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GPS and Airport X-Ray


Pat emailed me a question today which might be on the mind of several people as they start to embark on summer trips.

I would like to bring my GPS System [on vacation] with me. Is there any danger in going through the security check points at the airport with the system? Could it be corrupted in any way by going through the xray machines? What is the best way to travel with it by air?

The short quick answer is no, the airport x-ray equipment won’t be a problem. However if you want a longer explanation as to why

Electronic devices which have difficulty with x-ray machines are typically anything that is susceptible to damage by magnets or the x-ray itself. A prime example of this is camera film which can be damaged by the x-ray. Old 3.5 inch floppy disks can be damaged by magnets in the x-ray. None of this should cause any trouble for GPS receivers though.

Make sure you have at last a small bit of charge in the battery of your GPS in case security asks you to demonstrate the device is functional.

The component you might be worried about is the memory. GPS receivers use either flash memory or hard disk based memory. Flash memory is often found in small electronic devices like mp3 players. These devices have no trouble with airport x-ray equipment. The same goes for hard disk based GPS receivers. The same hard disk that powers your GPS also powers laptops. Laptops also don’t have trouble with airport x-ray equipment.

Take care of your GPS just like you would any other piece of expensive electronics while traveling. If you must put the GPS into your checked luggage, pack it very, very well. Perhaps in the original packaging and box if you still have it. Be especially careful of anything which might impact the screen.

If you carry your GPS along with you on the plane make sure it is also packed well. You don’t want to crush it yourself when stuffing your back in the overhead bin or step on it “stowed safely under the seat in front of you.”

Another tip I use while traveling with expensive electronics is to place the expensive items on the belt of the x-ray machine last; this reduces the chances someone ahead of me could grab my items.

Lastly, you may want to consider a carrying case specifically for your GPS if one is available and one didn’t come with your GPS.

Update: – One more thing I forgot to mention. When you turn on your GPS it typically uses its last known location to help determine the current location. Therefore when you turn a GPS receiver off, move it a considerable distance, and turn it on again it can take longer than normal for it to determine its location.

Additionally, GPS receivers never work well (or at all normally) in parking garages. This can be a double edged sword as the GPS receiver won’t get a signal in the airport parking garage and then will take a longer time to acquire a signal after you leave the garage.

8 Responses

  1. Film can be damaged by x-rays, but NOT by magnets.

    Huw - May 3rd, 2006
  2. Yes, I mis-worded that. Film can have trouble with x-rays. Disks can have trouble with the magnets.

    GPS Review - May 3rd, 2006
  3. Thanks for the explanation – I’ve heard this question from people too. Good to know that we can all take along our navs without fear when traveling this summer!

    Julie - May 4th, 2006
  4. Thanks for the post, I’m in a lot of other forums and people are always asking about the best way to travel with their device. I’ll send em your way! 😀

    Susie - May 4th, 2006
  5. Due to it’s high cost and small size, I would want to go thru airport security with it in my back pack. Will a GPS normally be treated like a computer which I generally have to take out of the back pack and place separately in a tray?

    JeepLover - July 26th, 2007
  6. JeepLover – I’ve never been asked to do that. It should be treated like other small consumer electronic devices (digital camera, ipod, etc).

    Tim - July 26th, 2007
  7. I just got back from Florida. Flew from Halifax to Tampa Intl Airport and back. I had two gps units, a PDA, digital camera and assortment of charger adapters and battery charger(AAA & AA). These were in my carry on. After carry-on went through xray in Halifax, security opened bag and looked at items but did not want to see them powered up.
    Security at Tampa xrayed the bag, and were happy.
    I have travelled through other airports and have not had security want to see devices powered up. But I always make sure the units have sufficient charge in the batteries just in case.

    Rick - April 25th, 2008
  8. Referring to magnets and floppy disks: the issue is now essentially moot as I’ve not used a floppy disk in mumblemumble years. Nonetheless, when they were in use I did an experiment and that was to take a very powerful earth magnet and pick up a floppy disk with the magnet.

    All my data was just fine.

    I’ve never bothered with a concern about moving my laptop and any floppies over the x-ray machine ever since and I’ve not had any problems with it either.

    Gary - December 1st, 2009

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