So you’ve planned your latest international trip. You have the time off work, the flights are booked, accommodations are set, you have tours set and a list of attractions to see. Everything is all hunky-dory, yes?
Maybe. Possibly. Make some tea and sit down. It’s a long one.
Throughout the years, I’ve watched many people have issues with international travel. Keep in mind that you’ll run into Customs officers at every border. You’ll run into two sets if you cross the border by land. I’ve complied the most common things I’ve seen people get dinged or turned away for at the borders. Since I usually fly, most of this applies to Customs officials at the airport, but I think they all can still be applied to land crossings. As always, feel free to add your own, and hopefully this post helps you in being prepared the next time you have to face a Customs officer.
- CHECK IF YOU NEED A VISA!!
Seriously. I’ve never needed a visa myself (haven’t yet made it to a country that required one), but I know quite a few people who were turned away or had to forfeit their trip because they didn’t know that they needed a visa. TRUE STORY: My aunt planned a trip to Brazil for the Rio Olympics back in 2016, but she didn’t know she needed a visa. By the time she figured it out, she had to forfeit her trip (that she had already paid for) because there wouldn’t be enough time for her to get one. Your need for a visa will depend on your citizenship (i.e. the country that issued your passport). U.S. nationals can check for international visa requirements on the U.S. Department of State website here.
- Check your passport expiration date and number of blank pages.
Again, different countries have different requirements. I have seen requirements from 3 months to 6 months, and some places just require your passport to be valid for the length of your stay, but again, check your specific destination. I highly advise that you do not travel close to your passport expiration date.The U.S Department of State’s website also includes the blank page requirements for every destination. I honestly don’t pay too much attention to this requirement, not only because I have mostly blank pages, but because it doesn’t seem like stamps are a thing anymore. It seems like they just scan your passport. I haven’t gotten any new stamps in my passport since 2012, and I’ve been in and out of the States several times. But still, play by the rules.
- Do not lie on your Customs forms and don’t let other people fill them out for you.
The lying part should be a “no-duh” thing, but apparently people do it. If you have things to declare, check “yes.” Just because you have something to declare doesn’t mean that you’ve done anything wrong. If you’re concerned that some of your things might be confiscated, do some research and figure out what you can and can’t bring, or how much of something (i.e. tobacco products) you can or can’t bring. TRUE STORY: After visiting Asia, the Mother had to have her belongings searched because she declared food products on her Customs forms. They had to confiscate some pork products because they weren’t allowed, but everything else was all good. No harm, no foul, just an extra 20 or so minutes needed for the search (it wasn’t busy that particular day). If she hadn’t declared those products and Customs found them anyway, she would have been fined.I should actually say “use caution” when letting other people fill out your Customs forms. If you need help reading the form or checking things off, just make sure you’re actively involved in completing the legal form that’s in your name. TRUE STORY: I watched a couple argue with a Customs officer while I was waiting in line because the wife had filled out the husband’s Customs form and he ended up having a bunch of fruits in his bag that he was getting dinged for. I don’t really understand why they had to fill out individual forms.
- Avoid bringing food products across borders.
I’m not just talking peanuts on airplanes. Every country has their own regulations on the kinds of food products that can and can’t be brought through their borders. As a rule of thumb, avoid bringing back any fresh foods. The dogs will smell them. I always see Customs agents pulling food out of people’s bags at the airport. TRUE STORY: There have been several people on the border patrol shows who try and come in with raw animal products. That’s gross. Especially if you have no refrigeration situation and your flight was 20+ hours. But, I know that there are some cultural foods (hopefully cooked) that you just have to bring back home with you. You’re safer bringing in packaged goods that have their ingredients clearly labeled (because Customs will check them). In my experience, animal meat, fresh produce (including plants), and dairy products (even cooked and packaged) tend to be the most commonly prohibited items through Customs. It’s not that Customs doesn’t want you to have different foods, but because animal and dairy products and fresh produce and plants may bring disease that can harm natural populations. If you absolutely need to bring food into a country, do some research and figure out if its permissible. Side Note: I don’t know how baby food works in this instance. I do not have children, nor do I enjoy traveling with them.
This includes “illicit” drugs and prescription medication. It should be obvious that you should not transport illegal drugs internationally. However, due to the fact that more states are legalizing recreational marijuana use and recreational and/or medicinal marijuana use is legal in a number of countries, people seem to think that they can travel with marijuana. Most people are smart enough to not fly with it, but it’s something people are frequently pulled over for at land crossings. This is something that I’ve noticed between the Canadian and U.S. border, so I’m not sure if it’s applicable to other destinations. For U.S. nationals, marijuana may be legal in your state, and even legal to use for medicinal purposes over the border, but it is still illegal in the federal sense. As of right now, the federal government of the United States does not recognize medical marijuana laws, and I’m pretty sure Canada doesn’t allow you to bring your own weed into the country, but I don’t live there, so I’m not really sure about that last part. To be on the safe side, leave it at home. Or correct me. I’m totally open to that.Prescription medication is usually no issue, unless you have a prescription for a controlled substance. And you should definitely know if you’re taking a controlled substance (HINT: In the States, you’ll need an actual paper prescription for it, and usually you have to keep going back to the doctor’s office for refill authorizations). If you need to have prescription medications when you travel, especially something controlled, it’s best to carry them in their original bottles and have a copy of your doctor’s prescription handy.
- Make arrangements ahead of time if you have a criminal record.
This is something that I learned about on TV, but I thought it was important to include. Having any criminal convictions alone does not bar you from international travel, but depending on the country, you may need special papers from the appropriate embassy.
- Don’t transport packages for other people.
I come from a big family and it’s not unusual for one person to travel with gifts to give on behalf of a third party. If you do this, be aware that you are responsible for anything that you travel with, including packages you bring along as a favor. I make it a rule to not carry items for others, especially internationally, because I need to be able to answer for everything in my possession. Definitely don’t accept items from people you don’t know. You never know what people are into. PRO TIP: If you’re one of those Nexus or Global Entry card people, you’re not to transport items for a third party. I learned that on TV.
- Check the dates on your entry stamps.
This would be if you actually get a stamp. TRUE STORY: The Customs officer who did the entry stamp for my cousin on a past trip to the Philippines wrote the wrong date in her passport so that when she checked into her departing flight, it looked like she overstayed her visa. This resulted in a huge argument with officials at the airport when leaving the Philippines and her having to pay a fine for “overstaying” when she really didn’t.
- Know currency restrictions and the value of any goods that you’re bringing back.
For the most part, you can travel with as much money as you want, but some places (like the States) require you to report your currency if it totals $10,000 or more, including any foreign currency in your possession. And if you travel with that much money, I’d like to know what you’re planning on doing.Typically, officers are more interested in the value of goods if you have some high-ticket items. Souvenir T-shirts and boxes of chocolate won’t amount to much, unless you’re bringing enough to sell, which is a different issue. If you have more than just cheap souvenirs, make sure to keep your receipts (especially if you got a good deal) so you can prove their value at Customs.
- Understand the point of view of the Customs officers.
I get it. You’ve been in the air or on the road for hours and all you want to do is grab your shit and get out the door. The last thing you want is to be hassled by the Customs officer so you give all the answers you think they want to hear. Or you get irritated when they pull you into additional screening and start asking more questions. It’s really just best to take a deep breath and be honest. The officers aren’t out to get you. Yeah, I think that some of them could afford to take some lessons in humor, but their job is to protect their country, which they should not take lightly. They don’t know you. They can’t psychically know that you’re not some criminal or not doing something illegal. They need to know that you’re not out to do anything malicious, that you’re doing what you say you’ll be doing, that you have the proper documentation for your plans, that you have the money to support yourself during your stay, and that you won’t take any resources away from citizens of that country. The more you let them do their job, the faster things in Customs will go, and the less irritated they’ll be with you. Do what you can to provide the necessary documents needed to prove your plans and help yourself get on your way. Oh yeah, and if you lie, that tends to make stuff worse.
Does anyone else people-watch while in the Customs line? What sort of things have you seen? Any advice to share?