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Crossing borders with sensible photo equipment

·5 mins

I got dragged into the rabbit hole of taking analog photos about a year ago and enjoying it since.

But when you want to board a plane with your camera and a bunch of film rolls you might ask yourself: What to do with it during the x-ray at the security check. Will it harm or destroy my film?

Film condition #

This concern is valid for a film that is either new or exposed and winded back which therefore is unprocessed. A film that has already been processed by a lab and you have been handed the negatives back is unaffected and safe.

Film speed #

Also, the amount of possible damage to the film depends on its speed (the ISO or Exposure Index). Kodak lists the limit at 400, therefore indicating that anything being slower/lower than 400 should be fine with a non-CT scan.

For the sake of simplicity, I’ll leave that part out of consideration and thread every film the same way in further aspects.

Type of baggage #

Your stuff can travel in an airplane either as carry-on or checked baggage. The latter usually means that you check your back before security check and receive it on the baggage claim belt after the flight.

Checked baggage #

You want to avoid putting your film in baggage that is checked and therefore will go through a different scanner which usually utilizes higher energy for its X-rays. This will likely harm your unprocessed film. This is also true for any carry-on that has to be checked during boarding, for example, due to the flight being fully booked. Remove your film from the carry-on that has to be checked as this will likely go through the same harmful scanner as normal checked baggage.

Carry-on #

The baggage you carry with you will go through less harmful scanners but depending on the film or the scanner type you want to avoid that too. Nevertheless, this is the most flexible and safe option, so this is the way to go.

Scanner types #

In airports, you usually find a variety of different scanners which all work slightly differently and also can harm the film in different ways. You will usually find either one of two common scanners.

For both scanners, no finite conclusion can be drawn. Every scanner type from every manufacturer is a little different. It also depends a lot on the operator. They can for example scan your bag or portions of it multiple times if they want to get a more in-depth look at a specific area. This will affect the way the film can be damaged drastically.

Classic/normal X-ray #

Most likely you will hit a ’normal’ X-ray scanner - these are at the moment most common and are the ones where you must not have any liquid in the bag and are asked to remove electronic devices such as laptops and put them into a separate bin.

Depending on your film and the operator you are probably fine with your film being scanned by one of those scanners. They don’t emit a very high amount of X-rays and at least Kodak says for normal film, five or fewer scans are fine. Of course, you can be hit by bad luck but there are also people out there who carry a film that has been scanned much more than five times and their images did turn out well.

Computer Tomography (CT) #

Another type is CT (or sometimes CAT) scanners which become more and more common as the normal scanners get replaced by them already on multiple airports. They usually look bigger and you can identify them pretty easily because you don’t have to take out any electronics or liquids out of your bag.

Since these scanners create a much more in-depth image of your baggage they also harm your film much more. Depending on the scanner and the operator your film might be damaged after a single scan. Avoiding these is highly recommended.

How to avoid X-ray #

The safest way to make sure your film does arrive undamaged is to ask for a hand check of your film.

As for everything in life: Be nice and try to create as little extra effort for the security staff as possible. If you are polite they usually treat you the same way.

I always carry my film rolls in a small transparent bag and only with the film rolls themselves without the additional plastic tube. This allows the security staff to directly recognize what’s in the bag and what your intentions are. Also, they either sample some rolls or inspect all of them with a drug test. Carrying them all in one bag makes it easier to just hand them the bag and they’ll take care of the rest.

Transparent bag with film rolls

The FAA explicitly grants passengers in the US this right in their regulations (108.17). I also never had any issues with flights within Europe. After asking nicely for a check without scanning this was done almost always without any further discussions.

Examples #

ISO 400, no scan ISO 400, one CT scan ISO 200, one CT scan
ISO 400 film, no scan
Picture by Kodak
ISO 400 film, one scan
Picture by Kodak
ISO 400 film, one scan
Picture by Kodak

Conclusion #

Although there is no guarantee that a scan from any scanner will damage your film (there are a lot of people having taken beautiful pictures with X-rayed film) it does not hurt to be a little prepared and ask nicely for a hand check. Also if your film goes through a normal scanner your film might be still working fine.


  • Avoid film in checked baggage
  • Avoid CT scanners
  • Travel with film in a transparent plastic bag without housing
  • Ask nicely for a hand-check
  • Take awesome photos