Can The Government Track How Much Cash You Are Carrying With Airport Metal Detectors?

Cash is the most anonymous way to spend money: no ID required, no credit card account queried, no bank balance tested. You are allowed to enter the United States with $9,999 freely WITHOUT declaring it. Any amount $10,000 or greater (cash, financial instruments, precious metals, etc.) must be declared. Can this actually be enforced at airport customs checkpoints or TSA security?

In a post 9/11 world, many believe some civil liberties have been lost, especially when it comes to air travel. The TSA must screen every passenger flying domestically or internationally on commercial flights. The process is somewhat absurd but a necessary inconvenience: shoes, belts, and metallic objects must be placed in a bin and sent through a x-ray device, including any carry-on luggage; then you must walk through a metal detector or step into a cylindrical scanner that checks for any prohibited materials on your person. If metal is detected, you must put the objects through the x-ray machine  and be screened again. If certain chemical residues are detected, you’ll be pulled aside for “secondary screening”. 🙂

Many people naturally wonder if the amount of cash they’re carrying can be monitored at airport security checkpoints. This isn’t a conspiracy theory but more a question of the capabilities of x-ray scanning devices.  Most people aren’t being pulled aside for carrying “too much cash” unless they have $100,000 or greater in their suitcase or are known drug dealers. That amount of money will naturally arouse the suspicions of airport security, not to mention customs agents checking you at your final destination. In today’s modern era of bank wires and credit cards, carrying a substantial hoard of cash is risky unless you have a reasonable justification for doing so (real estate purchase, no bank account in foreign destination, cash for medical services, etc.).

At this time dollar amounts can not be tallied by airport x-ray machines

$15,000 in $100 bills is 150 notes. You could easily separate this into smaller quantities and place various billfolds in your cargo pants or coat pockets. You can get as much cash as you can hide on your body through security unless you are subjected to a manual pat-down. If the TSA officer feels multiple piles of bills on your person, I’m not sure if they are allowed to detain you beyond asking what the objects are.

Also remember that the new series of 2009 $100 bills (the most enhanced note ever printed by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing) are NOT in circulation as of April 23, 2013 (coming soon, however). The vast majority of $100’s in circulation are series 1996, 1999, 2003, 2003A, 2006, and 2006A. All of these issues have largely remained unchanged after the design update in 1996. The paper, security strip, micro-printing, fibers, color-shifting ink, etc. are the only security features on these notes.

If you placed a hoard of cash in your carry-on suitcase, it is likely the TSA screener will recognize the closely grouped, uniformly sized pieces of paper 😉 as money. If you placed the bills loosely inside your carry-on in no organized manner, they might bear the resemblance of unorganized coupons or souvenir tickets, but most TSA staff can tell after a couple weeks on the job which paper objects are cash and which are not.

The purpose of the x-ray machine, first and foremost, is detecting prohibited metal objects, liquids, chemicals, and suspicious devices that might be a bomb.

United states paper money does contain trace amounts of metal in the ink .

While the exact formula of the paper is classified, it is mostly cotton fabric and other organic materials. The paper has very little starch, if any. Counterfeit pens test the composition of paper being passed as currency. Most commercially available paper – ie. copy paper, legal paper, etc. – is made of starch components from wood. which would naturally fail the counterfeit pen test.

Given that a tiny bit of metal is present within the ink of United States currency, it’s possible the presence of large amounts of cash could resonate with a special x-ray machines or magnetometers. Tallying the exact amount of cash you have, however, would be difficult to ascertain in a 2 minute security check and would require immense computing power behind the scenes. As a practical matter, it is better to spend money on computers that detect dangerous chemicals or objects opposed to the amount of cash a traveler has.

The next time you’re in an airport, leave $500 cash in your pocket when you walk through security and put the rest in your suitcase. The metal detector and/or cylindrical body scanner will not go off. People worry about putting cash through a x-ray machine while they’re not looking because a crooked TSA agent could steal it. As a result, people choose to walk through with cash in their pockets all the time, and are almost never bothered.

Some anecdotal reports found at various frequent flyer websites report people have both entered and exited the country with in excess of $30,000 cash on them, no questions asked. When you are returning to the USA with more than $10,000 cash and get in the customs line, these travelers recommend reporting you have some odd amount under $10,000, ie. $8,600 or $7,200. The customs officers can’t question you further without probable cause. Again, if you have a criminal record or are known to move valuables through airports on a regular basis, eventually customs might get suspicious, or they might not bother you at  all.

Being pulled aside at customs is often the result of other factors beyond how much cash you’re carrying. Minimize these factors, and the amount of currency on you will not be a problem.

For collectors carrying notes with them for sale: There’s no way in hell I’d put a note worth more than $1,000 in my suitcase. Theft at airports happens from time to time, and it’s not worth the risk.

If the note is worth more than $10,000 as a collectible, only declare its actual cash value. The collectible currency market isn’t managed by the government, so a customs agent would have no idea that your $20 Technicolor Gold Certificate PCGS Superb Gem New is actually worth $40,000 retail. As far as they’re concerned, you’re carrying $20 in a fancy plastic jacket, which is NOT illegal.

When in doubt, call or visit the TSA website before embarking on your voyage. The vast majority of people carrying more than $10,000 cash never have an issue unless they’re known criminals. Otherwise, the amount of money in your pocket is no one else’s business but yours.

Crawl 103

Crawl 103 is now live. We were off this week on a family vacation and unable to find time for an article. Check back next week. Also, don’t forget about the big paper money auction in Chicago at the end of the month. Heritage Auctions will be running the event, and there’s something for everyone available.