Here’s How U.S. Border Guards Can Search Your Cellphones

According to a CBC News report, U.S. Customs and Border Protection has issued a new directive that allows border agents to demand a password to open your cellphone, even without probable cause. The U.S. secretary of homeland security Kirstjen Nielsen detailed the new policy during a U.S. Senate hearing this week, explaining how customs agents will examine the phones of travellers at the border.


Below are some key details of what the new policy does and doesn’t do:


The Department of Homeland Security says it’s necessary to combat crimes like terrorism and child pornography. Last year, border agents inspected 30,200 phones and other devices, which marks an increase of nearly 60% from 2016.

The new directive:

On Jan. 4, U.S. Customs and Border Protection issued a new directive titled, “Border Search of Electronic Devices”, which establishes criteria for when agents can conduct extensive searches, such as downloading documents stored in the cloud, or uploading files into a storage drive for analysis.

Your password:

Agents can demand a password to open your phone, without probable cause, Nielsen confirmed during the hearing. 

The cloud:

Here, there are new limits. Agents can’t just start downloading old files from the cloud: “They can search the data that is apparent on the phone,” Nielsen said. “They can’t use the phone to access anything that might be stored remotely.”

Airplane mode:

Officers are supposed to ask travellers to shut off their signal. That’s to ensure remote files don’t get downloaded accidentally. The agents can themselves perform the task of shutting off connectivity.

Advanced search:

An officer may judge it necessary for national security purposes, such as cases where the traveller is on a watch list, to connect a phone to a hard drive, then copy its contents for analysis.


If they can’t access a device, officers can detain it for a multi-day period. Detentions beyond five days must be approved by management. To detain a device, officers must fill out a form.

If a foreign visitor doesn’t comply, agents may deny them entry into the U.S.