Phone passcode screen
Credit: Getty Images

Travelers headed to New Zealand may have to pay fines of up to $3,200 if they refuse to reveal their device passwords.

Under the Customs and Excise Act 2018, in effect this week, customs officers can demand travelers unlock their electronic devices at borders. Anyone who refuses is subject to prosecution and fines up to 5,000 NZD, or about $3,000 USD.

To be clear: It won’t be necessary to unlock your device or hand over your passwords in order to enter the country. Customs agents won’t search everyone's devices at the border. Instead, searches focus on travelers selected for additional searching, on suspicion of unlawful importing or exporting.

A device can only be confiscated if, after preliminary searching, border patrol officials have additional suspects. However, failure to provide a password for preliminary searching could be grounds for seizure and additional search.

The law applies to both New Zealanders and foreigners passing through the country’s borders.

A spokesperson for New Zealand Customs told CNN the new law was necessary as “the shift from paper-based systems to electronic systems has meant that the majority of prohibited material and documents are now stored electronically.”

However, the act has elicited criticism from privacy advocates. “Allowing Customs to be able to demand the right to examine and capture all this information is a grave invasion of personal privacy of both the person who owns the device and the people they have communicated with,” Thomas Beagle, chairperson of the New Zealand Council for Civil Liberties, said in a statement.

Border officials said Tuesday that New Zealand is the first country in the world to impose penalties for travelers that refuse to hand over their information. However, it is not the only country doing electronic searches. United States border patrol officers are allowed to search devices and confiscate some for additional searching.