Digital Camera Memory Cards vs Airport Security Scanners

Unlike the days of film, airport scanners have no affect on memory cards, so you can safely put them through airport security scanners without holding up the line.

Films and memory cards
Films and memory cards
Last Updated:
Filed Under: Memory Cards

This post may include affiliate links. Read more.

Film and airport security X-rays were always a very bad mix. Film reacts to light and radiation, and it does’t take long for an X-ray machine to completely wipe a roll of undeveloped film. Understandably, and quite rightly, most photographers became rather paranoid about airport scanners. But the good news is that memory cards are much more immune to airport security scanners.

With film, many security checkpoints used to do hand checks if you asked, although I got my fair share of scowls when I asked them to hand check a zip-lock bag with a couple of dozen rolls of film. And while I usually used clear film canisters, they didn’t seem to make the slightest difference in speeding things up. Manufacturers of the X-ray machines claim that any film rated under 800 ISO won’t be affected, but I’ve had enough experiences to the contrary that if I’m traveling with film I get all of it hand checked regardless of speed rating. You can even get lead-lined film pouches, but I found the results mixed at best. Since airport security folks don’t like bags they can’t see in, it just seemed to encourage them to crank up the volume on the X-rays, negating any benefit of the pouches. And besides, they’re deliberately heavy. So I gave up on them pretty quickly.

Memory Cards and Airport Security Scanners

The good news, though, is that it’s no longer something you have to worry about with digital camera memory cards. Some photographers like to put the memory cards in their pocket and take them through the personnel scanner on their person rather than trust the conveyor belt scanner. If that gives you peace of mind, by all means do it. But there’s no actual reason to do so. And with backscatter scanners becoming increasingly widespread, chances are that the best you’re going to accomplish with this strategy is slowing the security line down and annoying the security personnel when they have to ask you to remove the cards and go through the scanner again.

Flash memory cards are remarkably resilient (and can sometimes survive a long swim in the ocean). There have been extensive tests done by multiple organizations and manufacturers that confirm that airport security scanners do not affect memory cards. If you want to wade through the details, head over to the International Imaging Industry Association’s detailed reports (the International Imaging Industry Association has long since disbanded, but its reports live on (for now, at least) at the Internet Archive).

And it makes perfect sense, if you think about it. You can imagine the uproar if airport scanners started wiping laptop hard drives, and the magnetic media in most of those is much more sensitive than the solid-state storage of a memory card. Same goes for smart phones–imagine if they all started getting wiped every time you went through airport security.

So by all means, take extra precautions with your memory cards through airport security if you like, but after many, many scans I’ve never had the slightest hint that the scanner affects my memory cards or hard drives. And there’s science to back it up.

So that’s one thing less to worry about when you’re flying!

29 thoughts on “Digital Camera Memory Cards vs Airport Security Scanners”

  1. IM A GENEALOGIST IN CANADA ,I SENT A FLASH AND CAMERA CARD TO MY KIDS IN ARIZONA. BOTH WERE BLANKED, PROGRAMS IN THEM ERASED ALONG WITH DATA. WOULS A DISK BE BETTER?

    Reply
    • With the mail, all bets are off when it comes to what scanners they use. They’ve probably been zapped with much stronger scanners than are typically used at airports. And I doubt a hard drive would fair any better and might even be more susceptible to it. A much more reliable (as well as quicker) option would be send the data via the cloud. There’s a bunch of services that can do that, ranging from free to paid plans. One good option I’ve used for a long time reliably is Dropbox; they have a free plan for up to 2GB and paid plans for above that. Google and Microsoft have their own versions, and there are plenty of others.

      Reply
  2. I had two SD cards 64GB and 16GB totally destroyed by the mm wave full body scanner at the Los Angeles International airport. If only one was damaged I could have explained it away but to have both damaged to the point where they were totally bricked was not a coincidence.

    Reply
  3. All of your respondents speak about airport scanners. No one has addressed the issue of the xray scanners used by the USPS, and whether they are scanned in bulk, or individually; and whether these scanners are much stronger than the ones used in testing by SanDisk. There is something going on here, and people are not being told the truth. It may be that there IS NO standard for scanners, and they can do virtually anything they want to our property, anytime they want, by calling it “security” and don’t even have to inform us. Personally, I need to mail a card overseas, and don’t want to have to manufacture my own “kryptonite-case”. No one seems to know anything about HOW to overcome these machines. FedEx doesn’t send letters, but a small “package” costs $160. I would certainly appreciate some feedback on how to do this.

    Reply
  4. pff.. I lost all my photos/app data last year after putting it through one of those scanners. I had a tech try to recover anything and all of his tools failed.

    Reply
  5. Have had a problem with my Pentax k-m camera, just seems like often when I fly away on holiday I lose the first batch of shots due to ‘memory card error’ after which I re-format the card and then no problems until after the next time I go through airport security. Spent a long time cursing the camera, but now reading this forum, all makes sense.

    Reply
  6. I just went through security at George Bush Intercontinental in Houston and when I got my Iphone back the display read ‘SIM Card Failure’. It’s never said that. I powered it down and it seems to be working fine now, but if it goes out again I think it would be too much of a coincidence to not blame the x-ray scanners. I’m keeping my fingers crossed because I don’t want to be in a foreign city without anyway to contact family or use my phone.

    Reply
  7. Just flew back from Las Vegas with 3 SD cards and found one to have been erased. Images were intact prior to leaving Vegas as I reviewed them prior.

    Reply
  8. I flew from St. Louis to Denver with my Canon 50D; had a 32 gig memory card inside the camera and all was fine. Filled up the memory card and started using a second 32 gig memory card before my return flight home. I was delayed in DIA airport security X-ray for about 15 minutes until a supervisor could check my carry ons by hand, one of which was my camera backpack. The first card was inside that backpack and OK but the second memory card was corrupt upon my attempt to download photos to the PC at home in St. Louis. I called Creve Coeur Camera and took the card and Camera to them. They feel sure it was TSA’s X-ray machines that caused the issue while the memory card was in the camera. They are attempting to retrieve my photos, for a hefty price I might add. If they are not successful, there is a California company that I’m told has a very successful retrieval rate in restoring pics but for a 32 gig memory card, it will cost me $275. Have to decide if pics of Rocky Mountain National Park, my daughter and her dog are worth that kind of money.

    Reply
  9. Im traveling ti china and Korea for 2 and half months. Im bringing several micro sd cards with my samsung galaxy s7 edge and gopro session. How can I keep my micro sd cards safe threw all the scanning and detectors during my travel? Would I be better off putting all data in portabale hard drive?

    Reply
    • As a general rule, having a backup or two is always a good idea. Ideally, they should be in different places in on different media, but that’s not always convenient when traveling. As for airport scanners, this post might help. The short version is that they typically don’t present much of an issue with memory cards. I’ve traveled through a lot of airport security points with a lot of memory cards and have never run into a problem. A bigger concern would be misplacing them or having them (or the camera they’re in) stolen. There are dedicated devices that back up directly from a memory card to a portable hard drive. I’ve reviewed several here. The WD MyPassport Wireless is the simplest and probably best fit if you’re looking to go in that direction.

      Reply
  10. Hi Guys

    I had two micro-SD cards go through Heathrow terminal 2, earlier this week, in my suitcase and they were both wiped clean or the FAT table corrupted so that I couldn’t tell the difference. One in a Garmin LMT-50 navigation unit and the other in a cardboard package. However, the ones in hand luggage were fine. These were both in phones, a Samsung and iPhone 4S. My previous experience has been only with hand luggage and again in this case all have been fine, including the same Garmin LMT-50.

    Mike

    Reply
  11. I’ve put a camera through xray scanners and it corrupted the data and erased some memories of my grandparents 50th wedding anniversary. I was using a cheap card but it was still a popular brand. There are cards that claim protectioion, so I guess not all have it. Nothing you buy is created equal. I just wish I knew that it was going to do that. I probaly would have mailed it to myself upon returning. Or see if they could check it a different way.This time I will be carrying even more precious pictures and video. Ihave not seen my family in 6 years some in 8. They never met the hubby or my kids in person. Plus most of my family are older and I don’t want to have them die and never meet them.

    Reply
  12. Hi, I had the opposite problem. Two failed 32GB and a 16GB, all Adata. I nuked them on purpose with a homemade vacuum tube based pulsed X-ray jig just for the hell of it, something happened inside the card and the data was accessible again. For about a week to 1.5 months, then they broke. Maybe worth a try on microSDs that are a lot harder to recover with forensics tools.
    The failure mode was that they appeared in Winhex but as “all zeros”, after treatment the data was corrupt but for the most part recoverable.
    Sometimes the regulator inside the card goes bad and causes problems in some readers, this is also quite common.

    Reply
  13. My wife went through airport security yesterday and when she went to bed last night she glowed in the dark.

    Reply
  14. I went through London Heathrow Terminal 2 last night with my Samsung Galaxy phone which has Samsung’s own 64gb micro sd card inside to extend the memory.
    Everything was working before it went through the scanner, but after it came out the phone showed the message “SD card is blank or unsupported – Format SD card? – All data on your card will be lost”.
    So that is the proof that airport scanners can wipe, or corrupt sd cards.
    Heathrow terminal 2 has all new equipment, so maybe these new scanners are too powerful.
    The lesson from that experience must be to always back up your data before your sd card goes anywhere near one of these “security scanners”.

    Reply
    • Interesting. Thanks for your report. I flew out of Heathrow’s Terminal 2 about a month ago with several CF, SD, and microSD cards and a laptop without any issue.

      Reply
      • I went through T3 in Sept, this year, my 2 cameras with SD cards fine, my phone with SD card in had the SD card wiped, :( now have a number of apps from my phone i have no idea what they were as they were standard ios ones but gone for good.

        Reply
    • same happened to me… dont remember which airport i was traveling but found my sd card blank after going trough scanner!!!

      Reply
    • My wife is an air hostess, and after passing through airport scanners, once her Tablet (Samsung) and her Cell Phone (Samsung)’s SD Cards (both Kingston) were zapped.

      Reply
    • It is not proof at all, at least not the sense of demonstrating that airport scanners affect memory cards. Once incident proves nothing. The card could have failed for any of many different reasons. At best it SUGGESTS that scanners might have an effect, but to PROVE it you would have to make a properly controlled experiment.

      All the other instances that people have added are anecdotal and they prove nothing either.

      Reply
  15. Thanks for the article! Flying to Texas very early Thursday morning to watch Formula 1 races. I want to take full advantage of my time away from the Great Lakes XD , and you’ve made me feel a little better. However because of Tom and Sandi, now i really want to go get that tablet tomorrow so i can upload my pics to dropbox before i come home, just in case! LoL

    Reply
  16. it looks like my card got erased. going from Santa Barbara, CA, they “notiiced” questionable contents at initial screening. I got flagged. Security re- xRayed 2 more time contents in my back-pack.
    They determined cause of concern was from finger-nail clippers in toiletries bag. I guess I could have clipped someone to death on board?
    Anyway, card I had in camera w/me held/downloaded pix w/out issue. Card in back-pack empty now.
    Looking for resolution
    tom

    Reply
  17. I just flew from Philadelphia to Tampa and when I got to Florida my memory card was damaged. I never took it out of the camera and it was in my camera inside a camera case and then inside a backpack. So how did it get damaged unless the machines at Philadelphia did the damage. I flew to Germany and back in July and all was fine.

    Reply
    • I just went thru Boston Logan and used the newer large bin machine at TSA. Dropped everything in the bin and immediate after I got thru, Spotify was telling me No Storge Card. Restarted, took the card out and reinserted, nada. Thank you TSA. You ruined my day with zapping my 128G SD card with apps, files, audiobooks, audio, photos, videos. What a joke.

      Reply

Leave a Comment