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Travel Rights, Regulations and Restrictions

Increased Sceening of Electronic Devices at U.S. Airports

In late July 2017, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) announced that it will begin enhanced screening of electronics that are larger than a smartphone device (e.g. Kindle, iPad, etc.) at nearly 280 U.S. airports. Such electronic equipment will follow the current screening procedures in place for laptops, meaning that devices larger than a mobile phone will need to be placed in a standalone security screening bin with nothing on top or below the device. The new security measures do not apply to individuals who are enrolled in the TSA Pre-Check program.

Northwestern students, staff and faculty are advised to place their mid-size and large electronic devices in an area of their carry-on luggage that allows for easy access. It is also recommended that travelers budget extra time into their itineraries, as occasional delays may occur during the initial rollout of the new security screening measures.   


Return to the U.S. from Travel Abroad: Rights and Regulations

Upon your re-entry to the States, the Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection (CBP) personnel, regardless of your status as an American citizen, a green card holder or a visa holder, can stop you or take you to secondary inspection.

The Fourth Amendment, which protects people from searches and seizures without probable cause of a crime being committed, does not apply at border crossings. CBP does not need “probable cause and reasonable suspicion” to search your luggage or your person.

According to CBP, your electronic devices are also searchable. Sometimes this is triggered because a traveler has incomplete travel documents or because their name matches a person of interest. It also could be a random search.

However, the CBP has limits on the type of information they can obtain through your mobile phone. While CBP officers can search through data stored internally on a cell phone (e.g. text messages), authorities cannot search for items kept on an external server, such as those used by Google or Amazon. 

Although Northwestern travelers can refuse to allow CBP to inspect the information stored physically on the phone, federal authorities have the right to confiscate the device if an individual does not comply with their lawful demands.

For more information, see these articles from The New York Times and The Washington Post.

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