What are my rights when travelling through an airport?

Security screening has always been part of the air travel experience. Searches and scans of passengers and their luggage are designed to protect against security threats and ensure people don’t carry contraband goods across international borders.

However, in recent months security officials have started to search the contents of electronic devices, including smartphones, laptops and tablets. To access the contents of these devices, officials often need to ask for a password. So what are your technology rights when travelling through the airport?

Searches of electronic devices

Although some rules vary depending on what country you are in, in general security agents are entitled to inspect all items that are travelling through the airport – so this includes all electronic devices.

The issue is complicated by passwords. It’s been reported that increasing numbers of people are being asked to provide their passwords so that officials can unlock devices and check their contents. Due to the confidential nature of the information on many people’s devices (such as confidential client information, personal financial information etc.), some people are reluctant to provide these.

It’s important to note that agents cannot force you to unlock your phone or provide the password. But, it’s also important to consider what the consequences of such a refusal could be. Officials can seize the device in question, and potentially take it away for further inspection that could take several weeks. They could also detain you personally for further questioning, which could take a long time. You must also consider the possibility, when travelling to a country that’s not your own, that refusal to unlock a device or share the password may result in you not being granted access to the country at all.

If in doubt, you should always check before you travel. And if you really don’t want to share passwords or unlock your devices, the simplest thing to do is not carry them with you at all.

Most recent reports of this practice come from the US. If you are travelling there, you can refer to this official guide outlining their policies on the inspection of electronic devices.

Travelling rules and rights are subject to change as new technologies and threats emerge, so always check before you travel. If you have any other questions about technology and air travel, just ask.