Even for veteran travelers, the trip through customs and immigration is simultaneously dreary and intimidating. Trudging through cold halls to stand in long, snaking lines that culminate in hard stares and direct questioning by stern people in uniform is a rough way to end a long international flight, and certainly no warm welcome.
Emotionally, I treat the customs and immigration process as the last part of the flight, almost as if I'm still stuck inside the plane on the tarmac waiting for an open gate. Only after I have cleared all the customs halls do I feel like my trip is over, and only then do I allow myself the relief (and sometimes elation) of having arrived at my destination.
To help you get to that state, here are 12 essential tactics to help you clear customs and immigration quickly. See you on the other side!
1. Understand the difference between customs and immigration.
Customs agents are mostly concerned with what you have with you -- whether you have fruit or vegetables from another country, contraband items, anything subject to tariffs, large amounts of cash and the like. Immigration officers, meanwhile, are concerned with your citizen status, the intended duration of your stay and what you will be doing during your visit. In short, customs officers are interested in your stuff; immigration officiers are interested in you.
2. Figure out what happens to your luggage during your connections.
When booking, if your flight has a connection, figure out if your luggage will be booked through to your final destination or if you will need to collect it, go through customs and immigration, and then check back in. This is important not only for the hassle factor, but for understanding how much time you will need for your connection. If you have to pick up and then recheck your bags, you need a lot more time than you would otherwise.
In general, if your connecting airport is in the country of your final destination, you will likely need to do this, and you will probably also transfer from the international terminal to a domestic terminal. If you are continuing on to another country, often you will never leave the airport's "interzone," so you may just connect to your next flight without clearing customs and immigration in your layover country. This is not always the case, however, particularly at smaller airports that may not have a terminal dedicated to international transfers.
This information may not always be obvious, especially when booking online, so ask your airline or travel agent before you confirm your reservation.
3. Get a seat near the front of the plane.
The sooner you get off the plane, the shorter the customs and immigration lines will be when you arrive. If you have a seat choice, try to pick a seat closer to the front of the plane to make sure you're not stuck in line behind 200+ fellow passengers.
4. Have a pen handy.
It's a pain trying to fill out your customs forms on the floor of the immigration hall as the line builds up ahead of you; having an easily accessible pen in your carry-on lets you get it done on the plane before you land.
5. Don't forget to note your purchases.
Most travelers buy at least a few items when traveling -- gifts, souvenirs, socks, whatever -- and customs agents know this. Unless you truly are returning with nothing new, put this little stuff on your declaration form. You don't need excessive detail; I have written "Books, T-shirts for gifts," written a price of $40 and left it at that.
You can check out a sample U.S. declaration form to give you an idea of what to expect.
6. Be aware it is a two- or three-stage process.
The customs and immigration process can seem never-ending for a jet lagged traveler, with multiple stops that mostly seem like the same thing, but here is the simple version:
- Get off plane
- Go through immigration or passport control
- Go to baggage claim and get your bags
- Go through customs
- Check back in for your next flight if you are connecting
Some airports are moving toward an electronic approach, but so far (in my experience at least) the addition of new technology has complicated the process, in part because travelers are just learning about it and perhaps also because the agencies are still getting up to speed. On a recent international trip, the flight attendants told us to fill out the paper forms, but then we had to input the same info at the kiosk. Additionally, at some airports you first need to use a kiosk to input your general information, but then you still need to go stand in line to be seen by an actual person.
7. Don't joke around.
Customs and immigration agents take their jobs pretty seriously. You may find them to be among the least "friendly" people you encounter in your travels; don't sweat it, this is actually normal. Just be yourself, don't expect too much chatting and you'll be good.
8. Contact your ride before you enter the customs line.
Most customs and immigration halls have rules against cell phone use, so if you need to be in touch with a friend who's picking you up or family back home who want to know you've arrived safely, do so before you get to the customs and immigration hall. Then silence your cell phone and put it away.
9. Beware the agricultural inspection.
Customs officials are often the last line of defense against pests, invasive species of plants and animals, and diseases hitchhiking internationally, so if you want to get through smoothly, make sure you don't have any of these with you. Fruits, vegetables and meats are typically a no-go.
Even seemingly innocuous items can cause problems; you might have an orange tucked into your carry-on as a snack, which can flag you for a full inspection and in some cases even lead to fines.
10. When you have goods to declare, declare them and get on with it.
If you have goods to declare (such as alcohol or tobacco over your duty-free allowance), don't let it worry you too much, but be prepared to provide details of the purchase and pay taxes in some cases. It will help to have your receipts for any declarable items, which can help you avoid being overcharged.
For more information about U.S. customs, see our customs and duty-free guide and the government's Know Before You Go offering. Other countries' border agencies have similar websites that you can find with a Google search.
11. Sign up for an expedited entry program.
Says IndependentTraveler.com senior editor Sarah Schlichter, "To me the absolute best way for Americans to breeze through customs is to get Global Entry, which is worth every penny ($100 for 5 years). I recently used it to bypass a very long line in Philadelphia after an international flight. It also gives you free access to TSA PreCheck at many airports." Learn more about Global Entry.
If you're not an American, check to see if your home country has a similar expedited entry program. Offerings around the world include NEXUS (Canada), Registered Traveller (U.K.), Viajero Confiable (Mexico), Privium/FLUX (Netherlands), EasyPASS (Germany), Arrivals SmartGate (Australia) and Smart Entry Service (South Korea), among others.
Several of these programs have reciprocal agreements with each other, so you may be able to use kiosks in other countries besides your own.
12. Use an app.
The U.S. Customs and Border Patrol has launched a smartphone app called Mobile Passport Control that allows you to bypass the standard lines by creating a profile on the app; when you land, you fill out information from your trip, take a selfie, answer the standard customs declaration questions and submit your information, all through the app. You will then be issued a QR code that lasts four hours, which allows you to go straight to expedited lines at many airports. Unlike Global Entry, the smartphone app is free. For more information, click here.
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