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As a US citizen, when I re-enter the US, I am often asked where I was, how long I was there, and the reason for my visit.

Why am I asked these things? Am I required to answer? Don't I have a legal right to enter the US (as long as I'm not doing or carrying anything illegal)?

If I were to refuse to answer these questions, would I be permitted entry?

Note: I'm not really bothered by the questions (except when the agent asking them is especially rude), I'm just curious.

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related: my answer to travel.stackexchange.com/questions/21005/… –  Kate Gregory Feb 13 at 3:55

5 Answers 5

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You are asked those things for (as far as I can tell) two reasons. One is to simply observe your demeanor. The idea is that someone who is concealing something will give conflicting, vague, or over-detailed answers to simple questions.

The other is to seek real information that can be used to distinguish smugglers from travelers. For example, I once had the following conversation with the Border lady:

"How long was your trip?"

"10 days."

"Where did you go?"

"The Golden Triangle: northern Thailand and eastern Burma."

"Did you travel alone."

"Yes."

"Did you meet anyone while you were traveling?"

"Sure, dozens of people."

Needless to say, everything I was carrying was examined minutely. I didn't know you could disassemble a Bic pen.

Do you have to answer? No, you can decline to answer if you're a US citizen, but think about it.

In general, you should be extremely reluctant to answer any questions about your own activities from law enforcement. You might think you have done nothing wrong, but do you have the US Code committed to memory? They say the average American commits three felonies a day; you don't want to accidentally confess to yours.

But if you go through a border-check, they are going to ask you questions. They aren't trying to incriminate innocent people; they are trying to sort out the smugglers. If you don't answer, they have to throw you on the maybe-smuggler category and go through all your belongings.

So my advice:

  • If you have done anything on your journey that might jam you up with the Feds (visited Cuba, traded with a sanctioned country) but your luggage is squeaky clean, decline to answer questions and let them rummage through your underwear.
  • If you were a naughty boy and you are bringing back a few grams of fond memories, smile politely and say, "I just lay on the beach for two weeks."
  • Otherwise, answer the questions politely, accurately, and concisely.
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You may not be refused entry (my understanding is that in the US the 5th amendment allows you not to say anything, but I'm not sure how far that goes - ie are you even 'in' the country at immigration?). However, the point of immigration is to ascertain whether there's anything suspicious about your entry. You may be 'just returning home', but are you bringing in drugs? Were you taking something over to the other country? Were you engaging in terrorist meetings? All the stuff that nobody is going to answer 'yes' to, but these are stuff they're trying to find out.

If you've been visiting a country, like, say, Cuba or North Korea, they're going to be intrigued - it's rare for a US citizen to visit them as a tourist, and they'll want to know your reasons, for national security / homeland security.

If you're inconsistent with your responses, or they don't like the responses (or you don't answer) they then are trained to flag you based on some criteria as potentially suspicious.

This would likely then lead to additional one-on-one questioning in a small room elsewhere, where they may require additional proof about what you've been doing and so on. Are you really just returning home? Where do you live? etc.

As for having a legal right to enter the country - that's a good question, but a better question to be asked separately, I think, as it's not directly related to the questioning about the purpose of your trip.

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Check out the Border Security shows on YouTube (they have them in Australia and Canada) for a visual confirmation of the above :) –  karancan Feb 14 at 20:05

Since 1823, freedom of movement has been recognized as a constitutional right, so if you are a citizen of the United States and have a valid passport, you have the right to enter the US, full stop. Now obviously the droids at the border may not like it if you're not cooperative, but at the end of the day, yes, you can refuse to answer and they'll still have to let you in.

That said, there are a couple of random edge cases discussed at length here, eg. if you're a dual citizen who is held to have forfeited their US citizenship (used to happen reasonably often, but is virtually impossible to do by accident these days), are obviously drunk while attempting to cross (Customs will usually do you a favor and deny entry, since the alternative is to allow you in and immediately arrest you), etc.

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you can come in. Doesn't mean your stuff can, or that you don't owe duty. The questions are mostly about that. –  Kate Gregory Feb 13 at 15:32
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No, they aren't...? The OP is asking whether he has a legal right to enter the US (yes) and whether he can be denied entry as long as he's not doing/carrying anything illegal (no). –  jpatokal Feb 13 at 21:32
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OP asked "Why am I asked these things?" - often it is so they can decide whether or not to search your stuff. –  Kate Gregory Feb 13 at 21:35
    
@KateGregory: I think you're both right in your own respects. I was asking about me entering, this answers that. I was also asking why I'm asked these things, and if the reason relates to my stuff as you suggest, then that's also relevant. –  Flimzy Feb 14 at 12:35
    
Is it illegal to enter the US drunk? –  Max Apr 23 at 13:29

This link claims that you have the right to remain silent, though this would probably cause a huge delay at border control.

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While US citizens may not have to answer questions at the border your computer, cell phone and any other property does not have the same right to silence. They can be searched without a warrant or reasonable suspicion. They can make a copy of all your computer files, photos, text messages etc. for later review.

If you have data you don't want searched or copied the Electronic Freedom Foundation recommends not to bring it across the border but send it encrypted via the cloud or FedEx on USB drive instead. That may not stop the US government reading it in the long run but will avoid issues at the border.

Who might legitimately not want their data searched? Doctors with confidential patient medical records/photos, businessmen with confidential trade secrets, attorneys with confidential client notes are all good examples.

Another example is photographs of you and your under-18 girlfriend/boyfriend on your cell phone that could be construed as illegal.

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"without a warrant or reasonable suspicion by ."... by whom? –  Flimzy Feb 18 at 22:45

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