Carry Film in Your Underwear: The Danger of Flying with Film

For the remaining die hards like me who still shoot with film, flying can be more stressful than it should be. Flying introduces the possibility that our film will be x-rayed and destroyed by airport security. For the most part, I’ve been very lucky, but my luck ran out returning from a trip to Swedish Lapland.

Long story short: the plumbing in our house burst before Christmas and caused me to evacuate the contents of my studio to protect them from water. For almost 6 weeks, my photo studio has been spread across the kitchen, living room, hallways, and part of the upstairs. Although I usually use a lead lined film bag when flying, in the chaos of this forced relocation, I couldn’t located the bag, so I tossed the film into a ziplock and asked for a hand inspection at the airport.

Security officers in the United Kingdom and Stockholm were friendly and happy to hand inspect and swap the film with the explosive residue inspection tools. As a result, I arrived in Sweden with all my film safe and not zapped by an x-ray machine. I was carrying two rolls of Adox Silvermax (ISO 100), two rolls of Ilford HP-5 (ISO 400) and two rolls of Ilford Delta 3200 (ISO 3200) film. My concern was really with the high ISO films, which I would need in the limited sunlight of northern Sweden, so with my film un-zapped, I felt confident that I was going to be safe and sound and shot away.

Unfortunately, my confidence was misplaced. After shooting several rolls in my Leica M7, it was time to fly the exposed, but not developed, film home. At the Lulea, Sweden airport (which is very small and not at all busy), I politely asked if they could hand inspect the film because the x-ray machine could damage it.


After some back and forth, I was given several reasons why my film could not be hand inspected. These border on absolutely absurd:

“Because the explosive swab machine needs to be able to swab the inside and outside of the film capsule”

Obviously, this is absurd. The film capsule cannot be opened as that would expose the film to light. But even more nutty is that the explosive residue detection is extremely good. They often swab the palm of people’s hands to see if they have been in contact with explosives and the machine can detect these traces even after a hand washing. There is absolutely no way I could pack the inside of a film capsule with explosives and have the machine NOT detect it. Please. Swap the film, determine it isn’t a mini bomb, and let me proceed on my way.

“Because you don’t have a letter from the Sweden Government that explicitly states you, Kristen Meister, may have film hand inspected and not x-ray inspected” (this came from their supervisor). 

What? First, there is no mention of requiring such a letter on the Swedish airport security website. The Stockholm airport website recommends hand carrying film, and makes no mention of such requirements. But according to the airport security supervisor in Lulea, unless I have a letter from the Government of Sweden, thou shall not have film hand inspected. Do I need to have the Pope bless this letter too?

I remained exceptionally polite during this exchange and even pulled up TSA and UK regulations that stipulate film can be hand inspected. The security officer conceded that if the United States and the United Kingdom, two countries with very strict airport security, allow for hand inspection, that they should as well, but “his supervisor said no.” He also recognized that the Stockholm airport recommends hand inspection and all Swedish airport security should be the same, but shrugged a helpless “tough shit” response.

After pleading my case, it was clear that I had no option and that I was just going to have to hope their x-ray scanner was set to “light toast” vs “full crisp.” And in a case of full circle irony, the Swedish airport security in Stockholm, which is a busy international airport, was more than happy to hand inspect the film. The security agent even joked that all the appointments for film inspection had been filled for the day, but laughed and inspected it without any further pleading. Thank you to her! 

So what have I learned? Sadly, it might be easier to smuggle film in my underwear than to have it inspected by hand (joking!) Next time I’ll travel with low ISO films only so that if I do meet an absurd security policy, I have less risk of having the film damaged. And maybe I’ll start to print and carry copies of Swedish regulations regarding hand inspection of camera film.

Update: upon developing, it was determined that the x-ray machine was set to "medium toast" - there is some slight damage to the ISO 3200 film, but the other two rolls look good. Still, I'm pretty irked and will continue to recommend the underwear smuggling method of flying with film! ;-)