Know Your Rights: What to Do if You Think You're on a No-Fly List

The No Fly List is a watch list of people the government has designated as suspected terrorists and prohibited from flying to and from the United States and over U.S. airspace. It is a subset of a larger watch list, called the Terrorist Screening Database, which is operated by the FBI's Terrorist Screening Center (TSC).

Because of the extreme secrecy surrounding the No Fly List, people generally only discover they are on it when they are denied boarding on a flight — often very publicly, at the airport. The public does not know how many people are on the No Fly List, or the criteria for inclusion. The process the government has established for people on the No Fly List to challenge their blacklisting is grossly insufficient and violates the U.S. Constitution's due process guarantee. The ACLU and its affiliates in Oregon, Southern California, Northern California, and New Mexico are challenging that process in court.

In the meantime, if you think you're on the No Fly List, the constitutionally-inadequate process described below is currently your only recourse. Because there is no other alternative available at this time, we generally advise people to follow the process in the hope that the government corrects error or changes its mind. We also describe below the procedures that the government established — after the ACLU filed its lawsuit — to permit U.S. persons to fly home after their apparent inclusion on the No Fly List.

Please note that the information on this page does not constitute legal advice; click here for more information. Please also consider filling out this survey regarding your experiences in seeking to return to the United States. This survey this will assist the ACLU in its efforts to monitor U.S. government conduct related to the No Fly List.

What to do if you have been denied boarding

If you are denied boarding on a flight, you can submit a standard form to the Department of Homeland Security Traveler Redress Inquiry Program ("DHS TRIP"). DHS TRIP transmits complaints and any supporting information you provide to the TSC, which determines whether any action should be taken.

After TSC completes its review, DHS TRIP sends a letter that purports to explain how the complaint was resolved. You should know that the letter does not confirm or deny whether you have been included on the No Fly List, whether you remain on it, or whether you can fly in the future. The government also refuses to provide any notice or reason for inclusion on the No Fly List or a meaningful hearing at which you can clear your name.

Unfortunately, currently, the only way to discover if you have been removed from the No Fly List or not after following this procedure is by purchasing an airline ticket and attempting to board.

How to get home if you've been denied boarding outside the U.S.

U.S. citizens have a right under the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution to return to U.S. territory after traveling abroad. Lawful permanent residents (also known as "green-card holders") have a similar right to return to U.S. territory under the Immigration and Nationality Act. Therefore, when a U.S. citizen or green-card holder is denied boarding in a foreign country due to apparent inclusion on the U.S. No Fly List, the U.S. government must help them secure approval to return to the United States via a commercial flight. The government may not use the No Fly List to prevent U.S. persons from returning home to U.S. territory.

If you are a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident denied boarding on a flight to the United States or when en route to the United States, follow the steps below to exercise your right to return home. The information below is based on instructions the government has given the ACLU when we seek to help travelers return home, and the experiences of those travelers.

  1. Call the Overseas Citizens Services (OCS) office at 1-202-501-4444 to speak to the duty officer. There is a duty officer (as well as an attorney) at this number 24 hours a day. Tell the officer that you were denied boarding on a flight when seeking to return home to the United States by plane, that you seek assistance with repatriation, and that you would like to coordinate your return travel by plane with the government. If your legal representative, family member, or friend located in the United States would like to help you as well, they may contact the same office by calling 1-888-407-4747.

The duty officers at the OCS should be able to help you. If for any reason they do not help you, go to the U.S. Embassy or U.S. Consulate in the country in which you were denied boarding and speak to an officer handling Overseas Citizens Services. (Click here to search for U.S. embassies or consulates near you.) Tell the officer that you were denied boarding on a flight when seeking to return home to the United States by plane, that you seek assistance with repatriation, and that you would like to coordinate your return travel by plane with the government.

A U.S. official at either OCS or the U.S. Embassy/U.S. Consulate in the country in which you are stranded must help you secure approval to fly home to the United States by commercial air.

Normally, the OCS official will also ask you to identify one or more itineraries for travel to the United States on a U.S.-based commercial air carrier (such as American Airlines, United Airlines, or Delta Airlines) departing at least two weeks in the future. Thus, to facilitate your return:

  • If the country in which you were denied boarding offers direct flights to the United States on a U.S.-based commercial carrier, identify at least a couple of possible itineraries that depart the country at least two weeks in the future.
  • If the country in which you were denied boarding does not offer direct flights to the United States, try to find one or more itineraries that permit you to transit through a country from which you can get a direct flight to the United States on U.S.-based commercial air carriers. For example, if you are denied boarding in Sana'a, Yemen, when on the way home to San Francisco, you could locate an itinerary to fly on Yemenia Airways from Sana'a to Dubai, United Arab Emirates; on Lufthansa from Dubai to Frankfurt, Germany; and on American Airlines from Frankfurt to San Francisco.
  • If your proposed itinerary requires you to change planes, please choose flights that permit layovers at least three hours long so that you have adequate time for any additional security screenings that the layover airport may require.
  1. Present your proposed itinerary (or itineraries) to OCS or the U.S. Embassy or U.S. consulate with as much advance notice as possible. In our experience assisting U.S. persons apparently on the No Fly List, U.S. officials usually require at least two weeks' notice to secure approvals for flights.

  2. After a U.S. official has communicated approval for your proposed itinerary, purchase your ticket.

  3. On the day of your approved flight(s), arrive at the airport at least four hours before departure to permit time for any security screening that may be required.

  4. If you encounter any problems in securing approval from OCS or a U.S. embassy to fly back to the United States, please call the ACLU National Security Project at 1-212-549-2500 for assistance.

Be aware that FBI agents or other U.S. officials may seek to question or interrogate you while you are abroad, after your denial of boarding, and while you are seeking authorization to fly back to the United States. You have the right to decline any request for a voluntary interview. You also have a right to be represented by counsel during any interview or interrogation in which you voluntarily participate, including while you are abroad, and you may assert that right.

FBI or other U.S. officials cannot require you to submit to an interview or interrogation as a condition of securing approval to fly back to the United States. In other words, you do not have to participate in any such questioning in order to exercise your right to return to the United States.

Were you denied boarding while trying to get home to the United States? Tell us your story.

Please consider filling out this form regarding your experiences in seeking to return to the United States. Providing this information will assist the ACLU in its efforts to monitor U.S. government conduct related to the No Fly List.

Disclaimer and Notice

The above Know Your Rights information and the accompanying survey do not constitute legal advice, and you should not rely on them as legal advice. Should you have questions about your specific situation, you should speak with a lawyer. We also cannot promise that the information on this site is complete, accurate, or up-to-date, as the U.S. government may change its redress process and repatriation procedures.

The Know Your Rights information and survey are not an offer by the ACLU to represent you. We cannot promise you that the information you provide in the survey will lead to any specific action on the ACLU's part. Once you complete the survey, the ACLU may elect not do anything—including contact you—about your situation.

If you fill out the above survey, you agree that the ACLU or one of its state affiliates may use the information you give us—as long as we don't include your last name, address, email, phone number, or zip code—for one or more of the following purposes: (1) legislative testimony, (2) litigation; (3) contacting a city, state, or federal agency; or (4) telling your story to the public, including posting your story on our website and discussing it with media. If the ACLU or one of its state affiliates wants to identify any additional information about you, we will contact you before doing so.

We will keep your last name, telephone number, email address, and zip code confidential unless you give us permission to use it or unless we are ordered to turn it over by a court (although we will attempt to prevent any disclosure).

References to U.S. or foreign carriers above are provided for illustrative purposes only and are not endorsements of any particular carrier, but reflect limitations imposed by the U.S. government.

Statistics image