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What to Do if You Get Detained at the Airport

Getting detained is something that can happen to any traveler anywhere and at any point in their travels. Whether you’re going through security on your way to catch a flight or re-entering your own country through immigration, you might get detained for one reason or another.

Getting Detained

Between the anxiety of not knowing what’s going on and the pressure to make it to your flight on time, it’s natural to feel nervous even when you have nothing to hide. However, there are few things that can help prepare you beforehand should you get the dreaded “SSSS” on your boarding ticket, a sign that you might be about to undergo extra surveillance in the security line. Here’s what to know and what to do if you ever get detained.

You Shouldn’t Joke Around

If you’re the kind of person who handles stress with sarcasm and awkward jokes, this section is for you. Obviously you should never make any jokes alluding to the idea that you might be a threat, but you’re also better off not making any jokes at all. Even if the Customs and Border Protection officer is friendly, remember they are not your friend. They’re there to do their job. You can never really know who you’re dealing with, what kind of day they’re having, or what their prejudices might be. The best thing you can do is stay calm, comply, and answer all their questions seriously.

It Might Take a While

According to different travelers’ accounts, you could be detained at the airport anywhere from half an hour to a couple of hours. If you’re detained because of a visa issue, you might even have to extend your trip in order to give yourself enough time to acquire the right papers and permissions. This really depends on the country you are visiting, so if getting detained is a big concern, do some independent research on your destination’s customs processes.

You Might Even Miss Your Flight

Remember, the security officers are not associated with the airline you’re booked on and they might not care that you’re about to miss your flight. If the plane leaves without you, you will have to work it out with an airline agent who can evaluate your situation and help you get where you need to go.

Your Citizenship Status Is a Factor

If you are detained while entering or exiting the United States, your rights depend on your citizenship status. While it is illegal for a law enforcement officer to detain you or search your belongings based on your race, national origin, religion, sex, or ethnicity, Customs and Border Protection agents are allowed to do so based on your citizenship or travel plans. For non-citizens, this applies even when your papers are valid.

While U.S. citizens have the right to an attorney, non-citizens do not. If you are not a U.S. citizen and are denied entry into the country, but fear that you will be persecuted or tortured if sent back to the country you came from, you can explain this to the officer and request asylum.

They Are Allowed to Look Through Your Files

With cybersecurity and privacy still a hotly contested subject in public discourse, there can be a lot of confusion when it comes to protecting your digital privacy. While it’s not very common, Customs and Border Protection officers do have the authority to search “computers, disks, drives, tapes, mobile phones and other communication devices, cameras, music and other media players, and any other electronic or digital devices.”  However, these searches must be performed with a supervisor in the room when feasible and also in the presence of the person being searched, unless it compromises  “national security, law enforcement, or other operational considerations.”

While this open-ended language leaves a lot of ambiguity, know that these searches are considered “shallow examinations,” which means the officer is only manually looking through the files that are currently on your device. However, in order to perform a forensic examination, like using a computer software to analyze a hard drive, the Ninth Circuit Court has ruled that border officials must have “reasonable suspicion.”

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You Don’t Have to Share Your Password

According to the co-director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice in an interview with ProPublica, this question has not been officially ruled on. She says, “Until it becomes clear that it’s illegal to do that, they’re going to continue to ask.”

The officers are allowed to demand that you help them access your phone, but you are allowed to refuse. However, this is unlikely to help you move along your detainment. Officers can easily leverage your limited time or be more intrusive while searching through your bags. Green Card holders could have their legal status questioned, and foreign visitors could be turned away entirely. While there is no clear-cut answer on the rights to withhold a password, the best thing is to consider the risk of refusal and comply if you can.

They Can Take Your Phone

With the permission of a supervisor, border officials can seize your electronic device or make a copy of its contents “for a brief, reasonable period of time.” According to CBP policy, these seizures shouldn’t last more than five days, but officers can apply for extensions in increments of up to one week. And if you’re worried about the government having a copy of your information, the CBP says that it destroys copied information that does not turn up probable cause for seizing it.

Readers, have you ever been detained at the airport? What was your experience like?

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Jamie Ditaranto is a writer and photographer who is always looking for her next adventure. Follow her on Twitter @jamieditaranto.

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