Crossing a Border

If you travel abroad for work, you may have some concerns about border crossings, based on recent news coverage. I know I do. I’m not a lawyer, but I’ve been researching quite a bit and asking for opinions and recommendations. Below is a summary of the advice I’ve been given. I’m providing it here in case it might be of use to you.

Full disclosure: I have been held at a border before. I was entering Canada to lead a training for a client and did not have the necessary visa. My passport was taken and I was escorted to a holding area. It was terrifying, but ultimately ended up okay—I paid for the visa and entered Canada without any further incident. I realized, once I had a few minutes to gather myself, that I was moved to the holding area to enable the border officers to expedite processing of the other passengers. It was triage, nothing personal against me. Once I realized that, my nerves calmed down a bit. Still… it’s not something I’d like to repeat. I realize some of you reading this may have had much worse experiences at a border. Being a white male, I know I’m far less likely to be searched, questioned, etc. I’m sharing my story not to diminish any experience you have had, but merely to provide a little background about my experience in relation to this topic.


The information below outlines the rights of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) under federal law. It applies whether you are a U.S. citizen or not. Other countries may vary, but I suspect most exercise similar rights.

  • Officers are permitted to search your belongings, including your electronic devices. They can also ask you to unlock devices without having probable cause. The reasoning, whether you agree with it or not, is that your privacy is less important than protecting the country you are seeking to enter.
  • The Officer has the authority to detain your device. If they do, it’s typically for a few days. They may also gain access without your consent, even if you don’t provide your password. If they detain your device, make sure you politely ask for information about how to get your device returned to you. If it’s a corporate-issued device, be sure to notify your manager and IT organization immediately.
  • You do not have to give your passwords. That said, the entry process may go easier if you do. Remember: Once over the border, you can always change your password. It’s unclear how an Officer may react if you tell them you don’t know the password they want, which you legitimately may not if you use a password manager like 1Password or LastPass. This may be further complicated (and frustrating to the officer) if your device does not have your password manager installed.
  • Keep your eyes on the prize. You booked the trip, paid for the travel, completed the journey, and are almost at your destination. Keep reminding yourself of that. As annoying or unnerving as border crossing may be, in all likelihood, you’re nearly there. It can absolutely be both frightening and frustrating to be held up at a border, even when you’ve got nothing to hide. That can be compounded if the Officer you’re dealing with isn’t the most friendly. But remember that they are paid to be suspicious and skeptical of you. It’s rarely personal. Try not to let aggressive or rude questions rattle you. Take a breath and show them you’re not trying to make their job any harder than it has to be. Remember, they’re human too; they probably don’t relish digging through your personal effects.
  • You can ask questions. If an Officer asks you to do something you are uncomfortable with, you can politely ask them why it’s necessary. You can also ask for further clarification from a supervisor. Similarly, if things aren’t going well with the Officer you’re in front of—perhaps you feel intimidated or can see your personalities clashing to a point that will not work out well for you—you can ask to work with another Officer. You could, for instance, explain that you would feel more comfortable working with an Officer of your gender. Just remember, being polite and professional will go a long way towards easing tensions all around.
  • If you do not comply with an Officer’s legal request, you may be detained for questioning. If you are not a citizen, you may also be denied entry temporarily or banned permanently.
  • Tell the Officer if your device contains sensitive information. If your device contains sensitive or confidential data—for instance, if it belongs to your employer, contains trade secrets or Personally Identifiable Information, or client information shared under NDA—politely inform the Officer and respectfully request that the sensitive information be handled appropriately. If the Officer accesses this information, report the incident to your employer or client as soon as you are able to do so.
  • Travel with as few devices as possible. This is good for a number of reasons—theft being chief among them. You might even consider having a specific phone, laptop, or tablet that you use only for travel and that has the least amount of sensitive data on it. For instance, I have an older iPad mini I travel with for entertainment purposes only. It contains no email, calendars, or contacts and has no social media apps installed. If searched, the most they’d have access to is my Hulu queue and Netflix history.
  • Keep a paper backup of your itinerary and key contacts. It can be tempting to rely on tools like TripIt to manage your travel, but if your device is confiscated and you are detained or are allowed to cross the border, you will need that information. Make sure the key contacts you printed out include your legal representation (or your company’s), should you need it.
  • Carry a small notebook and a crayon in your travel wallet. If you are detained or your possessions are taken, you will often be able to keep your wallet with you.1 Keep a small notebook and a crayon in there. Moleskin and Field Notes offer some pretty solid options when it comes to slim notebooks. And although a crayon is a crude writing implement, it is also unlikely to be considered a weapon, which means you will likely be able to keep it. You should keep your itinerary and contacts backup in this notebook. Use the notebook to record the details of your detention (with names and times if you know them); if anything goes amiss or poorly (or even well!), you will need those names to escalate your experience (or provide positive feedback). The notebook will also be a welcome doodling companion on the off-chance your detained for several hours and are bored out of your mind.

Regardless of your thoughts on how the U.S. or other countries handle things at the border, the law is the law. If you are seeking to cross a border (even your own), you’re subject to that law. I am not saying this because I agree with everything we in the U.S. or other nations do, but I sincerely believe you will do more good advocating for changes to border policy with the politicians who write the laws than with the Officer whose lane you happened to find yourself in.

One additional note: Most border protection agencies do have comment forms you can use to provide feedback about your experience. Regardless of whether you are permitted entry to the country, you should file a report if you feel you have been mistreated by an Officer. Similarly, if you had a particularly helpful and courteous Officer, consider using the same form to praise their behavior or attitude; that’s probably not the kind of feedback they get often and would likely be much appreciated.

Further Reading

Thanks!

Many thanks to Rachel Nabors, who had a terrible experience at the UK border a while back, for providing some excellent feedback on this piece. Her insights were invaluable and her tips regarding the travel wallet and notebook & crayon were fantastic!

  1. Make sure your travel wallet doesn’t have a long strap or, if it does, make sure it’s detachable. Some Officers might view the strap as a potential weapon and use it as an excuse to relieve you of your wallet too. 


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