Tips for passing through customs in any country
Passing through customs normally involves long queues, particularly during peak hours and at major international hubs. The queues are normally coupled with automatic kiosks and/or agents. For many travelers, this may be the least enjoyable part of their journey. First, kiosks promise to speed things up, but often they end up costing more time with buttons that do not always work, photos of faces that may not take properly, and scans that do not always read. Second, one may meet a border agent who asks a series of questions about destinations and timing of stay. Or, worst yet, one gets brought into a separate questioning area for secondary processing, i.e. additional questioning regarding your intent and purposes for entering their country. Since I have been through all of these scenarios, I wanted to share some tips on optimizing your customs experience.
Have your documents ready. This includes your passport, customs document (if relevant), travel itinerary, and visa support document. Whether you are going through kiosks or agents, typically the same documents get presented. This normally includes your passport, and perhaps a scan of your plane ticket. You can also look ahead to see what the person before you, at the kiosks are pulling up and prepare the same. Additionally, throughout European airports, there are typically agents who will conduct additional screenings at the gate, prior to boarding. The agents will not sit behind a desk, but will be sizing up each traveler and asking very direct questions about where you have been and where you are heading. So be aware that in some places, the screening does not always end at the security gate.
Comply with customs declaration. Make sure everything excluded by the country’s import regulation is declared or not carried with you, unless you have been given a permit. You may already be aware that munitions, knives, and flammable items are prohibited items that may not be carried with your person onto planes. What you may not be aware of are fruits, dairy products (even those left from airline meals), seeds, etc are prohibited items to many countries. Be on the lookout for signs along your queues for immigration and border control that will list prohibited items, to see if you may inadvertently have any of the items with you.
Many countries have declaration requirements for the amount of cash brought into their country. The U.S. requires foreigners to declare if the amount of cash they bring to the country is over 10,000 USD, for other countries it can be as little as 2,000 USD. Be ready to declare your cash on hand, or be ready for a secondary screening when it is discovered that the amount you have must be declared. Once it is discovered that you fail to meet an obligation, you may find yourself on an internal list where subsequent entries will result in longer or secondary screenings.
Be calm and collected. In my previous life, I was a state prosecutor, which meant that I dealt with people in uniform on a regular basis. I have also traveled through all seven continents by car, ship, and airplane. However, every time I approach a border agent in uniform, my heart never fails to skip a beat, my palms get sweaty, and I shut down emotionally. Part of this reaction comes from knowing the agents have the power to change my plans for me. What has helped me is to focus just on the officer and what is asked. I answer in short, concise responses without adding any additional information that was not solicited. For instance, if they ask, “Why are you visiting?” You can say, “I am here on business,” “I’m here to work,” “I’m here on holiday,” or whatever the proper case may be. They do not need to know that you are visiting to see a specific village or work on closing a big deal. If they do seek information on who you are meeting or where you are staying, then you provide it. You may not get asked a single question, but when you do, you want to be prepared.