I don't travel much but have heard lots of horror stories about entering into the USA. What exactly can the border guards check in your smart phone when entering the USA? I use mine a lot and it's connected to online banking, email, social media and google drive. I'm assuming he can't check things like online banking, but is he really allowed to go through email? I text people I'm close to like my girl friend and I'm really not comfortable with a stranger going through it. Can I put on app specific passwords? Can you watch the border guard check your phone?

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    I think they can check anything they want - they can ask for the phone or app passwords and deny entry if you refuse. Whether they will do so is another matter. Commented Dec 31, 2018 at 10:50
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    Technically, the answer is "Everything crossing the border is subject to inspection." With "everything" used in the most literal sense possible. However, you have likely seem many highly sensationalized stories about this subject which present a very inaccurate picture of the situation. Unless CBP has other reasons to suspect you, and you'd know what they were, your phone will not be searched.
    – DTRT
    Commented Dec 31, 2018 at 12:37
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    This is an extraordinarily rare occurrence. It's quite unlikely that it will ever happen to you. Commented Dec 31, 2018 at 19:27
  • Generally, no threshold to look at the local contents (though there is a circuit court split I believe), probable cause to detain the device and do a forensic analysis. Not sure if rules are different for US persons vs. non-US persons. Maybe better posted to Law StackExchange. DHS current asserted authorities here dhs.gov/publication/border-searches-electronic-devices and here
    – pseudon
    Commented Jan 1, 2019 at 17:48

1 Answer 1


Border agents can’t search your phone unless they have reason to believe you committed a crime due to a recent court ruling.

From the Guardian:

US border authorities cannot search the cellphones of travelers without having some reason to believe a particular traveler has committed a crime, a federal appeals court ruled on Wednesday.

This decision is binding only within the jurisdiction of the US Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit: Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina.

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    On the other hand, even if they were to violate this, there's really no way for you as a non-US citizen/permanent resident to win, as if you piss them off, they can make up just any story and refuse you (as simple as "I'm not convinced they're a genuine visitor, period")
    – Crazydre
    Commented Dec 31, 2018 at 23:07
  • This decision is binding only within the jurisdiction of the US Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit: Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina. Commented Dec 31, 2018 at 23:29
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    The title of the article is at odds with the rest of the report. The rulings they mention actually state that they can search your devices with just reasonable suspicion and don’t need probable cause, which basically means that they can do it for whatever reason they want. And as @crazydre wrote, if you are not a US citizen, you have just two choices: do what they ask, or go back where you came from... (and that’s basically the same everywhere else). Nevertheless, the chances of it happening are pretty slim.
    – jcaron
    Commented Dec 31, 2018 at 23:33
  • @jcaron I guess permanent residents are also on strong ground, as they can't legally force you to revoke your permanent resident status on the spot (although they have been known to manipulate people into signing a binding form relinquishing that status).
    – Crazydre
    Commented Dec 31, 2018 at 23:34

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