From various sources (mainly friends and dubious internet sites) I heard that you can get in trouble if you have encrypted volumes/files on your laptop while entering USA. Apparently they assume that you have something to hide and you could be a potential terrorist. Is this really true or just a Urban Legend?

To be more concrete: I have some (hidden) TrueCrypt volumes on my laptop. When I enter the USA, could I get into trouble? And can they force me to decrypt the files?

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    What are the chances? At least half the people boarding planes carry a laptop, and unless they have a bad day or you look very suspicious they wont care about you. Hint: wear a suit and a tie or something that makes you look like you are important or have money, and you are much less likely to get any hassle. Nov 9, 2011 at 0:04
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    If I really need to transfer a secret data to the US, I would encrypt it in a file and send it to Dropbox / Cloud Server. Nov 9, 2011 at 3:15
  • @Rudy Internet traffic to/from USA is already monitored by NSA.
    – mouviciel
    Nov 9, 2011 at 14:31
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    @mouviciel: it's correct but it's harder to prosecute an anonymous person in the internet than capturing a tourist with an illegal data in the immigration counter. Nov 14, 2011 at 10:14

3 Answers 3


In the United States, you can't get into trouble just for possessing encrypted files. There is nothing illegal about encryption, and in fact most security experts recommend it for border crossings. You could, however, get "into trouble" if you refuse to decrypt it for them on request. It has happened that they have taken it to the courts and got the judge to force them to enter their password.

Considering that news sources and civil rights organisations alike recommend encrypting your data, it doesn't seem likely to me that you will get in trouble for encrypting it, or even that the border agents would be that surprised by it (it's such common advice now that at least a significant percentage of tech-savvy people are probably doing it)

The US Customs and Border Patrol has a document explaining their policies regarding the search of information and it mentions that they will take steps to ask other agencies to help decrypt files, that is, if you don't help them first. It's still an open question on whether they can force you to or not, for example in this recent case a woman was compelled to do it, but as they state in the article, it's by no means a settled question yet. So it's still worth it to encrypt your files.

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    Plausible deniability is not enough when confronted with someone who does not believe you. In fact, plausible deniability can work against you, if you have nothing to reveal but can't convince the guy with a bigger stick of that. Nov 8, 2011 at 22:06
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    I don't know why someone edited my answer to add that paragraph, if anything it should be in a seperate answer since I don't agree with it.
    – victoriah
    Nov 8, 2011 at 23:24
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    Oh, I hadn't noticed that. Feel free to edit or remove it; editing answers to add opinions (as opposed to correcting facts or adding uncontroversial complements) isn't supposed to be done. Nov 8, 2011 at 23:35
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    If additional content was added that you do not agree with, I strongly recommend deleting it. As answers here reflect your personality and beliefs, I think it is important to keep your answers your own.
    – Beaker
    Nov 9, 2011 at 4:38

I think it's highely unlikely for you to have a problem if you are just a Joe Soap. Lots of people travel through US airports all the time with laptops.

If you are known by their intelligence agencies to be engaged in terrorist or espionage activities, and you go through their airports, then yes, you can expect them to search you more.

It seems to be a bit of an internet meme that the USA is now some sort of fascist dictatorship, although civil liberties have decreased in recent years, there are actual dictatorships which are much worse than the USA now.


I've entered the US many times (as a citizen), nobody has ever looked at my laptop, let alone my flash drives.

Admittedly I have never been coming from a sex-tourist country and as an adult I've never come without my wife next to me.

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