Traveling with DIY Electronics

Now that you’ve made something, how do you travel with it? If you want to avoid delays or confiscation at the airport, consider this excellent advice from a discussion on the San Francisco Dorkbot mailing list:

Whenever I see the words “TSA seized”, I am compelled to respond. I write from my experience frequently traveling to foreign lands with custom and one-off electronics gear. I’m not with the government.

Like it or not, Customs, Border Patrol, and TSA must be dealt with on _their_ terms.

Anyone who does not study and comply with exit and entry documentation requirements (and allowed items restrictions) will always face the _risk_ of seizure of their goods or creations at any point in the process of traveling to/from a foreign country. Several artists I know suffered goods held at customs, or seized by TSA; these could have been avoided with decent documentation and preparation.

Why do consumer goods pass through with relative ease? Because they are packaged and certified with compliance stickers and serial numbers on the bottom. The manufacturer or importer has done the work of “going legit” in order to get the product out of his country and into yours. Customs, border patrol, and TSA agents recognize this branding, and respect it when conducting an inspection.

Your homegrown mechatronic gizmo requires similar care in documentation for travel. It’s rather easy and cheap, compared to the consequences.

Travel documentation is like oil for the engine of commerce. Like oil, documentation is the cheapest part of the engine. Without it, the engine will almost certainly seize (your stuff).


Get a Carnet.
– Carnets are your friend when transporting objects of definite value which must travel smoothly through customs, border patrol, and TSA. They prove that you have submitted your articles for Inspection and Sealing to Customs before your trip. This can be checked luggage! Carnets have several documentation
requirements, such as those listed below.
– A Carnet represents a promise NOT to sell your goods in the destination country.
– Carnets are designed to smooth passage through the very thing you face: a phalanx of Byzantine guards who do not and will not understand your gizmo, or your explanation, if it’s not documented.

If you can’t afford a Carnet:

Create a Commercial Invoice. Print a few.
– This represents a sale or rental of your goods to a “customer” (patron or organizer) in your destination country. For artists, the best category of goods is Used Exhibition Goods or Materials (not for sale). This puts you on an equal footing with corporations sending tradeshow booths and demo gear to, say, CeBit. You may be required to pay duty, as you are declaring a value of goods without a Carnet. A zero-value Commercial Invoice is generally frowned upon, unless the goods are labeled “scrap”, “sample” or “demonstration only”. Art objects are expected to have a value, on which duty is likely to be charged.

Write a concise Description paragraph, as well as a detailed Technical Description paragraph. Print a few.
– Include a List of Components and Serial Numbers where applicable, with clear photos. You can leave a set with any nervous inspectors. They will thank you.
– This is proof that you are willing to disclose everything inside your scary snarl of wires and metal. Include datasheet 1st pages.
– Be smart. Write “motor” or “servo motor”, not “radio control servo motor”. Write “network”, not “wireless network.” Write “data port”, not “remote access control port”. Write “battery”, not “ballistic electron source.” I’m just saying don’t use scary language. You’re not trying to sell it to the Pentagon, you’re trying to unsell it to the TSA.

Write a Letter of Introduction on letterhead. Print a few.
– This is written by you or a native sponsor, such as a gallery, a school, or collective. This could simply be printouts of your own website and others’ about you and your thing(s). This establishes who you are, links you to the work, and helps you get out of, then back in, to the US.

Write or get a Formal Invitation on letterhead. Print a few.
– This is by the organization you’re going to: college, gallery, museum, event. This is good for getting you into, then out of, your destination country. It helps if it’s written in the native language AND in English on the same page. Japan routinely requires such a document upon entry, and this was the only thing the Customs officer cared about when I went there.

Put one full set of docs inside the luggage for the TSA to see when they open it, labelled “DOCUMENTATION FOR SECURITY INSPECTORS – PLEASE READ”.

Ship as checked baggage, never as carry-on.

Do not pack bad things.
– Don’t pack anything which can be purchased locally – powdered paints, liquids, solvents, glue, matches, lighter fluid, etc.
– Pack only pristine power supplies. No cracked or hacked-open cases. Better yet, just buy wall warts at your destination.
– Don’t even joke about mercury switches.

De-power and “safe” everything.
– Unplug and tape over batteries or battery packs, disconnect/insulate piezoelectric sparkers, short out big capacitors with wire, remove all antennas, power-off phones,
PDAs & laptops. Disconnect anything automatic or clockwork; let all springs wind completely down: no ticking allowed.

Make access and understanding easy.
– Use tape, not screws, to hold chassis closed.
– Use velcro to strap things together, not zip-ties.
– Label anything clearly that’s not obvious: “battery pack – test here”, “power supply – 110VAC-12VDC”
– Put loose parts in clear ziplock bags, labeled “spares.”

At the check-in counter, volunteer for a detailed inspection, and offer your paperwork in the order listed above. This instantly puts you in the “cooperative” category – a nice place to be.

All of this preparation ends up being worth it when the fates finally (and they always eventually do) decide to test you and your preparedness.

Written by lexein-301 (at) yahoo (dot) com, and reprinted here with permission

8 Responses to “Traveling with DIY Electronics”

  1. Tweets that mention Traveling with DIY Electronics « Teach Me To Make -- Says:

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jeff Keyzer, Lampo , Rob Ray, bryan currey, Greg and others. Greg said: RT @mightyohm Traveling with DIY Electronics (a guide) | very useful. I will be better prepared next trip […]

  2. Tim Says:

    For anyone wondering why mercury switches are serious business, mercury is deadly to airplanes. Everyone’s familiar with how iron rusts and aluminum “doesn’t”. The truth is Aluminum does rust very quickly , but it does so in a way that it creates a solid oxide layer on the surface of the material that won’t allow any further oxidation. Mercury messes that up and allows aluminum to oxidize very rapidly, which compromises the structural integrity of the plane.

  3. MrSniper Says:

    While boarding a flight to UK from Boston I asked the TSA inspectors to check my luggage, since it contained a few critical components for a piece of machinery that could be mistook for a harmful device. They were properly branded, packed and sealed in shock and waterproof transparent bags.

    I asked the TSA guys for an inspection on request, and they addressed me to the clerk at the check-in booth. He upgraded the question to his supervisor, who called a manager, who called TSA, who upgraded to a supervisor, who called a TSA major-general or whatever. The two manager spoke at the phone for five minutes, and at last the TSA officer accepted to run a detailed inspection.

    They escorted me to the TSA office, a space in the hall enclosed in a barriers ring. Without any privacy, they opened the luggage, removed everything, scanned a few liquids under a machine (a small bottle of mineral lubricant, and a bottle of maple syrup). They remover and unfolded all my clothes, setting aside the packets containing the electronics. Then they put all inside again, messed up as hell, and marked the luggage as checked. No second look at the menacing electronics, batteries, blade-like components and such.

    A further proof that TSA is mostly made of idiots.

  4. Compliance Guy Says:

    As a compliance professional with long experience in high-tech world, I would also reccomend a “Tools of the Trade” letter if you are traveling for work. The letter will list the tools that you are carrying with you (carry-on or checked) and state that they are necessary for use in the course of your employment and will be returning with you at the conclusion of the trip. Obviously this would not encompass and consumables or spare parts, but its helped many of my engineers cross into places like China without any hassles.

  5. ducksauz Says:

    A few years ago, I made an entry for the ShmooCon hacker arcade contest. It included a PC motherboard in a homemade plywood case, a coin-op mechanism, a hacked up vintage Simon game and a bunch of scary loose wires. I was concerned about it getting beaten up in checked baggage, so I carried it on, joking with my friends that it was my ‘Ticket to Gitmo’.

    To make a long story short, on flights for that trip to and from DC, I had no problem with TSA. I explained that I was going to a computer conference and that it was a homemade game. They opened the plywood case, gave it a visual inspection and a swabbing to check for explosives residue. It passed the test and I was on my way.

    It probably helped a lot that the contents were recognizable, i.e. a PC motherboard, hard drive, and a vintage Simon game that gave the inspectors a bit of nostalgia. I’ve found that traveling with electronics is fine as long as you’re courteous and cooperative. They want to move you along as much as you want to get moved along.

  6. links for 2010-12-15 « Blarney Fellow Says:

    […] Traveling with DIY Electronics « Teach Me To Make (tags: travel diy lifehacking) […]

  7. Leslie August Says:

    I think this detailed information about traveling overseas with DYI electronics is very helpful. Can I republish portions of it on The reason I don’t want to link directly to the post is because it references a competitor’s website. Regardless of that, I think most of the content would be useful for visitors to our site. I can certainly include proper attribution however.

    • michaelshiloh Says:

      You are welcome to repost but please make it clear that this is only anecdotal information and that none of us are experts or lawyers etc. etc.

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