juice because all your big metal cameras look suspicious.
  • If you're going to have them hand-inspected, put all your film in a zip-loc bag, and put that on an outside pocket or something so you can yank it out easily (i.e., like your 3oz bottles of liquid).
  • Keep your camera(s) un-loaded in case the agent wants to open them. I've never had that happen, but you never know these days...
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Kodak claims that the x-ray scanners for carry-on baggage (as opposed to bags that are checked) shouldn't damage your film. So if you take all your film in your carry-on, you should be all right.

If you really don't want it scanned with the x-ray machines at all, you can request a hand inspection.

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Bring your film in your carry-on bag and ask to have it hand inspected instead of put through the X-ray machines. It's a common practice and you shouldn't encounter any objections.

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2  
Keeping the film in minimum packaging and all together helps a lot. You might want the box ends to show the film type on the body/magazine, but you can carry those, pre-trimmed, separately. A clear zip-lock bag works, as does transferring any non-IR 35mm film to clear canisters (they used to be the Fuji default) will make the inspectors happy. –  user2719 Sep 21 '11 at 17:37
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I don't think film use is common practice anymore, so I can't imagine it is common to hand inspect film either ;) –  dpollitt Sep 21 '11 at 19:22

I haven't shot film for a long time, but when I did, the way I countered the objections (some smart*$$ always seems to know better) is to have one roll of ISO 1600 film at the top of the bag. Then they have to hand inspect. Cheesy trick, but it always worked for me.

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We all love a cheesy trick from time to time ;) –  AJ Finch Sep 22 '11 at 11:33

Ideally, the answer is have the film get hand inspected each time. Always.

X-rays are just like any other type of light for film - it exposes the film (and it gets through the film canister). You will occasionally see statements like "security check point that said film under ISO 800 would be unharmed going through the checked luggage x-ray machine" which is not completely correct. A better phrasing of this statement would be "film at ISO 800 speed going through this X-ray scanner once will not show noticeable effects in normal situations"

Key points there:

  • Film of ISO 800 that goes through twice will
  • Film of ISO 400 that goes through four times will (half as sensitive, twice as many trips)
  • Film you intend to push process will likely have noticeable effects
  • Normal circumstances does not include "we looked at it with more power because something else looked funny."

From the TSA web page: How to Get Through the Line Faster

Film. Pack undeveloped film in your carry-on bag. If you have film that is faster than 800-speed, tell a TSA officer who will manually inspect the film instead of placing it through the X-ray.

Note the carry on bag bit there. Higher power X-rays are used for checked luggage. If you believe you may have trouble, get a printout of that page. Also for travelers within the United States if you are really having trouble you may quote FAA regulation 108.17 (government printing office - pdf (page 335, second column, section e)):

If requested by passengers, their photographic equipment and film packages shall be inspected without exposure to an X-ray system.

All that said...

  • Consider getting a leaded bag. Note that the TSA does not advice this for US domestic flights (hand inspection is always an option so this causes more difficulties in these cases).

    • The TSA will (should) always allow for hand inspection of the film. Other countries may not and require the film to go through the scanner. A leaded bag (amazon) can help reduce the amount of exposure the film gets.

    • Having a leaded bag for your film (take it out before going through the scanner and inform the agent that this is a leaded bag with film in it) will have many TSA agents realize that its pointless to put this through the scanner and the hand inspection is the only option. This will not necessarily make them happier and may slow down the entire process (the bag will need to be inspected too).

  • Consider getting some high speed film (that you aren't likely to shoot) and carry it with you.

    • I often carried some 3200 speed film with me when traveling on the off chance I was going to do some handled night photos. It also completely puts you in to the "this is high speed film" category that is well over 800 speed and so there is no question if it needs to be hand inspected or not.
  • Avoid having film in canisters

    • While this can reduce the amount of fogging due to X-rays if they do go through the machine, when hand inspecting it is a pain to take each roll out of the canister and swab it. You don't want to get the TSA agent any more annoyed than they already are. You both want to have you go through the security process promptly and efficiently.

    • If you must have canisters, avoid the dark plastic ones. In the event that you have a more easy going TSA agent, they may just look at the canisters to see that they are film. Opaque canisters would then need to be opened to see that there is film in there.

  • For international flights the advice from the TSA is (from Transporting Film (linked below)):

    • If you are going to be traveling through multiple X-ray examinations with the same rolls of undeveloped film, you may want to request a hand-inspection of your film. However, non-U.S. airports may not honor this request.

    • If you plan to hand-carry undeveloped film on an airplane at an international airport, contact the airport security office at that airport to request a manual inspection.

    • You may still consider bringing a lead-lined bag if you are traveling through airports in other countries as their policies may vary. Check with your airline or travel agent for more information on foreign airports.

See also:

  • TSA: Transporting Film - Note that this is from the Wayback Machine and is a capture from June 2006 (most recent version of it) which describes what constitutes specialty film, mentions the cumulative effect of X-ray exposures and has some other tips that are good advice.
  • Kodak: Baggage X-ray Scanning Effects on Film (lots of information and examples of what happens with different scanners)
  • KEH: Tips For Traveling With Film
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Modern scanners used for hand baggage these days don't tend to cause problems for film. Back in the day it was a problem but the old scanners used then used much higher energy levels and produced a lot more radiation. By comparison today's scanners are very safe for film but if you still don't want your films scanned make sure you put them all together in a transparent bag so they can easily be visually inspected, airport security staff are well used to this and it won't be a problem.

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Unfortunately there's no info available on how modern a scanner is in different airports, so getting a visual inspection should still be primary goal. –  Imre Sep 27 '11 at 18:20

I recall that the x-ray machines for carry-ons were marked "Film Safe". This page seems to confirm that, though the person still recommends hand checking.

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