Can TSA search your phone? Know your digital rights at the airport

Ben Osborne 12 Jun 2024

TSA can make you take off your shoes, but can they search your phone? The answer might surprise you.

Everyone knows the drillshoes off, laptops out, and no water bottles past security. But what about your phone? Are TSA agents allowed to dig through it? Well, like a lot of security-related things, the short answer is… it depends.  

 Can TSA search your phone? 

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) primarily focuses on physical threats. Their job is to ensure nothing dangerous gets on a plane, so there should be no need to go through your phone. Even if they did have reason to want to access your device, they’d need a warrant. 

However, if they have reason to suspect that the physical device could be potentially dangerous—like if the internals look suspicious when it goes through the baggage scanner—they’ll usually want to inspect it to ensure that it’s untampered with. In situations like this, it’s within their rights to ask you to power on your device and maybe even open a few apps just to show that it’s fully operational.   

In other words, the TSA might ask you to unlock your phone and show them it works, but they shouldn't be scrolling through your selfies and texts. 

Can Border Control search your phone? 

Here's where things get tricky. If you’re traveling internationally, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has much broader authority. Unlike TSA, CBP can search the contents of your phone without a warrant. This includes texts, photos, browsing history, social media, and even your financial info. 

Luckily, CBP isn’t allowed to deny you entrance into the country for refusing to unlock your phone if you’re a US citizen. However, they can still confiscate your device for as long as they want, download anything they want, and save it to their databases. This practice isn’t limited to airports either, these powers extend to any border crossing too.

Any TSA phone searches happening now? 

Not officially. Back when the TSA overhauled their screening procedures in 2017, a Freedom of Information Act was filed against the Department of Homeland Security aiming to determine whether they’d been searching the data on passenger's’ electronic devices. The reports came back without any real conclusive information ever being released to the public and the suit was eventually dropped the following year after the TSA provided a statement saying that searching electronic devices isn’t part of their procedure, and that personnel are not provided with equipment to help them do so.  

Scattered reports on the internet claim TSA agents have searched devices, but these are mostly anecdotal and unverified. The TSA continues to assert that they stick to physical security. 

What should you do if the TSA tries to search your phone? 

There are a few things you should be certain to do if a TSA agent asks to access the data on your device: 

Ask for clarification 

Politely asking for clarification is an important first step. Before raising any concerns or denying their request, make sure you understand what the agent is asking. Misunderstandings can escalate quickly, and non-cooperation can lead to denial of boarding or even legal trouble.

Report any issues 

If you believe your rights have been violated during the screening process, you can file a complaint with the TSA. You can ask to speak to a supervisor while at the airport or go to the TSA website to report any concerns or issues.

Know your rights as a traveler  

Legal requirements and regulations can change, so it’s crucial to stay updated on your rights regarding electronic device searches. Follow reputable sources for any new developments in TSA and CBP policies.  

Safe and happy travels! 

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