Things to Consider When Crossing the US Border

Planning on crossing the border into the United States anytime soon? Did you know that the government has the right to, without a warrant, search travelers at the border—including when they land at international airports—as part of its traditional power to control the flow of items into the country? (Note that although some of the same legal justifications exist for searches of those leaving the US and that such searches are possible, travelers are not routinely searched on their way out of the country.)

For a more in depth treatment of this issue, check out EFF's guide, Defending Privacy at the US Border

In the Meantime, Here are Some Things to Keep in Mind When Crossing the US Border:

  • Have you backed up your devices? This may help in case one or more of your devices is seized. You can use an online backup service or an external hard drive, though we don't recommend carrying both your laptop and your backup hard drive at the same time.

  • Do you need to be carrying so much data? We suggest minimizing the amount of data you are carrying over the border. Consider traveling with a "clean" laptop, and note that simply dragging files to your trash doesn't delete them completely. Make sure you securely delete your files.

  • Are your devices encrypted? We recommend full-disk encryption on your devices (laptops, mobile phones, etc.) and choosing secure passphrases. If a border agent asks for your passphrase, you do not have to comply. Only a judge can force you to reveal such information. However, refusal to comply could bear consequences: for noncitizens, you may be refused entry into the country; for citizens, you may be detained until the border patrol decides what to do, which may include seizing your computer, phone, camera, USB sticks, etc.

  • When you enter a new country, consider purchasing a temporary phone and transferring your SIM card over or getting a new number. This phone will carry far less data than your normal phone.

  • When dealing with border guards, remember these three things: Be courteous, do not lie, and do not physically interfere with the agent’s search.

Last updated: 
2014-10-18
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