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International Travel and Electronic Device Searches

A crowd of people wait in line at a railroad station lobby to have their bags checked

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International travelers are facing added scrutiny as countries are more closely monitoring who and what is entering and exiting their borders.

Electronic Device Searches at Airports and Border Crossings

International travelers are facing added scrutiny—from immigration restrictions to enhanced screening procedures for US-bound flights. Countries are more closely monitoring who and what is entering and exiting their borders, and they're imposing stricter limitations accordingly. In 2017, the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) announced that all travelers flying to the US from foreign airports will have their baggage and electronic devices more rigorously searched; and in 2018, CBP issued updated guidelines for conducting border searches of electronic devices.

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

What to Expect When Entering the U.S.

The US government asserts broad authority to search all electronic devices at the border. Although the number of travelers who've had their devices searched by CBP has risen sharply in recent years (19,051 in fiscal year 2016 versus 40,913 in fiscal year 2019), it's important to understand that only a very small percentage (less than 0.01 percent) of the ~400 million annual travelers entering the US 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, in recent years, a Harvard traveler was 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 US.

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 months 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 HUIT.

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, report the incident to HUIT.