Is ICE checking phones of non-citizens at the border? Privacy tips?
December 4, 2017 1:25 AM   Subscribe

I'm going to be traveling outside the US and re-entering on a valid visa. How likely is it my phone might be inspected on re-entry? I have nothing to hide (and am not from a travel ban or Muslim-majority country), but don't like the idea of immigration agents reading my email etc. Has anyone here had their phone inspected entering the US, or heard of someone who has? What would be best practices for keeping as much as privacy as possible in case one's phone is inspected -- I'll definitely be logging out of email, deleting cookies and clearing browser history before going through the border, but how effective is that and what else would you do?
posted by anonymous to Travel & Transportation (19 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
If you have an Android, I suppose it wouldn't be too hard to wipe your phone entirely -- Google Play will have a record of your apps when you want to reinstall them later, and many will have automatic cloud backups (though there'll definitely be a few that don't, or for which you'll have to download backups and later restore from backup after reinstalling the app). It'd be a bit of a hassle, but I think worth it because you can cheerfully hand your phone over to any inquiring customs and border patrol agents with a clean install of Android without even an email address for Android to pull content from. Alternately, delete/disable as many apps as you can: Gmail, your browser, and anything else that contains personal information. The Verge has a brief how-to article, here.
posted by tapir-whorf at 1:49 AM on December 4, 2017 [4 favorites]

Someone may correct me on this, but: I think I heard that you can be compelled to provide a fingerprint, but not to provide a password - so if you have a fingerprint reader, you could turn that off.
posted by une_heure_pleine at 1:53 AM on December 4, 2017 [3 favorites]

I am a white, male, European. I have travelled to the US 2-3 times a year for the last 10 years. My phone was never checked and I was never asked anymore than the standard questions: what is your job, how long are you staying for.
I would clear my chat history of any political groups.
posted by Akke at 2:02 AM on December 4, 2017

Here's the EFF's information on this topic. It's very thorough.
posted by Too-Ticky at 2:14 AM on December 4, 2017 [17 favorites]

It happened to Canadian author Amal El-Mohtar just a few days ago.
posted by ocherdraco at 3:13 AM on December 4, 2017 [16 favorites]

Someone may correct me on this, but: I think I heard that you can be compelled to provide a fingerprint, but not to provide a password - so if you have a fingerprint reader, you could turn that off.

This may be true if the police stop you in the street in the US, but at the border, I imagine immigration can just decide not to let you in the country for whatever reason they decide. So I wouldn't rely on using a password vs fingerprint. This seems to be confirmed by ocherdraco's link.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 3:20 AM on December 4, 2017 [6 favorites]

Immigration can keep non-citizens out. They do have to let US citizens back in. But they can certainly make things unpleasant for them in a multitude of ways, such as delaying them long enough to make them miss connecting flights. This is all explained in detail in the EFF document linked above.
posted by Too-Ticky at 3:31 AM on December 4, 2017 [2 favorites]

Both Android and iOS have good backup options. Assuming you have time, make a backup of the phone, wipe it before you cross, then restore once you’re in. I don’t think this is an overreaction at all. Backing up and restoring is dead simple and it’s good practice so you’re familiar with it when you might need to in the future for other reasons.
posted by sixfootaxolotl at 5:46 AM on December 4, 2017 [5 favorites]

It's so creepy that I would likely delete my gmail app from my phone and use my spam account from yahoo.
posted by theora55 at 6:14 AM on December 4, 2017 [1 favorite]

Without getting into much in the way of specifics... I have worked for at least two companies with high political visibility who had a policy of wiping laptops and phones when crossing borders and then reimaging them on the other side. Would I be worried? No, in the maybe 100 border crossing I've made in recent history I've been searched. That said, would I think you are being paranoid for protecting your privacy? Absolutely not.
posted by saeculorum at 7:43 AM on December 4, 2017

I’ve crossed the border 50+ times in the last 15 years. Never had my phone searched, even the time when I was in secondary inspection having my vehicle searched (long story). I am a white woman though.
posted by crazycanuck at 7:55 AM on December 4, 2017 [1 favorite]

I think it would be fun to hand over your flip phone with absolutely nothing on it. Tracphones are pretty cheap, if you can live without your smartphone while you are gone.
posted by H21 at 8:14 AM on December 4, 2017 [2 favorites]

This Wired article has some additional helpful ideas.
posted by beyond_pink at 8:29 AM on December 4, 2017

Having never flown internationally before, does CBP search checked luggage with the traveler present?

Which is to say, if I turn my phone off (with password required on startup) and put it into my checked luggage rather than my carryon, would it be feasible for the CBP agent in the customs line to get my phone out of checked luggage and ask me to unlock it? Or would my checked luggage be right there with me until after getting through the customs process, so it wouldn't be difficult for them to go find my phone in my checked luggage and ask me to unlock it?
posted by tobascodagama at 8:44 AM on December 4, 2017 [1 favorite]

tobascodagama: The standard procedure (aside from preclearance airports*, which are a little funky) for entering the US is as follows:

1. Deplane, walk to and clear immigration/passport control with your carry-on luggage.
2. Pick up your checked luggage at baggage carousels immediately after immigration.
3. Clear customs with your checked luggage, at which point you're landside, AKA outside security and "in the country."

So the answer is, yes, when you are clearing customs, the last step (#3) in the process, you will have your checked luggage right next to you, which can be searched or X-rayed by CBP agents. When you are in the passport control lines (#1) you don't technically have your checked bags yet, but you haven't really finished entering the US until you have cleared both immigration and customs, and they could stop you at any point.

*These are airports, mostly in Canada and the Caribbean, where you clear US immigration and customs at the departure point and then land in the US as a domestic passenger.
posted by andrewesque at 9:14 AM on December 4, 2017 [3 favorites]

My brother is a white Australian and when he crossed the land border from Vancouver to Seattle in 2016 they asked to look at his phone and went through his text messages and photos at least. He was denied entry after admitting to having used pot, which he did partly because they were already looking at his phone and he was worried he had text messages referring to it that they could see.
posted by the agents of KAOS at 10:02 AM on December 4, 2017 [4 favorites]

I'd say having a completely blank phone with/without smug expression would be inadvisable. Call a few people with it, send a few messages.
posted by Sebmojo at 12:24 PM on December 4, 2017 [2 favorites]

i would *not* advise placing a phone, or any other valuable electronic device, in your checked luggage. said device would have an unpleasantly high likelihood of being stolen. that's one way to avoid having it searched, i suppose... but then you have to buy a new phone.
posted by halation at 12:34 PM on December 4, 2017 [2 favorites]

How likely is it my phone might be inspected on re-entry?

This might vary depending upon your visa type. For some types of visa (for example, an I-485 with advance parole), you go through secondary inspection. (My partner and I did *not* know this was a Thing, and my we actually missed a flight the first time we traveled on the I-485 because the amount of time we'd budgeted for pre-clearance didn't factor in the rather lengthy wait at secondary inspection.) For F1 visas, there's rarely a secondary inspection. We haven't encountered phone inspections with either the F1 or the I-485 thus far, in multiple crossings over the past five years, but every crossing is An Adventure.
posted by halation at 12:40 PM on December 4, 2017 [1 favorite]

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