Know Your Rights: What to do if stopped by a US police or immigration officer

police immigration
You don't want to end up here... But if you do, here's what to do. Source: Meric Dagli/Unsplash

Can I apply for work as an international student in my host country? What are my wage rights? Am I allowed to join protests and class walkouts? If I had a run-in with the authorities, what should I do? To help you understand the extent and limitations of your rights as a student abroad, Study International will provide the answers to all these burning questions and more through our “Know Your Rights” article series. Have a question you want to be answered? Email us at

We hope you never have to follow this advice and during your amazing time studying in the US, you never have a worrisome encounter with the police force or an immigration officer. But, from time to time, as is the case all over the world, you may be stopped by an official.

The last thing you want if this happens is to react in a way which lands you in trouble because, chances are, it’s just a routine check or a minor concern which had you questioned in the first place.

“When I first became a police officer, I noticed that some of our international students didn’t really know the proper way to interact with the police, especially during traffic stops,” Ames Police officer and former international student Dilok Phanchantraurai told Iowa State Daily.

Realising this, Phanchantraurai began teaching classes at Iowa State University to incoming international students, ensuring they were prepared and safe if they ever did encounter the police.

Source: Giphy

His course teaches international students everything they need to know about how the US police force works, what the customs are, the traffic laws and other useful tips on life in the US.

So, just what do you do if you run into the police or an immigration officer?

Here are your rights, what you need to make sure you’re doing and what to expect…

Your basic rights

We’ve all heard it on American TV: “You have the right to remain silent,” but it’s true – you really do! If you do not wish to talk to an officer, simply say you have that right and wish to exercise it. In some states, however, you must give your name, reported ACLU.

You also have the right to refuse consent for having your person, car or accommodation searched – unless the officer has a warrant or reason to believe you have broken the law. The officer may pat you down if they are concerned you might be concealing a weapon and you should comply with this request.

Don’t play games. Source: Giphy

If you are not under arrest then you actually have the right to leave, although we recommend you do so in a calm manner after informing the officer why you are doing so.

If you are under arrest, you will need to stay put and follow instructions from officers. Remember, you have the right to a lawyer and can ask for one immediately.

If arrested, once you have a lawyer, ask them what effect a plea or criminal conviction will have on your immigration status and be sure not to discuss your immigration status with anyone but your lawyer.

It doesn’t matter what your immigration or citizenship status is, you will have these rights – be sure to exercise them.

What you need to do

It goes without saying but be polite and cooperative. While it may be a stressful, unfamiliar situation, do your best to remain calm because panicking is unlikely to work in your favour.

Whatever you do, do not lie to police or immigration officers – you’re likely to land yourself in a lot more trouble if you do.

You should not interfere with the police in any way, or attempt to run away or resist, just comply with what’s being asked of you and keep your hands where officers can see them.

Even if you are innocent or you feel the police are being unjust or have violated your rights, it’s important you remember this and do not retaliate.

‘Police cat no wanna work today.’ Source: Giphy

You can ask if you are free to leave at any point and if the officer grants you permission, you should walk away in a calm and peaceful manner. If you are not free to leave and are under arrest, the officer has a duty to let you know why.

Make sure you remember the details of the encounter in case there is any follow-up. The police are likely to have a report of it too, so make a note of what happened and if there are any problems your reports can be matched.

If you have had any difficulty with an immigration officer and they are asking you to sign anything, do not do so without consulting a lawyer.

You may end up signing a voluntary departure or stipulated removal, meaning you would lose your right to stay in the US and have to leave.

Make sure you have a note of your immigration number jotted down somewhere safe on your person. Be sure family and close friends have a note of it too and one trusted family member has a copy of your immigration documents.


ALWAYS keep all of your immigration documents safe. Source: Shutterstock

You can file a complaint if you feel like the encounter was handled wrongly or your rights were violated.

If you think your rights were violated

First thing’s first: you cannot challenge the police in public. You should not resist officers, nor should you threaten to lodge a complaint against them.

As mentioned previously, make a note of absolutely everything you can remember. While you are with officers make a mental note of their badge number and patrol car number if you can. You may also be able to determine which agency the officers came from. Any details, no matter how small, keep note of.

If for any reason you sustain an injury, seek medical help and ask staff to photograph your injuries for evidence.

You can then file a written complaint via the civilian complaint board or directly to the agency’s internal affairs division. If you do not feel comfortable disclosing personal details, you can file your complaint anonymously.

If your vehicle is pulled over

Phanchantraurai claimed one of the most common problems international students can face with the police is while they or a friend are driving.

Getting pulled over can feel pretty scary but you should stay calm and comply with the officer. Source: Giphy

He said often international students do not understand that getting out of the vehicle and walking towards the police car can be seen as threatening.

“Some students get out of the car when they are pulled over because that’s how they’ve been taught,” Phanchantraurai said.

“They have to get out and go talk to the authority to show respect. But then from the US [police officer’s] standpoint, you get out of the car, we don’t know if you come out with weapons.

“Those are the things I have been teaching students. I believe that slowly, we are getting better, I am having fewer and fewer traffic stops where students don’t know what to do when they get pulled over.”

You should pull over as soon as you can but in a safe space, driving at a safe speed. Once stationary, turn off the engine, switch on the internal light if it is dark and open your window halfway so you can speak with the officer. Once you have done this, place your hands on the wheel.

When asked, slowly but efficiently show the police your driver’s license, registration and proof of insurance.

The driver and all passengers have the right to remain silent, however as a driver, you do not have the right to leave. As a passenger, you may ask the officer if you can leave.

*This is not intended in place of legal advice, merely an outline of your basic rights and standard advice on how the authorities work in the US. Please seek further help if you find yourself in legal trouble.

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