Practically every person who takes a flight will bring their phone with them that will inevitably hold some private and confidential information.

Understandably, no one wants anyone else to see this information, even if it is completely innocent, as it would be an invasion of privacy.

So you might be wondering if the TSA will ask to search your phone and what your rights are.

The TSA Can’t Legally Search Your Phone

Legally, the TSA is not able to search your phone, with a TSA spokesperson stating that “we do not search the contents of electronic devices”, which includes phones, laptops, tablets, and other devices.

So, if a TSA agent asks you to unlock your phone, so they can search the contents, you can be confident in the knowledge that they are overstepping their authority, and you can therefore refuse and will not face any consequences.

Why the TSA Might Check and Swab Your Phone

Even though a TSA agent is not legally allowed to search the contents of your phone, they may still ask to simply see your phone.

This is because they might swab your phone to see if they discover any traces of explosives, which is a completely legal thing for a TSA agent to do.

Your Phone Might Even Be Checked at the Gate

The TSA may perform random checks after you have passed airport security and are waiting to board your flight, but again are not legally allowed to check the contents of your phone.

The TSA Can’t Force You to Unlock Your Phone

A TSA agent may ask you to turn on your phone, but that is the extent of what they can see on your phone, as it is not legal for an agent to ask you to unlock your phone.

You may be asked to turn on your phone, so the TSA can check your phone is actually legitimately a phone, but the TSA’s security screening procedures stop there.

You Have to Allow the CBP to Search Your Phone

While the TSA is unable to legally search your phone, different rules apply to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP).

If a Customs Border Agent asks to see your phone, you are legally required to hand over your phone and allow them to search its contents, even if you are a U.S. citizen.

The CBP do not even necessarily need to have a valid reason to search your phone, with the US Supreme Court previously ruling that routine searches do not require probable cause, reasonable suspicion, or even warrants.

The CBP claim that searching passengers’ electronic devices has resulted in “evidence helpful in combating terrorist activity, child pornography, drug smuggling, human smuggling, bulk cash smuggling, human trafficking, export control violations, intellectual property rights violations and visa fraud.”

How Often the CBP Searches Phones

If you’re worried about your privacy being invaded by having CBP search the contents of your phone, you’ll be pleased to know that it is very, very unlikely to happen.

If we take the year 2019, which the CBP has provided official data for, we can see that just 40,913 international travelers had their phones searched, which was less than 0.01% of all passengers that year.

You Can Refuse to Have Your Phone Searched

You can refuse both the TSA and CBP from searching your phone.

As the TSA is not legally allowed to search your phone, you will face no consequences for refusing, though you can be denied entry into the U.S. if you refuse a customs officer to search your phone.

Ella Dunham, a Freelance Travel Journalist and Marketing Manager, boasts an impressive career spanning eight years in the travel and tourism sectors.

Honored as one of "30 Under 30" by TTG Media (the world’s very first weekly travel trade newspaper), a "Tour Operator Travel Guru" and "Legend Award" winner, Ella is also a Fellow of the Institute of Travel, a Member of the Association of Women Travel Executives, has completed over 250 travel modules, and hosts travel-focused segments on national radio shows where she provides insights on travel regulations and destinations.

Ella has visited over 40 countries (with 10 more planned this year).