Does the US Passport provide any kind of immunity against harassment, insult and intimidation by the border police of a destination country? Our US embassy in the destination country refused to address the situation or to answer this question.

PS: I entered a country and their border police harassed, insulted and intimidated me because they thought my US passport "looks suspicious". After an hour they allowed me in, but made no apologies and had no regrets.

Edit 1

Insane how many people have bad experience visiting the US. I suggest you try Serbia where they did this to an American citizen. Highly doubt you'll have a good experience with SBP if you already had a bad experience entering the US.

Edit 2

If everyone wanted a framework of conduct for all border officials, then we could easily achieve it. Simply reduce traveling and let the travel industry dictate with their campaign contributions. There needs to be an international framework for conduct. No official should be able to take action based on what they feel, but what they can prove. I'll take an argument on this any day.

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    Why would it? You’re entering their country, you’re not in the US.
    – Traveller
    Commented Dec 8, 2020 at 10:17
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    @Jackson: of all the 40+ countries I've been too, I experienced by far the most harassment from US border agents. especially when we weren't citizens yet. One agent reduced my wife with our three month old daughter in her arms to tears for no reason other then " He feels overworked and underpaid". That's what he actually SAID! US border agents have an unusual large amount of discretion and leeway and some use it for personal satisfaction through abuse of customers. Since the US not only tolerates but actively encourages this behavior, it's unlikely they would take issue with someone else.
    – Hilmar
    Commented Dec 8, 2020 at 13:47
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. The comments are locked for now, if editting of the question continues that will be locked as well.
    – Willeke
    Commented Dec 9, 2020 at 9:07

7 Answers 7


Does the US Passport provide any kind of immunity against harassment, insult and intimidation by the border police of a destination country?

As others have pointed out, no. Harassment is generally prohibited by local laws, but of course what you consider harassment and what the local law considers harassment may not be exactly the same thing. In general, government officials everywhere enjoy a presumption that they are acting reasonably, and even when they are not they usually have an easy time arguing that their actions were reasonable. Just like a police officer in the US, they can claim that some aspect of your presentation at the border aroused their suspicions, and it is difficult for anyone to prove that they haven't made that up.

Historically, a passport was a diplomatic request from one sovereign to other sovereigns to afford legal protections to a traveler. Whether that is still the case is probably a matter of debate, but to the extent that it is true it means only that you have access to the destination country's courts. So, if you really can make a case that your treatment was illegal under that country's laws, you may be entitled to some relief. This is extremely unlikely in general, but if you want a more specific assessment of your particular case, the proper course of action is to speak with a lawyer in that country. The local embassy should be able to help you find a lawyer who speaks English if the local language is not English.

The US passport definitely does still entitle you to some protections and support offered by the US government in certain cases, but that is very different from "immunity." For example, if you are arrested or prosecuted for a crime, you have a right to consular assistance. The Department of State is very clear that their ability to assist is limited to certain specific areas.

If you think about this a moment, you'll see why it must be so. Diplomatic agreements are generally reciprocal. If there were some rule prohibiting you from being detained at the border for an hour, then such a rule would also apply to citizens of that country who seek entry to the US. Would you want everyone in that country to enjoy "immunity" from such treatment? I don't think so. Immigration officers at national borders are charged with identifying and preventing people who are entering a country illegally, and most people want them to be able to do their jobs. The question is whether they were reasonable to suspect that your passport was fake and whether their response to that suspicion was also reasonable, and, once again, the proper venue for examining those questions is the courts of that country (or perhaps an administrative review if you file a formal complaint with the country's border agency).

In a comment, you write

why does it matter which passport you carry for entrance? I was under the impression that there's an agreement which clearly defines boundaries on what they can or cannot do.

From the immigration officer's perspective, the passport is mainly significant because it determines whether you need a visa to enter, and, if so, what kind. This is sometimes, but not always, the result of a negotiated agreement between the two countries. Aside from varying visa requirements, most countries guarantee the same due process of law to all arriving visitors regardless of the country that issued their passport. (I'm ignoring diplomats here, who are indeed immune from all sorts of border formalities, but there too countries don't generally treat arriving diplomats differently depending on the country they represent.) Another significance of the passport is simply that it determines which consulate the country's authorities must notify if you are arrested.

In conclusion, the US does have the capacity to use diplomatic pressure to influence how other countries treat US citizens, but for the most part it will refrain from applying that pressure except in egregious cases. For the most part, like pretty much every other country, the US will only expect each country to treat you lawfully under that country's own laws, and, if it does not, the US will probably not do much about it unless it suits the US administration's diplomatic and political agenda.

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    The passport also identifies you to immigration authorities, and lets them check if you left before you were legally required to on your previous visit(s)
    – CSM
    Commented Dec 8, 2020 at 19:26
  • It's possible to find early examples of documents used to confer some form of protection but this book argues that preventing people to leave and escape conscription was as important to the development of the modern passport than controlling who gets in or protecting your own subjects abroad.
    – Relaxed
    Commented Dec 8, 2020 at 20:49
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    To add to @Relaxed, we don't need to go back that far (mid 1800), before even citizens of many countries needed passes and permissions to even travel internally in their own countries. (I'm not counting during war or occupation.) Commented Dec 8, 2020 at 21:15
  • @CSM yes, but that function does not depend on which country issued the passport.
    – phoog
    Commented Dec 8, 2020 at 22:12
  • @Relaxed that is interesting. My statement was of course based on the nominal purpose of a passport as reflected in the language that is still carried by (for example) US and UK passports, in which the document is addressed to foreign authorities by (or in the name of) the issuing state or a representative of the state, requesting their protection. I suppose if you go back far enough (for example during the middle ages) this would have been necessary for foreigners not to be treated as outlaws.
    – phoog
    Commented Dec 8, 2020 at 22:16

No, you're always subject to local law/policy in the country you visit. The only way to protect yourself from it is by simply not going there.

If it can be objectively proven officials have broken the law at your expense, I suppose the embassy can help with getting a local lawyer, but that's about it. This scenario hardly qualifies.


Do you believe that a foreign passport gives immunity from "harassment" by the CBP at the US border? No? Why should the US passport work any differently in this regard?

Well, realistically it does, to some degree. The US government may act if their citizens are are harassed and the US has more leverage than many other countries. But that will only happen if the US government agrees with your view of the situation, and perhaps not even then.

There are plenty of forged or altered passports around. Immigration officials are trained to be suspicious, and they may be able to call on documents specialists if they are not sure. That can easily take some time.

Take a deep breath. The situation was stressful and unusual for you. You feel insulted. You may have been insulted, but a lack of an apology or explanation is pretty mild as immigration problems go.

If it was in a country with a functioning rule of law, and if the border officials were unprofessional, you may be able to sue. But those are long odds, with your word against their record.

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    A US passport doesn't even protect you from US border police. Ask any one of those US citizens who almost got deported to Mexico because they were brown. Commented Dec 8, 2020 at 19:40
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    @user253751 I like to see proof of your claim. They must've had other issues so the border officials could cling on to.
    – Jackson
    Commented Dec 8, 2020 at 20:11
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    @Jackson en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… . In fact if I type 'us citizens d' into Google, 4 or the top 10 suggested completions are about them being deported or detained. Commented Dec 8, 2020 at 20:21
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    @Jackson it's most common when the US citizen's citizenship is in doubt, usually either because the claim of birth in the US is disputed or because the citizenship was acquired automatically after birth, without naturalization, through the child citizenship act. In many of those cases, the US citizens aren't even aware that they are US citizens, but even if they are, proving it can be complicated.
    – phoog
    Commented Dec 8, 2020 at 22:19
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    @Jackson, this can also happen when an official wrongly suspects a genuine document to be forged.
    – o.m.
    Commented Dec 9, 2020 at 6:35

Your passport is the primary identification of you, and your citizenship, to the immigration authorities. It's a sad fact of life that some people travel on forged documents, this is either

  1. to claim citizen of a (highly developed) country, in order to not require a visa, or
  2. To hide the fact that they over-stayed on a previous visit

Forged documents often are deliberately water-damanged, in order to disguise the tampering. If your passport was damaged, or your appearance has changed since the photo was taken, then the immigration agent may think the passport is not genuinely yours. If so, (s)he has to take additional steps to reassure him/herself that it is valid, and you are allowed to enter the country.

If your passport is damaged or you've changed your appearance, I recommend that you apply for a replacement before your next trip abroad.

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    Sometime in the early 1990s I sat around in a holding room for a couple of hours in a Belgian airport (luckily only that long; everyone was perfectly polite, if suspicious) because my passport was (legitimately/accidentally) water-damaged, and it took them that long to decide that I really wasn't doing anything wrong. The border control officers strongly recommended that I get an emergency replacement for my passport at the nearest convenient embassy, which I did ...
    – Ben Bolker
    Commented Dec 8, 2020 at 22:30
  • Indeed. I was once advised that I should really get a new passport when my current one was damaged (and that was only a cracked spine, leading to the pages starting to come loose). This was outgoing passport control and the border agent was kind enough to help with a temporary fix and I think even put an official stamp in there to certify the fix was approved. I had no problems during that trip and got a new passport on my return.
    – jwenting
    Commented Dec 9, 2020 at 7:18

As other answers have already stated, the simple answer is NO. It is a document issues by the US meant to identify you as a citizen to other countries but when entering their borders you are subject to their process and laws.

The main issue with your question is that, even if it did, the border control officers would have to recognize it as a genuine US passport and you as its legitimate holder. The same is true if you were questioned coming back into the US. If your passport was damaged or your photo significantly different that yourself at the time of entry than you would be questioned which can often be very unfriendly and agressive, specially if they see anything that makes them suspicious. There are plenty of reports on border officials crossing some line in behavior and could happen in any country.

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    This is a great point. No forged document has any legal effect it might purport to have, so suspicion that the document is forged will always result in the absence, at least temporarily, of those protections. This is true even of diplomatic passports and visas: if someone comes to the border and claims to be an ambassador, and the immigration officer thinks the passport or visa is suspect, the officer will have to detain the ambassador while investigating the document, even though the ambassador is immune. The investigation will probably include a call to the foreign ministry.
    – phoog
    Commented Dec 8, 2020 at 22:22

The British passport states 'Her Britannic Majesty's Secretary of State requests and requires in the name of Her Majesty all those whom it may concern to allow the bearer to pass freely without let or hindrance and to afford the bearer such assistance and protection as may be necessary.'

Theoretically, if a British citizen was harassed by Johnny Foreigner, troops were sent. Maybe a gunboat. And, very occasionally, this happened. But mostly, of course, it didn't. (Would you be happy if such support was given to a British visitor to America?)

The US passport has a similar preamble. "The Secretary of State of the United States of America hereby requests all whom it may concern to permit the citizen/national of the United States named herein to pass without delay or hindrance and in case of need to give all lawful aid and protection."

'Requests and requires' has been weakened to 'requests'. A little more realistic!

  • Such statements as without delay or hindrance are leftovers from the passports of the early 19th century. Since the 1920's visas (which can be considered a form of hindrance) are common place. With the introduction of the 'International passport' during the 1920 Paris Passport Conference, such statements were not forseen. The stated main purpose of passports as establishing identity and the right to travel.... Nothing more. Commented Dec 9, 2020 at 7:05

The US passport (as well as any other) doesn't provide much more than an identification.

As a foreign citizen, you may expect a treatment not much worse (or in some cases, a bit better, but just a bit) than the country's own citizens.

On the other hand, showing a passport that "looks suspicious" converts you from an ordinary traveler into a suspect. A fake ID document in most countries equals jail time, worse if it happens at the border. The police in most countries (including the US) has rather large discretion over a suspect's time and feelings. The exact extent varies, but an hour (or more) of detainment, as well as a rather unpleasant interrogation, are quite common. And, as far as my experience goes, apologies and regrets from a police officer are quite a rare beast, world-wide.

In the above paragraph, US citizenship changes nothing. And if your passport ends up being fake, you are not really an US citizen until better proofs are available.

Regarding Serbia:

I am not impressed by their border police either (but never lost more than 15 minutes talking to them). Living in a country bordering Serbia, I can recall a lot of testimonials similar to yours, most cases resolved by a $10-$20 value bribe (in any currency). The US citizens, as far as I can tell, are not discriminated in any way.

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