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Can i take an external USB drive with me on an international flight? Do they open or scan it, or go through its contents at an airport or during a customs security check? If it is allowed, do I have to carry it in my hand luggage or should I put it in my suit case?

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Yes, you can. Pretty much every time I travel by plane I carry one or more external hard disks in my hand luggage. This has never been an issue, to the extent that, on occasion, my luggage does get searched by hand, as opposed to just by machine.

I very much advise against putting a hard disk, or any sensitive electronics for that matter, in checked-in luggage. The risk of it getting damaged is too high. And, airlines don't take responsibility for damaging such things when in checked-in luggage.

  • "on occasion, my luggage does get searched by hand, as opposed to just by machine" -- this can be true in general of any largeish metallic object. I've had Toblerones and packets of biscuits examined manually, presumably because "that's big enough to have something inside and opaque enough the scanner can't see what". I suspect that the fact of it being a hard disk will be less significant than the size and composition of the housing it's in, so far as hand luggage screening is concerned. Do you separate it from your bag, as is required for laptops and tablets? – Steve Jessop Jul 17 '16 at 12:28
  • Whether laptops and tablets need to be taken out of the bag actually depends on the airport. I never take out my external hard disks, as this is never explicitly asked, and I've found that trying to be helpful at security checkpoints generally is not considered to be helpful. – MastaBaba Jul 17 '16 at 14:31
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    Another reason to carry hard drives (or anything containing data and/or that's subject to injection of malware/backdoors) is that you maintain physical possession of and/or visual contact with them. If an event happens that could lead to them being compromised, you know about it and can take appropriate counter-measures. In checked baggage, you have no such control, and from a security standpoint you must consider all devices compromised. – R.. Jul 17 '16 at 15:33
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There are no restrictions on portable hard drives. You can carry as many as you like in your carry-on luggage.

All luggage is subject to search and inspection. Your hard drives are not physically opened and searched; however customs officials have the right to plug your drive in and search its contents for illegal material.

If they do this, depends entirely on the border you are crossing. I have been stopped at the Saudi border while they plugged in my hard disks (and, oddly, my xbox) to verify its contents.

I have traveled multiple times to Europe and South Asia without anyone blinking an eye.

Yet, my brother returning to the US after summer break for college had his laptop, external drives and phone checked.

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    At least in the US, they can not only plug in your drives and search for illegal content, they can make copies of the data or even seize the hardware - without requiring suspicion of wrong doing. That's the reason why every sane company has a policy to never carry devices containing valuable information across the US border (at least unencrypted). – Voo Jul 17 '16 at 13:39
  • Seize personal property without suspicion? Can you provide a source which supports this, or are you only advancing the stereo-typical hate agenda againt both TSA and the US in general? – CGCampbell Jul 17 '16 at 13:45
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    @CGCampbell: It's nothing to do with the TSA, it's CBP or ICE. For example, dhs.gov/sites/default/files/publications/… says "CBP and ICE need not institute a policy requirement of reasonable suspicion as a predicate for electronic device searches" and "ICE policy gives officers up to 30 calendar days to complete border searches without . seeking supervisory approval". I don't know whether legally that's "seizing" or merely "detaining", but informally: they can take your stuff. – Steve Jessop Jul 17 '16 at 15:08
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    Or to be precise: the government's position is that it can take your stuff. I believe it hasn't been specifically tested in court whether taking stuff for 30+ days without suspicion is legal, but border search without suspicion has been tested in the 9th Circuit and upheld: border security was held to outweigh the usual 4th Amendment protections. So the practical advice for travellers must be that border agents might keep your stuff without any particular reason. Of course they probably won't. – Steve Jessop Jul 17 '16 at 15:11
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    @CGCampbell Apart from Steve's official link there's also an advisory from the EFF on the topic. Depends how cynical you want to be, but I wouldn't carry any electronic device containing private data across US borders. Not worth the hassle and just remember that other 3 letter agency whose members share naked pictures they find during "work". – Voo Jul 17 '16 at 15:45
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With some "minor" exceptions, this is trouble-free. You are perfectly allowed to take a harddisk, however there is of course a but (that had to come!).

First, what you can take aboard is defined by the IATA guidelines (which are pretty liberal, you could even carry a knife if you have a justifiable reason (tool) as well as other pretty dangerous things)

.. and now it comes...

plus
any local laws (which are pretty restrictive after 2001, and getting worse)
plus
any arbitrary, haphazard change-without-notice rules set up by the respective airport
subject to
the controlling officer's discretionary power.

The officer does not have the right to confiscate your possessions or look what's on your harddisk (though of course it will be x-rayed, which is harmless) or anything of that kind but in an increasing number of rogue nations they do that anyway, and you are wise if you do not oppose to that.

Also note that "officer's discretionary power" means as much as: "fuck you, fuck your rights, and fuck the rights you think you have". Officer says you don't pass -- you don't pass. So, if being stranded is not a viable option, well... you know.

Second, there is customs/immigration. They are the much more serious threat.

Customs may want money for goods that you import, but more importantly they also check that you do not have anything illegal on you. Now that is not a problem because you aren't a smuggler or a criminal, right? You can be very wrong about that. Very innocent things can cause great grief (try your luck with a harmless salami in your bag in Singapore, or rather... if you are wise, you don't try).

You definitively want to read up-front if some kind of material ("porno" as well as anything related to sexuality (condoms, lingerie, dildos) comes to mind, but even things like "music", "political texts" or "CDs" or "chewing gum" can be illegal!) is forbidden in your destination.
Be positively sure that no similar material is on that harddisk, or check the destination country's import restrictions that it's allowed.

At immigration, you may very well have some guy copy the contents of your harddisk under some premise (terror, espionage, ... pick one). That shouldn't be legal, but it certainly is. And you bet that you don't want to know what happens if you refuse.

What's probably worst, you cannot back off. If the security guy doesn't like you, then in the very worst case you walk away. Fly another day.
The moment the customs officer says "let me see that bag" or the spy guy wants the data on your disk, you already have entered the territory and now it's too late. You are now subject to their legislation, there is no going back. Now you can only hope you did your homework right, and they're not finding anything illegal.

Customs do not normally (in some places they do, but usually not) search everybody. Checked-in luggage is in most places routinely x-rayed and searched with drug hounds (especially thoroughly on flights from particular origins) without you knowing, and before you even get to pick it up again. Getting your hand luggage searched, however, is rather unusual unless, I guess, you look like a criminal (I remember having that happen once in 30 years).

Depending on the location, you are either waved through right away (or officers are sleeping) unless you look suspicious, or being questioned in a standardized manner, and if the answer to every question was "No", you get an "OK, welcome Sir" (that's my experience anyway, your mileage may vary).
In any case, you definitely want to be truthful in your answers, for the odd chance that they do want to see.

If you are caught lying, the consequences are... well, let's say you don't want that to happen. Lying to the security guy and being caught is mildly embarrassing and means you miss your plane. Lying to a customs/immigration officer means you pay a 4-digit fine in the best case, or, in the worst case, spend 6 weeks awaiting your trial in a prison cell with 15 inmates and 10 rats (depending on where you are).

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    Assuming we're talking about the US here (or was that what the "rogue nations" part referred too?): "The officer does not have the right to confiscate your possessions or look what's on your harddisk". This is correct when talking about the TSA officer, but CBP and ICE officers are not only allowed to look at what's on the hard disk, they're allowed to seize the hardware without requiring reasonable suspicion. See e.g. here. – Voo Jul 17 '16 at 18:54
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    No chewing gum or similar material on the hard disk. Check. – JDługosz Jul 18 '16 at 7:10

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