Laptop prep for international travel

Planning an international trip in about 5 months, and wanted to do the legwork on cleanup prior to customs.

The legal environment is basically, “they can take your laptop, force you to unlock it, and copy the entire contents” (Alasaad v. Mayorkas - Harvard Law Review).

So…in that environment, it’s obviously ideal to not have anything on the laptop that’s even remotely worth anything. Of course I’m a server admin, so being able to access my servers in case they have problems is a potential issue there.

The ideal scenario here would be to have a largely-empty device with a VPN client to an actual device somewhere else that had everything on it, but I don’t have that sort of setup at this point.

Any thoughts/ideas for security purposes?

Empty the laptop but bring everything on a hidden restorable thumb drive.


I would think that theoretically thumb drives would be hard to hide from a scanner - and the search/copy stuff applies to them as well.

Go down to the Armory and ask to speak to “Q.”


If you don’t need any native apps why not use a Chromebook? Set up one Google account with everything you need and another to log in for security.

I never travel with a laptop, only my phone or iPad. If you don’t wipe a laptop and do a clean install with just those apps, etc. that you need you cannot be certain what is left in the cruft.

With iOS it’s easy to delete any sensitive apps (banking, etc) and download them later if needed. If you are a 1Password user you can use Travel Mode and carry only those passwords you need for your trip. Everything else is removed from your devices.

FYI, the U.S. federal government claims the power to conduct certain kinds of warrantless stops within 100 miles of the country’s “external boundaries” which include international land borders and the entire U.S. coastline.

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Hmm, that’s probably not super easy. When I last had to do something similar I basically only took a burner phone (completely different phone/service) that wasn’t signed into any of my things. So I totally get wanting to ensure you can have a burner device basically.

Depending on how much work you need to do, could you get away with remoting into a Windows PC? The reason I ask is Shadow PC might be an option? It doesn’t require you to buy a device to leave at home, and you can cancel the service when you are done.

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It would absolutely suck to not have any of my native apps, and not have access to any of my data.

That’s theoretically possible, but every piece of software I use to be efficient is Mac-based. I guess it becomes a matter of what tasks I NEED to be able to do, vs. what tasks would be NICE if I could do.

Yes, I don’t doubt that. But you asked for “. . . thoughts/ideas for security purposes.”. I was just offering some suggestions. IMO, the only way to keep something secure while traveling is to leave it at home.

But if I were taking my laptop I would make sure it was fully backed up since everything I take with me might be stolen or confiscated. And I would check all my files/photos/email, etc. for anything that might be offensive, etc. to the people or government in the destination country.

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Yah it sounds like you need to be prepared for a compromise one way or another.

What about a used/refurb headless Mac Mini at home?

I have the headless Mini already. I’d just have to figure out how to poke a hole in my router, or use some third-party login service.

I like Screens. Works well, easy to use and reliable. I’ve been using it for years with no issues.

if you encrypt that with Veracrypt , you can have a hidden partition within a secured partition

Also 1password have a travel model if you want to enable that

No advice but what an environment of paranoia to live in!

I travel between UK and Cyprus on occasions carrying laptop iPad phone plus when we moved a MacMini and keyboard all in hand luggage my partner also travels with iPad and phone never had any issues at all, neither would I expect any!

What is the world or specifically the US coming to I despair


It’s unpleasant, alright, but it’s the reality customs practices and client/employer security expectations have placed us in, not something we are doing to ourselves. UK customs does occasionally clone or inspect laptop contents, by the way.

My vote is to zip config files/directories/ssh dirs for your connections, save them in your password manager, put your password manager in travel mode and then delete those directories and files for the border crossing. Other than that, delete anything outright sensitive or covered by an agreement to protect the data, but otherwise, try to have the laptop look lived in. It shouldn’t take long to do this.

Whatever you do, I suggest you wear a fake moustache and sunglasses when you pass through the airport. Don’t want to draw attention to yourself.


Set up a Windows Cloud PC ($31/month), set up everything there, and remote into it from your Mac?

just a thought would an encrypted DevonThink database synced to a cloud service then deleted/restored locally as needed work?

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I think this is a mischaracterization. I read the Harvard Law Review article that you referenced. Nobody forced anyone to unlock anything. The border people apparently told Alasaad that if she did not unlock her phone, they would take it. It was probably an empty threat in that if she did not unlock it, they would not have much use for it. To actually “force” her to unlock it (say grab her finger and, against her will, forcibly put it on the fingerprint reader) would be a far different situation and there is no reason that the First Circuit would find that acceptable. It is a form of assault and in the absence of, at a minimum, “reasonable suspicion” and a warrant this would not be accepted.

The answer, IMO, to your dilemma is that your anxiety is not remotely warranted. The chance that customs agents would demand to download the content of your laptop is about as likely as your dying in a plane crash. And if they did and there was stuff that you did not want them to access, the correct procedure would be to say “No”. The ball would then be in their court and while they could “delay” you and harass you in such a fashion, they could not force you to provide them the password or whatever. No District Court is going to support such an arbitrary action. Just make sure that your device is password protected.

To go through all the hassle of trying to empty your laptop is not reasonable. Realize just how many laptops are carried internationally every day.


Are you concerned about your device(s) being searched during the border crossing or at any time that you’re in the other country? If it’s the former then and you’re genuinely concerned you might consider taking a wiped/base installed laptop across the boder and then recovering it from a clone/backup stored in a cloud server (BackBlaze comes to mind) and downloaded post crossing. As long as you can memorize the credentials that you need to access the cloud service, you should be fine.

Tihis is the rational answer :slight_smile:

However, there are circumstances when it’s not completely unreasonable to take precautions, especially if you are carrying information that’s very sensitive or confidential. It’s really best to not have that kind of informaiton on your devices during border crossings.

While I’ve never had the contents of my devices downloaded, I have had them inspected during a border crossing. Ironically it was on return to my own country.