US Immigration Searching Cell Phones: A Reader’s Shocking Story

I get a lot of reader emails, most of which ask pretty straightforward questions. Then I get some emails that turn into something much bigger than I was expecting, and this is one of them. You’ll want to read this.

Let me note that this is very political, but also 100% travel related, so hopefully we can turn off our pro and anti Trump rhetoric for the comments section of this post, even though it’s included in the post itself (since I want to share the reader’s full account of what supposedly happened).

The only way to do justice to this story is to just share my full correspondence with this reader (which he has given me permission to do). He has asked me to leave out certain details, which I’ll of course honor.

The main reason I’m sharing this is because I think there’s a moral to the story, that sometimes it probably makes sense to just follow your gut if you’re uncomfortable about a situation.

Anyway, here’s the original email I received from a reader about five weeks ago:

I have a question about your travel? I used to travel a lot but after trump got elected I stop traveling because of us customs searching phone and laptops and harassment by agents/thugs. So my question is given how much you travel and the nations you visit does your phone and laptop get searched at the boarder even with global entry (I have global entry) and what to do you do if it happens (I have confidential documents on my laptop and they can not be searched ever). And can you prevent this from happening I also have bad anxiety and really do not want this to happen.

Here is a link to the Washington post story that scares me.

I responded to his email at the time as follows:

Can’t say this is anything I’ve ever seen or thought about, and even looking at the article, only 0.007% of people are being searched. I think we all have some stuff on our computers or phones that’s “confidential,” though unless it poses a national security risk, I can’t imagine they’d care, in the unlikely event they do search your stuff.

So I can’t say I’ve worried about this at all, and given how few people this impacts, I wouldn’t be too worried.

Yesterday I received another email from this reader, related to our new OMAAT commenting guidelines:

I have been a long time reader since 2008 when your blog was founded and I am writing this email about your ridicules new comment policy I understand you not wanting to be insulted and agree with that but when you have political post about the f****** president/dictator you should allow uncensored comments on those posts. Trump is a horrible person who has ruined travel for me and just to give you an example since this would not be allowed on you blog sadly anymore because of your new rules. I used to travel a lot and your blog gave me good ideas and I got hundreds of thousands of dollars of value based on redeeming points for hotels on flights based on your blog however after the dictator/trump came in I only traveled once and I was arrested coming back into the country because i REFUSED to have my phone and computer searched by customs for no reason and I spent over 500k and lawyer fees fighting my case so I would not go to jail and to keep my work files private and what makes me angry is that a fews weeks ago I wrote you about this policy and YOU said that I would not get searched but instead I got arrested and because of that I will NEVER read your blog again and tell my friends not to do also and because of your f****** up comment policy by saying i have to support a dictator and if i say anything nasty about him (he deserves it) I will get banned from you site. I understand banning debit and others but by censoring important political comments and supporting a dictator and getting a longtime reader arrested based on your advice is just pure wrong. I am sad to say that a good blog is lost today and hope you apologize and change the policy so a good blog can be saved.

UM, WOW. Forget him no longer reading the blog due to our commenting policy, there’s a much bigger story here.

Suffice to say that I was shocked to have received the above email, so I asked for more details on the situation, and he shared the following:

Me and a friend were coming back from a weekend in a eu nation and Flying biz class on a eu airline and both of us are born us citizens with global entry but he has an American last name and I don’t so when we got off the plane everything was normal (I also never have problems the tsa) and we went to the global entry kiosks and we both were cleared just fine and we walked to customs exit control and a immigration cop ask for are names before we got in line and once I told him my name he told me I could not get in line and would have to go to secondary and once he said that I panicked and told him that I would have to call someone I was meeting after landing we stepped out of line and I gave my computer bag to my friend with the American name who went through fine and after I saw him go through I went into line the cop hauled me to an interrogation room off to the side and yelled and at me get unlock my f****** phone in violation of the 4th amendment and I entered a panic code that would wipe my phone forever but my data would be safe in the cloud after I did this he got mad and cuffed me to the table and got some other cops who screamed at me for 10 minutes since my friend saw that I was going to have problems he called my super lawyer to come anyway 30 minutes later after the f****** thugs/cops had tried to convince me to like trump my lawyer said that he could get me released but they are going to send me letter charging me with obstructing justice after I left the airport jail cell I went home and my friend gave me my computer back and I was able to fix my phones by uploading data from the cloud so at the end of the day customs never saw any of my data and will NEVER see it but I ended up with a nasty letter from the federal prosecutors office charging me with obstructing justice my lawyer did ended up making it go away( I am not a lawyer and don’t know how he got it dismissed but he told me that it violated the 4th amendment) but it cost me a fortune and I know if I ever travel again I will get harassed and because of this I now am seeing psychiatrist and taking prozac and probably will never travel internationally again and will have to let my points expire.

I’m going to ask that everyone be civil in the comments section both towards this reader and the political situation at hand, though I have reasons I’m sharing this story.

First and foremost, I’m not a lawyer, and when I share my perspective on things, that doesn’t constitute legal advice. There’s a disclaimer about that on the blog, but I think it’s always worth reiterating. People often accuse me of using the term “in my opinion” too much, but I guess I can’t say it often enough.

More importantly, though, I think this story is a good reminder of knowing your own limits. I’m going to assume this story is true (even if the timeline and the $500K in legal fees leaves me scratching my head), and if that’s the case, everyone has to know their own limits.

For example, if you go into a trip absolutely terrified about having your phone searched, immigration may very well sense your nervous energy. So while only 0.007% of people might have their phones searched, you’re much more likely to have that happen to you if you’re going into the situation scared.

If you’re someone who deals with anxiety related to travel, getting medication before you travel might be a good idea, rather than going through a situation like this. Just make sure your medication is legal in the country you’re traveling to.

What a story/situation…

I’m curious, has anyone else had their phone searched when passing through US immigration?