There's a discussion on the (probably soon to be vanished) comments on this question about what US immigration can and cannot do. Is it possible to get a definitive answer on this?

I assume they can search me and all my stuff, but can they make me turn on electronics? If so can they make me provide my password or insist I login myself? Decrypt any encrypted files or drives?

How far can they search? Are they allowed to use tools that attempt to find deleted files or extract search history from cookies or other 'computer forensic investigation' type approaches?

If I'm travelling with my work laptop there's a banner when you login saying that use by a non-employee is a criminal offence -- are they immune from prosecution under that?

On a separate note if I have to provide a password that gives them access to more than just the laptop. If it's my work one they can gain access to the work network and associated websites, if it's my personal one they get my Microsoft login (and e-mail, cloud files, etc) as it's Windows 10 and tied to the account.

I tend to assume that any refusal on my part will lead to a denial of entry, but taken to the extreme that seems like they can ask anything ("do a little dance and we'll think about it") it seems like there must be some sort of limit. I guess it's a separate question to ask what someone should do during the interview if they think the immigration officer is crossing the line.

EDIT: To be clear, I'm not a US citizen and I'm asking for information relating to non-citizens (who have the appropriate paperwork, or whatever, to enter the country).

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    "If I'm travelling with my work laptop there's a banner when you login saying that use by a non-employee is a criminal offence". Just because there is a banner does not mean it is in fact a criminal offence.
    – orizon
    Dec 23, 2015 at 10:11
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    It might be useful to separate between US citizen and others. I would expect they can't deny entry to US citizens, for example.
    – djr
    Dec 23, 2015 at 11:09
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    If I'm not mistaken, you are free to refuse to cooperate, while the border police is free to deport and ban you from ever visiting the country again.
    – JonathanReez
    Dec 23, 2015 at 12:38
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    Technically, searching your stuff is for customs purposes, not immigration purposes. They can search your stuff regardless of your immigration status.
    – user102008
    Dec 24, 2015 at 1:34
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    (waaay past useful, but someone might read this) "a banner when you login saying that use by a non-employee is a criminal offence" - back in the 80s and 90s, people running illegal download services on the internet used to have a similar warning saying they were banning the FBI et al and that any FBI person subsequently using the site was committing a crime themselves. Yeah, those banners and warnings arent worth the paper they are written on.
    – user29788
    Sep 8, 2017 at 3:25

1 Answer 1


That's a complicated legal question should probably better off in StackExchange Law.

Some light reading to get started

So in essence the border control has very wide authority (much more than regular police). The exact limits of this authority are occasionally tested in court so they are not quite clear. However, the likelihood of being exposed to this are quite small.

I have done the dance probably 100+ times by now and only once had an extended discussion with a CBP officer (which was admittedly bizarre since I had perfectly good papers and three small kids on tow).

  • Thanks for the links, I guess there's no real easy answer. Maybe I'll take it to se law sometime next year. It was basically theoretical anyway, just interested.
    – SpaceDog
    Dec 27, 2015 at 7:09

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