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I am a US citizen and was crossing a land border into the USA the other day. The border guard not only asked me where I was going and who I was going to see, but also seemed particularly curious and asked various follow-up questions.

The same scenario then repeated itself with another border guard after they decided to search my car.

I was in a huge rush, so needed to get out of there right away and didn't want to cause a scene. Nor am I 100% up to date on the rules. However, it most certainly rubbed me the very wrong way.

I was under the impression that the USA has no movement controls, and that a US citizen most certainly does not need to specify a reason to enter their own country. Is that incorrect?

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    Some good ACLU guidance: aclu.org/know-your-rights/… Jul 21, 2023 at 16:58
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    A friend of mine (US citizen without a record) has been handcuffed, locked up in secondary, and questioned for hours by CBP only to be released because they had nothing on him. There were assumptions made I guess and they acted on them. CBP are federal agents, it's not just about letting you into the country
    – Midavalo
    Jul 21, 2023 at 22:43
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    The title is misleading and should be changed to something like "Why do US border guards ask questions about where and why you're traveling, and how are you required to respond?"
    – smci
    Jul 23, 2023 at 6:41
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    They can still ask you questions to irritate you if they feel like it. I think you say you were ''in a rush'', that may have triggered more questions. Looking even slightly agitated or concerned about something is a great way to invite more questions.
    – Tom
    Jul 23, 2023 at 17:41
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    The simplest & most honest & probably most applicable response to such a question would be "returning home".
    – Fred
    Jul 24, 2023 at 19:43

5 Answers 5

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Is that incorrect?

No, you are correct. A US citizen cannot be denied entry to the US.

However, CBP (Customs & Border Protection) has the means for making this a miserable experience for you, if you don't play ball.

You can certainly refuse to answer any of these questions, but CBP can drag out the process forever, take you over to secondary inspection, do checks on your documents and maybe criminal records, look for outstanding warrants, etc.

While it's annoying, it's generally your best option to just stay relaxed, comply and go with the flow.

I've been to over 40 countries and found US immigration to be the most rude and condescending even to its own citizens and even more so to foreigners. I've seen CBP officers doing blatantly illegal stuff in secondary inspection but there is typically no recourse and very little oversight so they often can do whatever they feel like.

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    And someone looking to be nervous and in a rush is a sign they key in on.
    – Jon Custer
    Jul 21, 2023 at 14:59
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    Many people are terrified of the of the CBP because they often abuse and harass abuse completely innocent people for no particular reason. Nervousness does not seem to be good indicator here. "in a rush" depends a lot on how long you had to wait and what your transport arrangements are or when your connecting flight departs.
    – Hilmar
    Jul 21, 2023 at 18:20
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    It was a land border. But I agree with Jon, if someone who appears to have important business tries to hurry a border officer, they may well react badly. Jul 21, 2023 at 19:05
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    Anecdotally, re rudeness: I'm a Canadian who's been living in the US for 6 years now, go back to visit family often(only 3 hour drive away) and went to the US often before. Canadian border guards used to be polite and the US ones pretty rude, but the Canadians have gotten way worse and the US guards better, so now the US ones are politer.
    – Eugene
    Jul 22, 2023 at 15:55
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    @user253751. You can't really waste their time: they are on the clock when they are working and go home when their shift is done. What exactly they do when they are there probably doesn't matter much to most. If you take up a lot of their time, it just means that other passengers have to wait longer.
    – Hilmar
    Jul 24, 2023 at 12:35
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As the name implies, CBP (Customs and Border Protection) perform two roles:

  • Checking that only people who should be allowed in are allowed to do so (that’s the “border protection” part, what in other countries would be called immigration or border police);
  • Checking that no unauthorised goods are imported, or that any taxes and duties are paid, if relevant (that’s customs).

In some places like airports the two roles are apparently completely separate (passport control before baggage claim, customs after), but this is not really the case: if you meet an officer at passport control, they can already start evaluating you, and will pass a message to the customs line after baggage claim if they feel they may be something interesting.

At a land border the officer you’ll meet will likewise perform both functions: check paperwork (passports, visas…) and decide if you should be subjected to search.

So some of those questions are related to that: some screening to try to detect people who they think may have something of interest for customs. Customs apply to US citizens, PRs and visitors alike. If they want to unscrew every single bolt of your car before letting you go, there’s absolutely no “I am a US citizen you have to let me through” argument to be made. They’re not preventing you from entering the US, they are searching for contraband.

In addition to that, as others have written, they need to somehow verify that your documents are valid and that you are who you say you are. While a cursory check of your passport and matching your picture against the photo in there is what happens in most cases, sometimes they need to check a bit further. Also, when crossing a land border with a car or other vehicle, there’s always the possibility that there may be other people hidden in the vehicle.

Some questions are quite innocent, but they may reveal issues, often not so much in the answer (though if they ask for details which are written in your passport like your name or your date of birth and you get it wrong that could raise a few red flags), but rather in the way it is answered. Being nervous, trying to hurry things up, having inconsistent answers, all those sorts of things. Sometimes it’s a false positive and they press someone who really has no issues at all, sometimes it’s the start of interesting discoveries.

Border officers in the US, and this is true in many other places, actually have quite extensive powers, often much less limited or controlled than those of police officers.

If you are in a hurry, it’s definitely best not to be confrontational. They have all the time in the world, extensive powers, and they won’t let you go until they’re satisfied. Best to keep them happy.

Of course, there are actually limits to their powers (though some of those are subject to debate, I believe). Civil rights organisations have quite a few ongoing battles with them. If you have the time and energy you are welcome to make sure they obey laws and constitution. If you are in a hurry, better to let them do their thing.

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    Everything in this answer is very reasonable. But most of it applies to every border official of every country, and American and Canadian officers are (sometimes) notoriously rude compared to others. My sample is that I've visited 60+ countries, and the only places where a border officer has raised their voice to me has been in Canada (where I'm a citizen) and the US. Jul 24, 2023 at 4:48
  • But most of it applies to every border official of every country In many countries the roles of border security and customs are separate. It is a notable difference if you are used to this model.
    – MJeffryes
    Jul 25, 2023 at 9:03
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As Hilmar says, you can't be denied entry, but you could certainly be arrested if they found something illegal. They're checking for money laundering, people or drug or animal or plant/food smuggling, knock-off clothes or shoes, etc. That doesn't excuse their overall terrible reputation, of course.

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In theory, US citizens may not be denied entry into the US. But in practice this theory needs an important qualifier:

"Persons who are believed by CBP to be US citizens may not be denied entry into the US."

Others may be denied entry for a time, even if later evaluation shows that the border officials were factually wrong at first. Passports get stolen, passports get forged, and so on. It is the job of CBP to do a check this, and part of the procedure is to quiz the passport holder and to gauge if the answers and the appearance match. If someone with surfboard-sized luggage answers "I've been on a business trip," there is probably something fishy.

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    Someone might work in the surfing industry, or go surfing on their breaks in between business meetings if they work in another industry.
    – mlc
    Jul 21, 2023 at 16:12
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    @mlc, you have to admit that there would be more questions.
    – o.m.
    Jul 21, 2023 at 16:54
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    As a UK citizen I was one re-entering UK and all went well at passport control, but it wasn't enough for the officer to check my passport. It was OK but I hadn't yet said anything, and he asked me a few questions, I think not because he particularly wanted to know the answers, but to engage with me and hear me speak – it really was me. Jul 21, 2023 at 18:20
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    In my opinion the questioning is mostly random and primarily dependent on the mood of the specific officer.
    – Hilmar
    Jul 21, 2023 at 18:21
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    @mlc Of course, but that's irrelevant because all that matters is that the officer had "reasonable suspicion" which in practice means practically any suspicion at all that something isn't right. Heck, just having a surfboard might be reasonable suspicion if it's known that hollowed out surfboards are a method used to smuggle drugs.
    – eps
    Jul 22, 2023 at 23:01
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Never mind the actual border, CBP (Customs & Border Protection) has enhanced powers extending up to 100 miles of any border. That's about 66% of the US population and almost all of the most major cities. So you being at the border isn't even really relevant for the sort of questioning you underwent -- it would be legal even if you weren't even close to the border, and at the actual border their powers are even greater / even less subject to scrutiny.

I was under the impression that the USA has no movement controls, and that a US citizen most certainly does not need to specify a reason to enter their own country. Is that incorrect?

https://www.aclu.org/know-your-rights/border-zone

That first part is incorrect, there are CBP checkpoints in numerous locations in the US and intentionally trying to avoid them (or at least flee from one intentionally) can be a felony. So never mind the actual border, you can be temporarily questioned and possibly detained up to a hundred miles away from any border.

It boils down to the fact that in general all they need to question you is reasonable suspicion. And at checkpoints they don't need any suspicion at all to stop you and have a dog sniff your car. You can search around for what exactly reasonable suspicion is and get a lot of technical legal definitions, but really what matters is that in practice this can basically be anything. "I smelled drugs" is reasonable suspicion and good luck proving the officer was lying.

So the reality is that not only can you be subjected to such questioning at the border, this sort of thing could have happened 2 hours away from the border and your best option by far would be to smile and answer the questions.

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  • @ave that doesn't match the ACLU map. Is there any "major" us city without an airport within 100 miles?
    – stannius
    Jul 25, 2023 at 2:22
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    @stannius ah, i must be misremembering, you're right
    – ave
    Jul 25, 2023 at 7:43

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