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Bringing Rocks & Minerals on a Plane – What to Know

Me sitting on a wall of columnar basalt
Me in Iceland enjoying some columnar basalt!

So, you’ve found some amazing rocks or mineral samples while on vacation! But there’s just one problem – you have to get them home. You might be wondering if it’s legal (or wise) to bring them with you on the plane ride home so you can add them to your collection.

According to the TSA, you are allowed to bring rocks and minerals on a plane. You can pack them in your checked luggage or even keep them your carry-on bag. If your samples are sharp or fist-sized, it is best to put them in a checked bag to avoid the appearance of a potential security risk.

While it is generally permissible to bring your specimens on flights with you, it might be best to think about alternatives. Here are some factors to consider to help ensure you and your samples arrive safely at their destination.

How Large Is Your Rock?

In the United States (and most countries) there are no laws against bringing rock or mineral samples on a plane with you, but ultimately the person that has the final say is the person working security at your checkpoint. If they deem that your rock could be used as a weapon then they have the authority to refuse you bringing it on board a plane.

If your specimen is pretty small (no more than a couple inches in diameter) then you’ll probably be okay since it’s just too small to do any real damage if swung at somebody else. Similarly, if you have a large rock that’s too unwieldy to manage it’s unlikely that the security agent will view it as a potential weapon.

Where you may run into problems is if you have a solid rock or mineral sample that is about fist-sized. These types of items may raise some red flags with security because they could reasonably be used as a weapon on the flight, so it might be best to pack them in checked luggage. This is especially true if the specimen is jagged or sharp, which leads us to our next consideration.

Is Your Rock Sharp?

The shape of your rock or mineral sample is yet another thing to consider when thinking about bringing it aboard a flight. If it has a sharp edge or point then security personal might not allow you to board with it.

Some examples of potentially problematic rocks would be obsidian or anything else with conchoidal fracturing. These edges can be extremely sharp (the edges of obsidian are sharper than a knife!) and it would be very reasonable for a security agent to turn you away or confiscate the item. Any rocks with jagged points could give them pause.

Also make sure that what you’re transporting is just a rock. If you are trying to transport an artifact like an arrowhead or a flint dagger then that will definitely be considered a weapon. Just because it’s made of rock and is ancient technology doesn’t mean it won’t be deemed dangerous.

Clean That Rock!

One significant potential problem to consider when travelling internationally is getting the rock(s) through customs. Customs agents are very wary of any outside soil or dirt coming into the country because it could be carrying foreign microbes or seeds.

When flying with a rock or mineral sample always make sure to clean it as thoroughly as possible beforehand, especially if you collected it yourself. If you bought the item from a shop then chances are it has already been cleaned and there is nothing to worry about.

It likely doesn’t have to be spotless – nobody is going to trouble you over a tiny bit of dirt in the nooks and crannies. But make sure you at least thoroughly rinse the sample to remove any large clumps of soil, clay, or dirt before attempting to cross international borders.

How Fragile is Your Specimen?

When traveling with a rock or mineral specimen, breakage is always a concern. Baggage handlers are notoriously careless with luggage, so of course you’d like to avoid checking any delicate samples. Having them on your person or in your carry-on luggage will give you much more control and ease of mind.

Whether you pack your delicate samples in your checked luggage or carry them on, you’ll want to make sure they are adequately wrapped and protected. If you purchased your specimen from a store then hopefully they have packaged it well for transport.

If you collected the sample yourself and need to protect it, ideally you should find an appropriately sized sturdy box and tightly pack the item in there with newspaper or other soft material. You are trying to eliminate any movement within the box that might result in the sample breaking.

In a pinch, you can wrap the sample in a sock or t-shirt and then put it inside of a shoe. This isn’t the most elegant solution but it will offer a good deal of protection inside of your luggage.

Passing Security With Your Rocks

When it comes down it, the security and customs agents are likely the only possible hurdles you’ll have to overcome to fly with your rocks. There are no laws or regulations that specifically prevent passengers from bringing rocks or minerals aboard a plane, but any item that is deemed as “dual-use” can be disallowed.

“Dual-use” refers to any item that could potentially be used as a weapon (in addition to its intended purpose). So, as we covered above, any rock or mineral sample that looks like it could cause some serious damage could be confiscated.

If you purchased your rock or mineral it may have come with some paperwork describing its composition, where it’s from, etc. This paperwork may prove useful if you are questioned about the item and help prove that you are transporting it due to its material and sentimental value.

If your samples are properly packaged that may also help assuage any concerns that security personnel might have. After all, if someone intended to use a rock as a weapon they likely wouldn’t package it in the loving caress of a sample box.

If you are pulled aside for additional security screening and your bag is searched, calmly mention to the agent what they will find. You can even ask that they be gentle with the contents of the bag so as not to damage your specimens.

If You Have to Check Your Specimens

Most of us would rather bring our specimens with us in our carry-on luggage – after all, they mean enough to us that we’re lugging them hundreds or thousands of miles. Unfortunately, sometimes it’s inevitable or just wiser to put them in checked luggage.

Some people will mark their checked luggage with ‘Fragile’ stickers, but the truth is that these often go unnoticed or are even treated with a certain amount of disdain by luggage handlers. If you have to check your rocks and minerals it’s best to take matters into your own hands and do your best to protect them yourself.

After packaging each specimen individually, pack them in the middle of your suitcase, surrounded by clothing. If your suitcase has a hard shell then that’s even better. This will give your samples the best chance of survival as the bag is tossed around during transport.

Other Shipping Options

If you’d rather not risk flying with your rocks and minerals then you can always have them shipped. Many rock shops (especially in tourist destinations) will help you arrange to have any purchases packaged and shipped back home. Depending on the value of the items you are shipping it might be a good idea to purchase insurance in case anything gets broken in transit.