This questioner is positioned with authority and power in a professional context.


An elderly relative's mental illnesses cause stuttering and awkward behavior that probably explains her often being selected for further interrogation and luggage searches, where she often encounters reviling customs agents (in Canada and UK) who interrogate her on too personal questions, e.g.:

Why are you taking medicine? Why are you refusing to tell me your specific illnesses? Why are you being so uncooperative?

Tell me the names, addresses, and employment information of all your doctors, family and friends. You're being evasive, and I don't believe that your illnesses are causing your behavior. If you still don't answer, I'll flag them and get them questioned too. Then you won't only have a problem with me, but with them too.

After they ask the first time, she will politely decline with the following:

Sorry, but I don't wish to answer these personal questions. I am exercising my right to silence. I will no longer answer questions on the same topic.

My medicines are clearly and correctly labelled by a pharmacy and with my doctor's names. I have nothing further to add to what I said. The same question was already asked and answered.


But these answers are ineffective and sound too brusque, offensive. So what else tactful should she say?

Optional Supplement

The agents only repeat the question, while intensifying their threats, aggressive harsh tone, and their angry ferocious appearance and face: all which causes her to break down and cry, before she calls one of us or they finally allow her entry. Such interrogations' effects are grievous: her illnesses are then worsened, last much longer and in some cases remain for days.

The customs agents ignore her requests, or invent excuses, for her requests for a supervisor. They'll allege that no supervisor is free, or ridicule her request by asking why they should fulfill her requests if she's not answering them.

  • 1
    Are you crossing the border from Canada going into the US? An important detail to specify. Also, are these visits frequent? Are they meant to be long term stays, or short visits for shopping, or visiting friends? I could imagine border agents being more concerned about someone crossing for a long term stay than a short visit.
    – AndreiROM
    Nov 7, 2017 at 14:16
  • 8
    @AndreiROM She's crossing the border from UK to Canada, and vice versa. She's a citizen of both countries: so some visits can be long- or short-term.
    – user2423
    Nov 7, 2017 at 14:22
  • 4
    Are there any border agents here to answer? From what I've seen on tv, they often ask the same question twice (maybe slight variation) to see if they can catch you in a lie? Not wanting to answer might be seen as 'not cooperating' or 'suspicious behaviour' in such cases?
    – Tinkeringbell
    Nov 7, 2017 at 14:22
  • 6
    Sorry to hear. I travel from Canada to the States 4 - 5 times a year, and have never really had an unpleasant experience. I'm always polite, and open with them. That being said, I've also never been asked anything particularly personal. Where are you going? When are you coming back? Anything to declare? It's very disconcerting to hear about such bullying, and abuse of power on a regular basis.
    – AndreiROM
    Nov 7, 2017 at 14:26
  • 38
    If you're specifically interested in customs and immigration, I'd suggest asking this question on Travel.SE instead. The rules for immigration and customs tend to be totally different than interactions with other "authority figures" and the rules vary dramatically depending on which country you're entering and your citizenship(s). Things that normal police can't require you to answer may be perfectly lawful for an immigration agent to force you to answer in some cases, but this varies a lot by country.
    – reirab
    Nov 7, 2017 at 22:30

8 Answers 8


Having been interrogated in much more serious situations, and knowing a little about how these situations are supposed to work vs how they actually work, I would say that your relative is doing pretty much exactly what she should be doing.

Demanding personal medical information is an over reach, it's unnecessary, probably illegal, and certainly crosses the line into an abuse of power.

Responding with:

My medicines are clearly and correctly labelled by a pharmacy and with my doctor's names. I have nothing further to add to what I said. The same question was already asked and answered.

Sorry, but I don't wish to answer these personal medical questions. I am exercising my right to silence. I will no longer answer questions on the same topic, without legal counsel.

Might be slightly better, as it's a little more direct about why she's refusing to answer.

Officers typically don't like it when civilians assert themselves, but whether they like it, or not, civilians are allowed to. From CNN:

Am I allowed to speak with a lawyer?

It depends.

If you're a US citizen:

According to the ACLU, US citizens are allowed to request a lawyer be present for any questioning.

If you're a permanent resident or other foreign national with a visa:

If you're not American you generally don't have the right to an attorney unless you have been charged with a criminal offense or the questions relate to something other than your immigration status, Rizzo says.

Once the questioning goes past the basics -- like where you traveled or what you're bringing into the country with you -- to things like your political beliefs or the contents of your electronic devices, Wessler believes that all travelers, including non-citizens, have the right to counsel.


It is evident from your post that your elderly relative obviously has trouble conveying the information (referring in this instance to only the information she is legally obliged to provide) in a clear and contextualised manner because of her illness.

This, in turn, causes those individuals in a position of authority to become sceptical and increasingly assertive in their intent to determine the answers to their questions. Employing various tactics like repetition, tone assertion, etc., in order to try and get the information they need. Thus compounding the already difficult social interaction that your relative is experiencing, making it even harder to reply coherently to their questions.

I realise that people in positions of authority can often go beyond what is reasonable in their attempts to ascertain the information they require. But we must also be aware that their job is to use methods within the remit of law to ensure the safety of other passengers, and the wider public as a whole from illegal, suspect, or dangerous items entering the country. In the context of this interaction game theory often applies. Where both parties have a clear goal; your elderly relative wants to ensure that her civil liberties are intact by avoiding evasive overreaching questioning, and the individuals in the position of authority are trying to ascertain as much information as they can from a person who comes across as withholding.

In terms of looking at this from an interpersonal perspective only, taking away legal issues here, I would suggest to your relative that should she/he be pulled away for further questioning during security checks that they firstly explain their problems with social interactions:

I apologise, but I find social situations sometimes difficult to deal with, I will try my best to comply and answer your questions . . .

Then perhaps have a pre-written document that outlines all of the information regarding the various medicines that your relative travels with in as much detail as they are comfortable giving, and say the following:

. . .But to help, I’ve written down all of the information I think you’ll need on this paper to help explain what these medicines are for, I am not trying to be difficult, it’s just the easiest way for me to tell you what you need to know.

Then simply allow the person in a position of authority to assess the situation and go from there.

  • 43
    I was going to suggest taking a written statement too. Much easier than trying to remain composed and calm with some idiot shouting at you, as border agents are wanton to do. You can include phone numbers for the medical practices that issued the prescriptions, who will of course tell the BA to sod off when they call because of medical confidentiality rules.
    – user
    Nov 7, 2017 at 15:57
  • 8
    Why not have her take a letter from her doctor along the lines of: > To customs/border officers concerned with my patient [name], > > due to her psychological conditions my patient will be unable to remember many facts and may have trouble answering your questions clearly. We prepared this document to answer questions we anticipated. > > [details about the trip] > > My patient has to take the following medication: > [meds info] > > In case this document cannot answer all questions to your satisfaction, you can contact the following persons: > > [contact info doctor] > > [contact info family] >
    – user8543
    Nov 8, 2017 at 17:18

I admit it doesn't directly answer the question, but you should consider getting your relative prescreened if they're eligible. There's a program called CANPASS that allows "low-risk, pre-screened travellers" to enter the country faster and with less hassle. I'm not too familiar with this program but I have several family members who participate the the US's equivalent program and if they're even remotely similar, your relative would likely have a significantly less stressful time at customs. You have to go through a more detailed interview during the application process, but it's much less stressful (you have a scheduled interview with a specialist, not an encounter with an overworked front-line agent facing a long line of travelers to process). Once you get prescreened, you get an ID card that will let you access a special line or counter at customs that expedites the process. Even at a smaller airport that doesn't have a priority traveler counter, customs agents tend to be a lot less harsh when they know the person has already been prescreened.

Everyone I know who participates the the US's version of this program highly recommends it for anyone who either travels frequently or has a medical condition (like surgical pins that look really suspicious on scans) that makes it difficult to go through the security or customs processes normally. The only downside is that you have to plan everything several months in advance to make sure that the initial application can get processed in time for your trip.

  • 9
    +1 The "several months in advance" thing is just to get the initial interview and approval, though. Once you're approved, you can use it as often as you want with as much or as little advance planning as you want. In the case of the U.S. program, it's valid for 5 years. Aside from removing the need to speak to an immigration officer at all in most cases, Global Entry (the U.S. program) also can save you a lot of time waiting in immigration lines. Given how long I've waited for Canadian immigration in the normal lines, I'd expect the same is true there.
    – reirab
    Nov 7, 2017 at 22:41
  • I heard they might want fingerprints & mugshots for those types of programs? Any other similar info too?
    – Xen2050
    Nov 9, 2017 at 8:56

Border agents are generally used to being obeyed, and I'm sorry to say that if they were to back down when someone refuses to answer their questions, they would simply not be doing their jobs. Furthermore, asking to speak to a supervisor would similarly be viewed as a delaying tactic. If they were to immediately bow to your request, this would become a common tactic by anyone wishing to avoid answering questions, so it's understandable that they don't comply immediately.

Sadly, these people are trained to have to deal with the worst of us, and it shows. Their job is to ferret out illegal intentions, and goods, and you can't do that by being a goody two shoes.

Furthermore, the way they escalate the situation (getting louder, etc.) is a tactic they are actually trained to engage in with reticent travelers.

“The theory in practice is that by somehow throwing people off guard and breaking their composure, one can `break’ them and have them reveal their criminal intentions,”

It's not a tactic that you have to agree with, or even one you have to like. Even some experts think it's ineffective. However, you can't deny its use, and you need to understand that when dealing with border agents.

Generally speaking you should try to answer their questions to the best of your ability. Being glib will do you no favors. There's no good reason to refuse to tell them where you're going, or whom your doctor might be, and they will get suspicious if you refuse to answer. I do understand a reticence to not describe your exact medical condition, however answers such what you describe in your question are bound to set off alarm bells.

Maybe instead try:

Q: Why are you taking medication?
A: An ongoing medical condition. I'm not as young and healthy as I used to be.
Q: What is this medical condition?
A: That's between my doctor and I, however you can see that all my medication is appropriately labelled.
Q: What's your doctor's name?
A: Dr. X, from Toronto. He is my family doctor, and is aware of all my medical history.

As long as she is seen as cooperative she should be fine.


So what else tactful should she say?

Assuming she is in the UK, she could show them the paperwork as described below and simply say: "Please refer to this documentation to help answer your questions".

This from the UK govt website might be helpful:


You’ll need to prove you own medicine that contains a drug listed as schedule 2, 3 or 4 on the controlled drugs list.

You’ll need to write a proof of ownership letter to prove you own the drugs. You might need to show this at the border.

The letter must include:

  • your name
  • what countries you’re going to and when
  • a list of your medicine, including how much you have and doses
  • the signature of the person who prescribed your drugs

You could use some preventative measures:

The idea would be for your elderly relative to come prepared with proper documentation coming from a figure of authority (legal and/or medical) that the customs officers would accept.

Stating "yes of course I have a complete file" (and producing a thick stack of papers with appropriate rubber stamps) should present an interesting problem to a busy and hurried customs officer.

Call said customs (or airport) and try to get hold of someone to talk to and explain the problem. Or talk to your local police. Or perhaps an association which helps people who have the same illness. Even if it is an uncommon one, someone somewhere has most likely already encountered the case and could help in listing the required documents.

If the customs your relative goes through has a procedure for handicapped/disabled then you can also check that.


First, the question can't be answered straight, because the answer is different with every type of authority figure. And I don't mean "tuned slightly", I mean 100% diametric opposite.

Most people just "wing it" and hope for the best, and that works out 95% of the time. Your family member is discovering that "winging it" does not work for her, because of her disability.

So I recommend a 2-part strategy to be uniquely developed for each type of authority figure.

Know your rights

Know your rights really, not the pop culture version gotten off TV. And here, consultation with a lawyer might not hurt.

For instance, you need to know when you should clam up, and when you shouldn't - and that's particularly tricky with police vs. customs/immigration, because the rules are dramatically different, especially for noncitizens.

For instance you should know Customs cannot refuse to admit a citizen, but has every right to ask some questions police cannot, and do searches police cannot.

Have empathy

The best way to do this is understand their job. And in democracies, that's pretty easy because most authorities are happy for people to see what it is that they do. They (or at least their managements) don't want you flustered and panicked, they want their officers to clear you as efficiently as possible: their worst case scenario is a bad guy slips through while they're fooling with you.

Now I know I just said "don't go with the TV version" but there are in fact TV documentaries about immigration in particular: UK Border Force, and a similar show in Canada. And they're on Youtube. Police, there is so much out there that's dramatized it's hard to know what to believe.

I'm talking about some real work. It may seem annoying to have to "get out in front of this", and it is unfair - most people don't have to, the can just "wing it" and it works out 90% of the time. Fair or not, your family member has tried that, and established that it doesn't work. Disability isn't fair, that's why most civilized countries have laws comparable to the Americans with Disabilities Act.

You can lean/rely on those laws, or at least the compassion they institutionalize. Your family member has the option to say "I have a disability which makes it hard for me to communicate well, and it displays as ______ and _____, and obviously tends to make me look guilty or evasive, when in fact I am not. Well, I am nervous, but just because you're an authority figure. Those combine to make this a struggle for me." That should help, because (at least under US ADA) they become obliged to do everything "readily achievable" (i.e. easy) to help you cope.

Again it may seem like an unfair privacy invasion, but then, who pays the medical bills? If it's the government, that means they already know.

As to those authorities: check on our travel.se site, but you bet immigration has a right to ask a lot of questions. If you're a citizen they can't deny you entry, but they can grill you unlimited on the items you are bringing into Canada, with the right to confiscate the items or charge with a customs crime, (and one must know those consequences). One trick is to ask questions on things they already know to see if your narrative matches up, and ask sane questions again from a different angle to trip up liars.

By contrast, the tactic with police is near the exact opposite: outside of disclosing the disability, and certain obligatory questions relating to driving a car, I would "lawyer up" immediately - otherwise video of the struggled answers will get trotted out in front of a jury.

The rules with a concert venue are also wildly different. Or an employer. Or a medical interview. Or a civil lawsuit. Or when the electrical inspector is signing off on your work. Etc.


My suggested phrasing would be something along these lines:

Sorry, but I do not feel comfortable answering these personal medical questions.

My medicines are clearly and correctly labelled by a pharmacy and with my doctor's name.

If you need more detailed answers to these questions, I will need to consult with a lawyer.

Let's analyse:

  • "I don't wish" kind of sends the message that this decision was made basically for no other reason than because it's something you want to do.

    "I do not feel comfortable" tells them they're making you uncomfortable and may evoke some sympathy.

  • Explicitly exercising your right to silence and simply refusing to further answer or be helpful (and stating that you've already answered it) seems like a good way to make the worst possible impression and get the officer to do everything in their power to inconvenience you and make you uncomfortable. As far as they're concerned, you possibly appear to be using the law to irritate them or actually hiding something illegal.

    Instead, you say you will comply, but there's a condition. This is presumably a condition they wouldn't fulfil, but it puts the ball in their court. You might be able to come up with a similar alternative (like saying you can't remember the names and you'll need to call X or do Y in order to get them this information - if they let you, you may conveniently partially forget the number or X might not actually know or have the details on hand).


Sorry, but I can't remember these things.

Isn't everything you need on my medicine label?

Can you even remember all those details? I sure won't be able to.

We can't help having bad memory.


This is not suggesting you be uncooperative with immigration officials.

This is simply suggesting a better (interpersonal) alternative for the route you have chosen.

This is also not suggesting you lie to immigration officials, which could very well be a crime.

If you wish to know what your legal rights are in this situation, what information they can legally request from you and how you might be treated if you don't cooperate, you should ask this question on the Travel Stack Exchange.

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