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After reading this news piece on how an american journalist was pulled in for secondary screening while entering the US, a question that popped up in my mind is what happens if, as a foreigner, I refused to provide my passwords to accounts/devices or unlock my electronic devices myself.

Say I am traveling from Europe to the USA and at the airport I am picked for secondary screening. The CBP or TSA or whatever entity asks me to provide my passwords and I say no. Then what?

  1. Can they detain me for that?
  2. For how long can they keep me in custody/detained before allowing me to leave (either into the USA or back to my home country)?
  3. More importantly, can I be arrested for refusing to unlock my devices or provide access to my online accounts such as email or social media?

The distinction between being temporarily detained or actually arrested matters to me. If the worst that can happen is being refused entry and being sent back home, I can live with that. Being thrown into jail for weeks, months, or years, however, is an entire different story.

  • Related: travel.stackexchange.com/q/99808/40843 – Daniel Jun 23 at 13:07
  • You should unlock your devices. Get one for travel. You will see online how to do it. It is also frequent for US companies traveling in China, and you will find such information on US website, so it is not illegal, Just use a clean machine, and store only what it is relevant for your travel. E.v. use online services to store files. IPs and other information will assure US that you are not a terrorist. – Giacomo Catenazzi Jun 24 at 10:09
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Can they detain me for that?

Yes

For how long can they keep me in custody/detained before allowing me to leave (either into the USA or back to my home country)?

Indefinitely, but usually less than 48 hours while they work on removing you from the USA as expeditiously as possible. You can google for countless real life examples.

More importantly, can I be arrested for refusing to unlock my devices or provide access to my online accounts such as email or social media?

Detain is technically not the same as arrest however for your case it's just semantics, the results are the same. You will not be arrested and held for weeks because you've committed no crime per se and immigration violations are typically civil offenses however you will be detained pending removal as expeditiously as possible.

Finally, they can place a flag on your profile so that anytime you travel internationally through the USA, you will be pulled aside for secondary screening automatically. It's not pleasant, don't get on the wrong side of CBP. It's not worth it.

TL;DR

For a non-citizen and particularly a visitor, USA immigration port of entry is the wrong place to go about trying to assert some supposed right. You will be the worse to wear for it, and have little to show for your trouble in doing so. At those locations and for visitors in particular, CBP are essentially the judge, jury and executioner.

In the story you linked, the CBP officers were lying. The law does not allow CBP to prevent an American citizen from entering the United States. That's well established but then we all know CBP doesn't obey the law.

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    An excellent and accurate answer...except for the insult in the last sentence. While each of us is surely entitled to our opinions, and CBP (like all human endeavors) acts badly or dishonestly sometimes, perhaps SE:Travel is not the right place for this user who says on his or her info page "In my opinion most immigration laws are immoral and can be disobeyed." – David Jun 23 at 15:05
  • You are absolutely correct. Nothing in your ideas or philosophy interfered with the substance of your answer, with with I agree completely. Seems to me, however, that the final sentence is gratuitous, and doesn't further the answer. How does it assist or illuminate matters for the OP, or others who may read this exchange? – David Jun 23 at 15:54
  • Also a bit misleading to say they don't obey the law without revealing that you believe they shouldn't. (Sarcasm.) – WGroleau Jun 23 at 15:59
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    @David You are an attorney, or at least a retired attorney albeit maybe not an immigration attorney. You should be aware even more than myself how much CBP routinely flouts the law. I am not writing anything novel. The examples are everywhere and available with a click on Google. – user 56513 Jun 23 at 16:37
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    Oh, you should ignore the law but they should follow it? That (the hypocrisy) was the point of my sarcasm. We don’t _all_know they break the law. Most of us do know that they have a heck of a lot of discretion in applying it. Whether they should is another matter. – WGroleau Jun 23 at 16:39

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