Why Am I Forbidden From Using My iPhone In US Immigration Areas?

No Phones Allowed HereI’m in the Little Rock airport on my way home. After having an abysmal travel day yesterday that started off at 5:30am with me being detained By U.S. Customs and Border Protection in the Toronto airport, I finally got to Little Rock around 4pm, made it to the Startup Arkansas event around 5:30pm, and did two hours of open office hours, a Startup Communities talk, and general Q&A. When I got back to my hotel room around 10:30pm  and crawled into bed after hanging around with the entrepreneurs at a great after party, the crappy US CBP experience had been washed off of me. I had a great evening, and, like entrepreneurs everywhere, the people I got to hang out with in Arkansas are optimistic, fun, excited about what they are doing, and building the future. And they like beer, which I needed after a very long day.

I had two separate bad dreams last night about being detained. The first was a strange, complex one that is now fuzzy in my head, but happened in a futuristic, very dark setting. The second is still fresh – I was with Dick Costolo (Twitter CEO) somewhere in San Francisco and we were detained by military people who put us in a room, took away our iPhones because they were afraid Dick would start a revolution since he controlled Twitter, and made us sit silently back to back. I woke up before that dream resolved.

When I woke up from my second dream, I realized I was wondering why you are forbidden from using your iPhone in US Immigration areas. I notice this all the time when I enter the US – you go through a door into where the giant immigration room is and you are bombarded with the universal “no phone” sign. Then, when you break this rule and tweet a photo of the “no phone” sign, one of the CBP people inevitably comes over to you and tells you that you can’t use your phone there.

Yesterday, after I ended up in what I have been told is called the “secondary” room, I quickly sent Amy and Kelly an email telling them where I was. I then tweeted that I had been detained by CBP. This took about 30 seconds, at which point one of the CBP agents very aggressively told me that I couldn’t use my phone in this room.

I didn’t have the presence of mind to ask why, nor do I think it would have been particularly helpful. I’m sure the formal reason is something like “you are on government property and we get to set the rules on what you do” and then there is – if pushed – some separate justification about security. But I’ve used my iPhone when I was in the White House, I’ve taken a photos of Obama with it, I check in on FourSquare at various government buildings, and I have spent many mindless minutes waiting on a line for some government service somewhere using my iPhone. And some very creative people have videoed their own experience with CPB and DHS agents doing ridiculous things, making absurd statements, and demonstrating what happens when they don’t understand civil liberties and our constitution as well as the people they are trying to question.

Why am I forbidden from using it in an Immigration facility? Are they afraid of people videoing what they are doing? Are they worried that I’ll rally a twitter mob to break me out of the secondary detention area. Or are they just enjoying exercising their ability to eliminate my ability to communicate with the outside world?

I’m clearly still riled up about yesterday, although I’m mostly just sad about it. It’s horrifying to me how, as a government, we treat non-US citizens who are legally in this country. It’s also disgusting to me how difficult we make it for people to come into this country and startup businesses, which ironically is the foundation on which much of this country has been built. And now that I had a very direct and minor taste of it, I’m sad that we’ve let things get to this point.

  • turfgrrl

    It’s not just the immigration area. It’s also the baggage claim area before you make your cursory check through customs. Meanwhile all people want to do is confirm rides and transport since the correlating policy is not allow cars to wait outside for longer than a minute.

    • Yup. That’s the area that I think is most bizarre since you are no longer doing anything other than waiting for your crap.

    • takingpitches

      Get that a lot at JFK, and particularly jarring, because the people who remind you of the policy are about as rude and sadist as it is possible for a human to be.

  • Wow. An Orwelliam video.

    • Yeah – well worth watching from beginning to end. “Am I being detained?”

  • CliffElam

    That’s been the policy for at least 10 years. It also was the policy in the UK and in Costa Rica (last I was there). It is *not* the policy in India, but maybe it was and they just gave up. 🙂


    • And the magic question is “why”?

      • CliffElam

        You can’t use your phone in line at the USPS either.

        And they aren’t even the gov’t.

        My goal is to avoid places like that as much as possible – I hate questions with no answers.

        But I will tell you that a ICE agent told me that they started enforcing the policy because people were talking on their phones and holding up the lines. Then when camera phones got common they started really enforcing it – they have a policy against having their pictures taken.

        I think the USPS is just trying to win an award for worst customer service 100 years running.


      • For the same reason you were hassled for your passport during the Detroit marathon crossing back into the US. “It’s for your safety.” Repeat that until you no longer ask why. After watching the above video, I think your asking “why” constitutes probable cause. A body cavity search awaits us at the airport, but I know it is for my safety so I am good with it.

  • I get where you’re coming from with this. When the US began fingerprinting every traveller coming over, my fingerprints got mixed up with my wife’s. That means I get the honor of visiting “Secondary Passport Inspection” every single time I visit the States. Fortunately most of the officials dealing with my case have been very pleasant and understanding when I explain that I already know why I’m there: “In 2005 I was travelling with a hot blonde”.

    • These things seem like they should be so easy to fix, especially given all the Dell computers DHS and CBP has.

      • I once asked what it would take to fix it. They told me that they had never seen a case where this had been fixed and suggested that perhaps getting a new passport would help.

        • Sounds about right. Probably easier to get new fingerprints than get anything in “Government records” changed…..

  • This happened to us a few years ago when crossing the border with Italian friends. We were not detained but it took the border agents over two hours to process our Italian friends passports. In the meantime, we were in a room full of old people and kids. It was a completeness with people sleeping on the floor and names being shouted by the border agents who were doing a a terrible job pronouncing most of the names. It felt like being in movie where westerners were stuck in a third world border cross points but this was Buffalo in the US!

  • Much of bureaucracy’s purpose has [de]volved to simply ensure the survival + growth of itself. There are simply too many Orwellian ‘rules’ like this for any other plausible explanation.

    In Customs, waiting for bags upon our return from one of our many trips to MEX, I asked abt the ‘no cell phone’ rule, which is in place there too. The response was ‘this is a secure area’. Which is a non-response, obviously.

  • Chris

    Immigration and other facilities that ban them do not want you photographing or recording anything because due to all the documents that are around somebody could pick up the image and use it on a forged document. In addition they ask a variety of questions for people entering and don’t want them recorded.

    I travel back and forth to Canada a fair amount, Canadian immigration is much worse than here if you don’t have your work permit in order.

  • DaveJ

    Won’t be long before the cameras are implanted and we can’t turn them off. “Sorry officer, I can’t turn it off.”

  • Carl Brackpool

    Brad: They don’t want you documenting the processes, people, placements or coordinating someone on the other side of the opaque glass doors from triggering a diversion or breaching the “other side” security so you can slip into the country. I’ve asked a couple times in various countries when detained (no I’m not “on a list” sigh). Ben Gurion they were talky and wanted me to CLEARLY understand why it’s verbotten to use your phone on the detained or customs baggage side,
    Over beer/coffee I’ll tell you my fun story with Canadian customs when they found a topsheet/cover letter from our Visa coordination firm (we fired over phone in front of Immigration) that said Canadian Customs is rudest of all on the planet. Yes, they put it in print…yes some of our team were dumb enough to leave it attached to the pre-completed extended work permit forms.

  • @FakeBradFeld

    boo-hoo, boo-hoo. Because you are a citizen we should just let you in the country without screening? Next time be polite, answer their questions and understand that they do not have a “fun” job.

    • As an American citizen I should never be questioned or “screened”, as you put it, to enter my own country. That’s simply absurd! Holding a U.S. passport == allowed to enter U.S.

      • fwmiller

        U.S. citizens do all sorts of bad things coming through customs. Brad wasn’t disallowed from entering, he was detained for further scrutiny.

        • @FakeBradFeld

          Exactly! Not sure why the bad-mouthing of people who are actually doing their job.

      • @FakeBradFeld

        US Citizens do bad things, so I do not believe that entry should be automatic and without scrutiny, especially when being a smartass to the officer.

    • This commenter sounds like a perfect hire for the TSA. That edge of “what we do is beyond normal citizen comprehension” + the “just stfu and fall in line” attitude – this person is really an airport security dream hire!

  • You’ve got some great answers here. It is interesting to me that we want to jump to a sinister conclusion. (And when I say “we” I am talking collectively not you or me or anyone in particular.) Ten to one, there probably was a good reason for doing it when it was first implemented. Maybe know one remembers why, maybe it is policy that has far outlived its usefulness, but all the same. It probably wasn’t diabolical.

  • takingpitches

    At the very least if CBP was serious about being a better agency they would instruct their employees to deliver a cogent prepared explanation in a civil way even if there is legitimate reason for the policy

  • What you have encountered here is what more people need to experience, Brad. I had my experiences when getting thrown down some stairs and then into jail by an over zealous “off duty” cop while in college and then again when trying to get my wife (a russian citizen) into the country when we moved back from London.

    Without these experiences, people are all too ready to allow more power be given to public agencies. The problem that public agencies inherently have, is that without market pressures to keep them in line, or at least subject to customer rejection, they naturally fall into bad practices, inefficient use of funds, and over-reach of their power.

    When we then look to government funding (been watching too much 24 hour news channels yesterday), it is not that some people want their friend that works for the army corp of engineers (or fill in name of a public agency your neighbor or yourself works for), to lose her job due to lack of funding, it’s that I don’t feel safe ceding more power or a larger part of our GDP to public agencies, since they aren’t subject to these protective market forces.

    We rail against corruption in “less developed” countries, however, we have a major lack of accountability problem in our public sector in this country, which is equally as dangerous to the stability/health of our entire system.

    I am confident that technology can play a positive role in improving this situation in the near future.

  • My fiance was graced with the secondary room at Pearson last year, and I tagged along to try and understand why there was a problem. Apparently people who travel overseas with any regular or irregular pattern are flagged as visa ‘frauders’, even if they are engaged to US Citizens… We need to get back to the immigration friendly state we were in our industrial boom years. There’s no need to send highly educated and foreign born back home after they complete their educations in the USA.

    But Brad, you are lucky you didn’t ask to pet the cute drug-sniffing dogs. The agents in charge don’t appreciate it much.

  • michael

    They use the BS excuse of “security” because they want no transparency as to what goes on there, particularly their rude, arrogant behavior. Put them on youtube and see how they act! Many govt agencies put no value on “customer service” or “end user experience”. They forget who is paying their salaries and expenses. We are, that’s who. This type of treatment and take or leave it attitude sucks. Look what happened to the USPS after years of poor service. Screw them, now we have FedX very profitable and USPS is going broke. Not sorry to see happen USPS did it to themselves. No vision, no innovation, no customer care. People will pay more for better products and service. In business world we can stop spending/supporting those companies who do not perform at high standard. I am not for the privatization of all government services but they need to learn and improve. FYI have found the immigration, customs, and TSA services to be far superior (expedient and helpful) in many European airports, especially FRA.

  • Randy Thompson

    of course you realize this is what happens to everybody who flies through Toronto, right?

  • I am not a legal expert, but I believe that a country’s laws do not apply to you until you are formally granted entrance into that country (even for citizens of said country). Based on that (perhaps incorrect) understanding of the law, a country can do almost anything to you in an ‘immigration area’ (i.e. prevent you from using a mobile phone, search your bags without permission, etc.). I realize that this doesn’t answer your ‘why cant I use my phone’ question (nor do I agree with this rule), but I believe they are well within the boundaries of the law preventing you from using your phone.

  • Kim Pallister

    Note that it’s not only entry-points, but anything to do with the process. E.g. I went recently for my fingerprinting/biometrics for my greencard renewal – at an office building in Portland, OR, and the ‘no camera’ signs were up within there. I didn’t even notice until someone rushed over as I was reading an ebook to kill time.

    My hypothesis is that they don’t want people documenting the various parts of the process in order to plan out ways to game it (e.g. sneak stuff into the country, get greencard illegally, etc, etc). I think this is futile, but is their right to do so. I also agree that providing some transparency as to WHY they are doing this would go a long way to getting the general public to accept it.

  • Folks, every reply to FakeBradFeld just encourages his trolling. Please ignore, for all of our sakes.

  • Arturo

    I think it is important to state that in Mexico according to the constitution, every person, not just every citizen, has the right to transit freely through the republic, provided they are not illegally inside the country or detained.

  • When Homeland Security came into being after 9/11, I was complaining to an in-law about how it had ruined air travel. She said, “But, don’t you feel safer?”

    It seemed like a reasonable question. After all, if I don’t have anything to hide, why should I mind? But I don’t think we are necessarily safer as a result. We’ve definitely sacrificed a significant slice of our liberty, though.

  • another reason to have your own plane and pilot

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  • I will not name her here, but the non-American TechStars Boston mentor that got detained for several days on her way to Cambridge to meet with founders STILL gets me boiling mad. Her treatment was downright awful. I’m assuming you know this story.

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  • Will we be required to take off our Google Glasses as well in the future? How about when those devices are unrecognizable and Google Glasses look like…..well, regular glasses? Yeah, sure, I’ll power down my phone. The supercomputer on my nose is more than capable of protecting my civil liberty’s.

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  • JFK

    Hi guys. I have a very important question to ask and it’s rather urgent so I will appreciate if you could reply ASAP.

    My hubby flew out of London Heathrow airport to the Mexico City airport on the 27th of this month and landed at 19.30 local time. Now can you imagine that he has been there with the Immigration department up till now? Like is it a normal practise at the Mexico City Airport? Plus, these ‘respected gangsters’ either took my hubby’s phone and luggage away or haven’t allowed him to use it. So basically all I am trying to understand is this, is it legal for them to keep someone’s mobile phone in their custody even though they haven’t raised a single objection on him? All they objected on was that why he made a tentative hotel booking and didnt pay in full?! To which my hubby replied by saying that the hotel he was interested in didnt accept credit cards and only accepted cash that too in the local currency and it’s mentioned on their website and on http://www.booking.com, he even took printouts with him!

    So even to this time, I haven’t been able to contact my hubby. The last time I spoke with him was 17 hours ago! And even then he had to request them like hell to let him make a call to let the family know after they had already held him for about 11 hours!

  • JFK

    A simple question, is this all normal?! Also, when I call the airport switchboard they tell me that they can only give me contact number of the immigration department and that only they can deal with this matter but when I call on those numbers NO ONE PICKS UP THE PHONE! Would things speed up given that it’s Monday today? Has anyone of you heard of anyone being stuck with the immigration for such a long time? I am now told by a few acquaintances that the Mexican immigration often asks for bribes and all? Obviously I am not sitting idle. I have contacted the relevant embassies and other individuals to take some action but this waiting time is killing me, my family and my two lovely toddlers! Any help would be much appreciated!