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Do immigration officers have the authority to inspect your electronic devices (smartphones, tablets, laptops)?

I've heard that ever since the 9/11 attacks, immigration officers in many countries (in particular Anglophone nations) have being granted legal authority to go through a passenger's electronic devices and find any illegal content or evidence that a passenger is planning on working unlawfully while under a tourist visa.

I'm travelling to the U.S. and I'm a bit worried about this. Though I have no illegal material on my computer and I'm not planning anything nefarious while on holiday, I feel uneasy about an officer having a window into my personal life.

From what I've read, though, even if they have the legal authority to do so, immigration officers rarely conduct these searches.

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  • 2
    Cross a border not on a diplomatic passport and they can search. In practice they aren't going to search at that level randomly. Jun 18 '21 at 23:27
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    What isn't unusual here is having your luggage searched for agricultural stuff. There are a lot of diseases and pests we don't have and we would prefer to keep them out. With an agricultural inspection they simply run your bags through an x-ray and apparently only look at those which contain organic material of sufficient density that they might be something improper. Jun 18 '21 at 23:31
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    The most important thing to remember is that immigration officers have authority to deny you entry. Unless you're Jason Bourne, just show them your phone and move on. They don't care about your private life (unless they find proof of you intending to violate laws). You will be forgotten in seconds.
    – magma
    Jun 20 '21 at 1:41
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    @magma yes, though it's worth mentioning that it would be a rather different story if they actually did this regularly and digitally kept the information that they found. ...Which – plot twist – US agencies already do anyway, without any immigration officers being involved... Jun 20 '21 at 15:16
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    @smci I guess you're talking from the point of view of a US citizen coming home. However, the question here is more general (and OP mentions going on holiday to the US). As you certainly know, random foreigners don't have any right to be let in. (There are countless examples of entry refusals here on TSE.) When I walk up to a CBP officer, it's up to me to convince them they really want me inside the US, but they're well within their authority to just tell me they just don't like me and send me on my merry way back to Europe.
    – TooTea
    Jun 21 '21 at 12:35
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Unless you somewhat raise some flags somewhere in the system, the risk is very minimal.

According to this :

"...The 19,033 travelers who had their devices searched in 2016 were among 391 million travelers to the US that year...."

That's about 0.0049%, or one traveler in every 20,500.

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    Depending on what OP is worried about a 1 in 20,000 chance could be too high.
    – jcm
    Jun 18 '21 at 22:23
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    @jcm But those 19k searches are going to be amongst those who raise red flags. No red flags = infinitesimal chance of a search. Jun 18 '21 at 23:26
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    Travelers are profiled in a way that would be illegal outside the immigration setting and people don’t necessarily know everything that is on their machines- did someone e-mail me a inappropriate photo 4 years ago that went into my spam folder? Jun 19 '21 at 22:24
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    I had a friend who traveled a lot before 9/11 and was searched on every single flight (5 at the time) until he started wearing western-style clothing especially a pair of jeans. Then it dropped to almost zero. And this was BEFORE 9/11. You can't use overall average statistics to determine the chances you will be searched. Chances are if you are white the odds for you is a bit lower than that percentage
    – slebetman
    Jun 21 '21 at 4:03
  • This doesn't answer the question.
    – user5017
    Jun 21 '21 at 14:28
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The answer to the title ("Can immigration authorities inspect your devices?") is yes, they can. If you refuse, or refuse to give them the password, they can refuse your entry into the country.

The main question text goes on to express your discomfort at that possibility. Given the number of travelers and the number of searches, the chance that your devices will be searched is vanishingly small...but it is not zero.

The answer to your concern is up to you and your risk tolerance. If you are unwilling to accept the risk, then either do not travel across international borders, or if you do travel across international borders, do not carry devices.

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    Or if you have to carry devices, wipe them first and restore them when you arrive at your destination.
    – Ndech
    Jun 19 '21 at 11:29
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    @Ndech not a great advice in regard to border control. An empty (or visibly empty) device rises flags as well.
    – fraxinus
    Jun 19 '21 at 12:52
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    @Ndech is being denied entry is better than the alternative (of a stranger who doesn’t care seeing the contents of your phone) you probably shouldn’t travel with that phone.
    – Tim
    Jun 19 '21 at 15:07
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    If you are trying to reenter your own country, then they probably cannot refuse you entry. But they can make your life unpleasant in a variety of other ways, depending on local laws. In some cases, this might even go as far as criminal prosecution or seizure of the offending device. So if you're going to refuse them, make sure you know what you're signing yourself up for.
    – Kevin
    Jun 19 '21 at 19:07
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    besides erasing the whole device, you can simply make sure to remove anything you don't want to share, including being sure to log out of any saved accounts and removing any apps you don't want to be seen. move files you need to a cloud that is not automatically connected
    – Mike M
    Jun 19 '21 at 23:01
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If you have information on your phone you or your employer should be seriously worried about, you need to get a new phone for the trip. For example, if you're working in a high-tech, highly competitive industry. If not, play the odds and take the miniscule chance that someone will look. They can open the suitcases with your underwear, too. Not a nice feeling, but, well, not a disaster, either.

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    You can't install keylogger on underwear.
    – Luris
    Jun 20 '21 at 9:33
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    @Luris, if they singled you out for a device check, you can dump the hardware after the trip if you are paranoid. I'd take a risk with my personal data, but not with my work data. But I have no work data on private devices. YMMV.
    – o.m.
    Jun 20 '21 at 9:51
  • @Luris there is at least one other question here about a device that left your custody at the border and what to do about that. The OPs question was about disclosing private data, not malware.
    – Tom
    Jun 21 '21 at 8:21
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    Working for a major high-tech company, traveling with a dedicated travel phone and laptop was standard issue. They get returned and wiped after return.
    – Aganju
    Jun 21 '21 at 13:28
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of course they do have the authority to do that... and they warn you in the border protection web about it:

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is tasked with protecting our nation’s borders and enforcing numerous laws at U.S. ports of entry. CBP’s ability to lawfully inspect electronic devices crossing the border is integral to keeping America safe in an increasingly digital world.

All travelers crossing the United States border are subject to CBP inspection. On rare occasions, CBP officers may search a traveler’s mobile phone, computer, camera and other electronic devices during the inspection process. These searches have resulted in evidence helpful in combating terrorist activity, child pornography, drug smuggling, human smuggling, bulk cash smuggling, human trafficking, export control violations, intellectual property rights violations and visa fraud.

the bold emphasis is mine.

if you require more info, please check the official post here:

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Yes, they can look at their device. Where it's not explicitly written into the law, they can still refuse you entry if you don't do whatever it is they want you to do - show your naked pictures, make ten jumping jacks, whatever they feel like.

For those of us working with confidential information professionally, it's long been known that if you travel across an international border (except within the Schengen zone), you upload all your confidential data to your (trusted and encrypted) cloud/fileserver/whatever and securely delete it from the device you are taking with you.

A few especially paranoid people I know completely wipe their device and install a fresh OS, then once inside the country, if it left their presence for even a minute, they will wipe and reinstall again, and then download all the data from an encrypted cloud storage.

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