One Google icon pointing to another

We’ve heard quite a lot over the last few months about travelers being asked to unlock their mobile phones—and, in some cases, provide their social media passwords—when entering the United States.


We’ve also heard tips on traveling abroad with a phone; over at The Verge, the suggestion is to delete our data before leaving the country if we really want to protect it.1 We can then install and sign into our accounts when we get where we’re going, and repeat the process before returning to the U.S.

Even that’s dicey, though. If we know the passwords for our accounts, we can be pressured to give them up. If we use a password manager and its master password is the only one we know, we can be asked to give that up. We’re in better shape if we use two-factor authentication—but then we’re locked out, too, unless it’s set to text messaging for the second factor, in which case...

Frankly, it looks like anyone who really needs access to their accounts for a working trip abroad and needs to keep materials secure is in for some difficulty.


Vacationers, though, might have an easier time of it. Not long ago, I was planning a short trip (since canceled) to Montreal. It wasn’t a working trip and it wasn’t going to be very long, so there’d be no need to have access to my usual accounts. All I’d really need was essential phone numbers and a working email address (and to be sure that my password manager was using two-factor authentication that relies on an authenticator app rather than text messaging).

How, though, to easily get any photos I took on the trip back to my usual account without (1) the hassle of downloading or emailing or (2) running the risk of losing metadata?


So I experimented, and here’s what I found out: setting up a second Google account solves the problem. That makes it possible to factory reset a device, then install only the bare minimum of applications on it and sign in with that second Google account. GMail can be used as needed (with a warning to friends, family, and colleagues to be careful about what’s sent to that account), and photos can be uploaded to Google Photos.

On return to the U.S., it’s a simple matter to gather all the photos from a trip into one album that can be shared with the primary Google account. After adding the shared album to the primary account, it’s okay to go ahead and delete it from the secondary account. All the metadata will still be there.2 Emails can be forwarded to the primary account, then deleted.

Do you have any other suggestions for securing data when traveling internationally? Let us know in the comments!


Lead image created from an original icon by Flickr user Jurgen Appelo.

  1. For many of us, of course, it’s not just our information stored on our phones. How many of us have information that that rightly belongs to others on our devices? ↩︎
  2. This may seem a silly concern, but I’ve observed that, with Google Documents, data such as a file’s revision history disappears when moving a document from one account to another, so I wanted to be sure. ↩︎