Security Technology Explained

Can TSA Take Your Phone? Everything You Need to Know

Simon Batt Updated 27-12-2019

Increased security at US airports has people worried about the security of their mobile devices. But can the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) take and search your phone?


Let’s explore if airport security can search your phone, and what to expect if they can.

Don’t Fear the TSA—Fear the CPB

First, let’s talk about who might be looking at your phone. TSA protects transportation systems: they scan your luggage, ensure your ticket is valid, and provide airport security. The only reason they might be interested in your phone is if it looks suspicious.

The US Customs and Border Protection (CBP), on the other hand, is a different story. This organization exists to “safeguard America’s borders, thereby protecting the public from dangerous people and materials while enhancing the Nation’s global economic competitiveness by enabling legitimate trade and travel.”

In short, they want to keep terrorists out, as well as enforce agricultural laws and similar statutes that limit what people can bring into the country. As such, they’re going to be interested in your phone.

CBP Is Interested in Your Intentions

So why is CBP interested in your phone? Deputy Executive Assistant Commissioner, Office of Field Operations, John Wagner, puts it simply: “Electronic device searches are integral in some cases to determining an individual’s intentions upon entering the United States.”

The CBP says searching cell phones going through airport security is crucial in supporting investigations of national security. This includes child pornography, human trafficking, visa fraud, export violations, and intellectual property rights violations.

What sorts of things will the CBP look at if they decide to search your phone? Contacts, messages, social media accounts, photos, and apps are fair game. If a border agent suspects you might be coming into the country with ill intentions, they’re going to use any means they can to determine whether that suspicion is well-founded.

Exactly what contacts, messages, or apps might warrant a further investigation isn’t clear. It’s up to the border agent to decide whether you should be detained or denied entry.

Phone Searches and Seizures Are Rare

cbp device searches
Image Credit: CBP

The most recent statistics on phone seizures come from the CBP website. They reported the searches they performed in 2016 and 2017, which includes 186 million and 189 million arrivals, respectively.

As we can see, the number of searches did almost double in the space of a year. Compared to the total amount of arrivals, however, this is still a minuscule amount of people and shows how rare these searches are.

Of course, there are many stories of people seemingly targeted for their ethnicity or home country for unreasonable searches. While rare, people that fit specific stereotypes can go through searches more often than others.

What CBP Can Do Isn’t Wholly Understood

Exactly what Customs and Border Protection can do with your phone isn’t always clear-cut. They can, for example, search it, and they can also copy the data for later perusal. They can’t keep the data for very long, and they’re required to delete it if it’s not related to a legal investigation.

In some states, agents need to have a reasonable suspicion of criminal wrongdoing to run a full forensic search on your phone, but not to quickly flip through your photos, messages, and so forth.

CBP also reserves the right to detain your phone for up to five days, though they can extend this duration. There are reports of some seizures lasting for weeks or months.

The legal rights of CBP are often contested and sometimes ill-defined. In general, though, they can look through your phone, hold it for closer inspection, and send it off for a full forensic examination. That examination could come up with things you’ve deleted or didn’t know were on your phone.

Unlocking Your Phone Isn’t Required, but Helpful

The extent of your rights when subject to search and seizure sees a lot of debate. There are Constitutional protections in place that prohibit unreasonable searches, but they’re often loosely interpreted at the border.

However, there are a few certain things. First of all, if you’re a U.S. citizen, you can’t be denied entry into the country for refusing to unlock your phone. That doesn’t mean they can’t detain you, though. You might find yourself facing a great deal of inconvenience if you don’t unlock your phone. Whether it’s worth it is up to you.

Non-citizens won’t find the same protection. The CBP can deny you entry if you don’t unlock your phone, and you don’t need to hail from a country considered hostile. A Canadian reporter was denied entry in November 2016 when he refused to unlock his phone to protect confidential sources.

This brings up an interesting point: can you refuse to unlock your device because you have legally privileged and confidential information? Journalists, doctors, and lawyers might consider this question.

Unfortunately, there’s no clear answer. CBP says it will tread carefully in these situations. Other organizations aren’t so happy with its implementation. You can always tell the agent that you have confidential, privileged information. But it might not get you anywhere.

The other legal option you have is to call a lawyer. It’s important to note that, while groups like the ACLU often recommend this, it’s going to make the border agent suspicious immediately.

You’re likely to spend a lot longer at the border, and it’s going to be an unpleasant fight. You also have to pay for that lawyer, as the government isn’t required to provide one like they are in a courtroom situation.

Protecting Yourself Is Good, but May Raise Suspicions

There are ways to defend your privacy at the border 6 Ways to Defend Your Privacy at the Border Is the Trump administration is considering demanding lists of websites, passwords, and social media accounts from people entering the U.S.? And if so, how can you avoid this scrutiny? Read More if you’re nervous about CBP searching your phone. However, these actions might raise the suspicions of border agents.

If you think of it from the CBP’s point of view, being a privacy advocate looks like you have something to hide. The motto “nothing to hide, nothing to fear” plays a role in surveillance, and the CBP may get interested as to why you’re keeping your information secret.

That said, if you want to keep their eyes off of your data, it’s a good idea not to have much data on your phone when you travel. Switching your SIM over to a burner phone is easy, and keeps all of your private information elsewhere.

You can also backup and wipe your phone before you travel. That way, CBP will only see a blank slate and can’t invade your privacy. When you come home, load the backup onto your phone and enjoy it as normal.

Fully encrypting your device will make copies less useful, and keeping sensitive documents and photos in the cloud instead of on your device makes them harder to get to.

Again, remember that these actions might raise the suspicions of border agents. That doesn’t mean it isn’t worth doing—just remember that you’re making a trade-off.

Keeping Yourself Safe From Surveillance

So, can the TSA go through your phone? No, not unless they think it endangers the transportation system.

CBP, on the other hand, is a different story. They have extensive rights that are important for protecting the United States and its citizens. That doesn’t mean they always use them in ethical ways—but it does mean they’re unlikely to lose those rights anytime soon.

So it’s best to prepare yourself. Keep as little data as possible on your phone, encrypt it, and consider traveling with a burner. Expect to raise border agents’ suspicions, but know that they can’t deny you entry if you’re a citizen.

When you’re ready to protect yourself from surveillance fully, be sure to read about how to protect yourself from unethical and illegal spying How to Protect Yourself From Unethical or Illegal Spying Think that someone is spying on you? Here's how to find out if spyware is on your PC or mobile device, and how to remove it. Read More .

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  1. kaiOS
    December 28, 2019 at 7:28 pm

    The whole article is bullshit. Most feature phones nowadays either use stripped-down Android or full feature KaiOS which is one of the most secure OS-s out there.

  2. John Smith
    December 28, 2019 at 9:05 am

    "Don’t Fear the TSA—Fear the CPB"
    There is nothing to fear. If you have not done anything wrong, you have nothing to fear.
    Unless if you listen to AOC propaganda, and really think they are only there to come after you, and have nothing else to do except to go after innocent people.

    • dragonmouth
      December 28, 2019 at 11:46 pm

      "have nothing else to do except to go after innocent people."
      You sound like a CPB agent or publicist.

      In CPB's opinion, there are no innocent people. Only transgressors who have not been discovered and caught.

      Have you ever had any interaction with them? You should observe how they behave at the Buffalo, NY and Niagara Falls, NY border crossings. The East German guards at Berlin checkpoint had nothing on the CPB.

  3. dragonmouth
    December 27, 2019 at 11:55 pm

    "What CBP Can Do Isn’t Wholly Understood"
    What's to understand? CBP agents can do the same as an 800 pound gorilla, which is ANYTHING they want. No matter how egregious or outrageous or unlawful their behavior, they will hide behind the "National Security" excuse. And good luck trying to get redress! You will be put on CBP's s**t list for the rest of your life and your kids' lives.

  4. Nobody Really
    December 27, 2019 at 8:09 pm

    Why exactly would any free and freedom loving person want to enter USA?

  5. Katie
    September 7, 2019 at 12:29 pm

    I recently flew from Ft Myers Fl to Houston. I have TSA preapproval. But TSA took my phone and the agent disappeared with it for a few minutes. When I asked why I was told "new regulations". I complained to Homeland Security. Got not much of an explanation. Have also written to Civil Liberties Union. Had no answer yet. Everyone says TSA doesn't look at your phone but they did. One glance tells it's an Apple not a dangerous phone. Am very upset over this incident.

  6. Chris McCarthy
    April 14, 2019 at 1:08 pm

    My advice to you? If you want to catch your flight comply with the search with a smile on your face and a courteous attitude and don't have child pornography on your computer. The CBP will not reimburse you for missed flights if you are detained because you do not allow access to your electronics. Do not say you want your attorney. Right or wrong your hands are tied. The CBP can look at your computer and they can keep it (though they will pay for mailing your computer or cell phone back to you). Border agents inspected the files of roughly one in 10,000 cellphones and other electronic devices in the past year so your odds are low that it will happen to you.

  7. Wewondered
    March 14, 2019 at 5:21 pm

    I had my phone searched while entering Canada a few months ago. I answered the woman's questions truthfully, then she asked for my phone and password. I immediately began to panic, which she took as reasonable suspicion (although I'm not sure why I threw red flags beforehand). Her and another woman then ordered me around and did a search, one was yelling for several minutes, causing a giant scene. She kept yelling that she knew I had something to hide based on my reaction, and kept accusing me of child pornography and drug trafficking: to EVERYONE. Finally... I confessed to her my crimes (by coming out of the closet)... To EVERYONE. Gruelling half an hour later she returned my devices after search and I entered Canada. It doesn't matter though, I will always hold a special place of anger for this woman.

  8. RagingHeretic
    January 7, 2018 at 1:49 am

    After perusing some Supreme Court rulings on data privacy (out of curiosity), a strong argument can be made that CBP *does not* have any Constitutional right to see anything you have on your phone or confiscate anything without an explicit Court order. Reasonable suspicion is fine, but "reasonable" in legal terms means that pretty much ANYONE would consider the action reasonable. Not what THEY consider reasonable. So ask yourself, would it be REASONABLE for a border agent to just randomly demand people open their personal lives to them (their devices) simply as a condition of passing into the country? The answer is, of course, no. That's totally unreasonable without cause.

    So, here's what I'D recommend you do if confronted with this possible situation at the border (because it is what I have done). Make it clear to them that the device is encrypted and that the key is random. Also make clear to them that the key is not saved anywhere or written down, it's memorized - side note, make sure you create strong keys...that are random...and that you MEMORIZE them. Explain to them firmly, but politely, that you refuse to surrender your key to decrypt and/or unlock the device unless they provide you with written justification about why they need to do so and an order by a Court with jurisdiction. Additionally, if they think this is suspicious, also make it clear to them you don't care what they think about what what they think they have authority to do...or should be allowed to do. Stick to facts. And the FACT is (if you are a citizen), that the Fourth Amendment is absolute. They can get what they want from you *IF* they do so legally and properly. If they choose not to, get ready for a standoff. One way or the other, you will be released and they will be left with a useless brick should they opt to retain your device (assuming it's encrypted and your accounts are locked down).

  9. Troy
    August 6, 2017 at 3:04 am

    Don't be nervous, be HOSTILE! Radiate hostility, but speak politely. Don't respond to questions AT ALL. If pressed, "Why do you NEED to know?"

    They're dicks and they know it.

    • John Smith
      December 28, 2019 at 9:07 am

      This is a terrible advice and will get you in trouble.
      Don't act like an entitled juvenile.
      Comply, be polite. Almost always the requests are reasonable, until you give them reasons not to be reasonable.
      Yes, there are exceptions, not all of them are reasonable. But you make it sound that they have no other thing to do except going after innocent people.
      Time to grow up out of such false narratives and stop such generalizations.

  10. fcd76218
    July 21, 2017 at 9:02 pm

    CBP agents are convinced that they have unlimited power and for all intents and purposes, they do. They have no compunctions about showing off that power. They are the ultimate bullies. No matter how egregious their breaking of the rules is, they justify it by hiding behind "National Security'.

    If your phone is locked, that is suspicious. If your phone is unlocked, they consider that suspicious. If you claim that you have confidential data on your phone, that is very suspicious. If you do not have any data on your phone, that is suspicious. If you do not have a phone, that is very suspicious. The fact that you left the US and now are coming back is very suspicious.

  11. Chuck
    July 21, 2017 at 7:30 pm

    If you are going to take your whole life story with you out of the country and want to come back in...Why would you take it in the first place? Have a travel phone with no life story on it? It takes an article like this to alert people? The people who already own the phone need to find out exactly what happens up return to the United States? It amazes me that people who use cell phones are experts at it, but finding out about procedures on return they know nothing? lol

    Cell phones are hurting society as a whole, recent reports suggest (Google it?). Cell phones were sold as emergency 911 use. They made a big pitch about it. That's gone now. Kids under a Junior in High School should not have access to phones, computers or anything tech related. They need to learn "by hand". Another story (Google it?) talks about the "high" of tech devices which is like alcohol and drugs. I believe it. How many kids worry about whether their post is trending? How many suicides? One is too many.

    You have to take everything into context and right now tech sites only talk about how great technology but they never warn about addiction of those devices, and the results that could happen which are bad. They don't see because they make tons of money on it. lol