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Electronic Device Searches at Airports and Border Crossings

International travelers are facing added scrutiny of late—from executive orders on immigration to enhanced screening procedures for U.S.-bound flights. Countries are more closely monitoring who and what is entering and exiting their borders, and they're imposing stricter limitations accordingly. In June, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced that all travelers flying to the U.S. from foreign airports will have their baggage and electronic devices more rigorously searched.

In line with this trend, Harvard travelers should be aware that government authorities may ask individuals to provide access to electronic devices, social media profiles, e-mail, and similar accounts when entering or exiting a country, including the U.S.

What to Expect When Entering the U.S.

The U.S. government asserts broad authority to search all electronic devices at the border. Although the number of travelers who've had their devices searched by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has risen sharply in recent years, it's important to understand that only a very small percentage (less than 0.01 percent) of the nearly 400 million annual travelers entering the U.S. are asked for access to their devices.

What to Expect When Entering or Exiting Other Countries

Laws vary by country. It's imperative that you research your destination to be aware of the expectations. For example, a Harvard traveler was recently asked for access to his device and social media accounts before departing Israel, while another Harvard affiliate transiting through Amsterdam was asked to verify a trip with photos from a mobile phone before being allowed to return to the U.S.

Understand your destination's rules regarding electronic device inspections, and give yourself enough time to pass through multiple security checkpoints.  Photo by by Andrew Fresh is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Advice for All Locations

  • Follow data security best practices, including minimizing the number of devices and amount of data on your devices to reduce the risk of unwanted exposure.
  • Allow plenty of extra time to pass through customs and multiple enhanced security screenings.
  • Be polite and respectful with any government officials you encounter.
  • Have a valid passport (with at least six month's validity and required number of blank pages), visa document, visa stamp, and other paperwork as applicable (i.e. resume/CV and a letter from Harvard attesting to your status).
  • If you're asked for passwords to search your device or accounts, you should change your passwords as soon as possible afterward and not use them elsewhere. If it's a Harvard-owned device, report the incident to your local IT department.

If You Refuse a Search Request

Consequences of refusal to comply with search requests vary according to the location, the applicable laws and regulations, and the citizenship and immigration or visa status of the traveler, but can include detention, denial of entry, or confiscation of devices.

If your device is taken, make sure you obtain a receipt outlining what was taken and whom to contact in order to retrieve it. If it's a Harvard-owned device, notify your local IT department.

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