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How to Get Through Customs Quickly and Legally

Get through Customs quickly, Uncontained Life

Customs and Immigration (I.E. Passport Control) are the twin terrors of passengers looking to get out of the airport ASAP upon arrival at their destination. But while many of the tips and tricks for getting through Passport Control without hassle also apply to Customs, there are some additional things to know if you want to get through Customs quickly and legally.

Immigration vs. Customs

Before we jump into our tips, let’s clarify the difference between Immigration and Customs. Immigration and Customs (which we talk about in a separate article) serve two distinct purposes:

Immigration checks passports, visas, and other travel documents. Immigration is responsible for ensuring a person is entering a given country legally.

By contrast, Customs is about making sure that certain illegal or otherwise non-importable things are not entering a country. Customs also ensures that appropriate documents are signed and taxes paid on certain items. Whenever you enter a country, you will be asked if you have items “to declare” at Customs. 

Get through Customs quickly, Uncontained Life

Tips for Filling Out Customs Paperwork

While customs forms vary somewhat country to country, the sample United States Customs Form pictured below is a good template for what to expect:

Sample USA Customs Form Front
Sample USA Customs Form Back
It’s recommend that you fill out your Customs form before exiting the plane. So, be sure to have a blue or black ink pen, your passport, destination address, visa information (if needed), and flight information readily available.

Note that when you are declaring items on the Customs form, you will need to write down the price you paid for any item you are importing, including all taxes. If you don’t know the specific cost of an item, estimate as best you can. If the item was given to you as a gift, you should estimate its fair market value in the country where you received it.

Don’t forget: even if you used an item you bought on your trip, you still may be required to pay an import tax, and therefore, it must be declared.

Get through Customs quickly, Uncontained Life

How to Know What You Need to Declare

To “declare” an item at Customs means you are letting Customs agents know that a potentially taxable item is in your possession. You may need to pay a small “duty” (tax) on certain items before they can be brought into the country. Certain items may not be imported, and will be confiscated at Customs (more about that later in this article). The more clear you are on your declaration form, the easier it will be to get through Customs quickly.

Each country has its own laws about imports, but here’s what you need you need to know about what you must declare when entering the United States:

1. Anything you are bringing back with you that you did not have when you left the USA must be declared. This may include gifts and souvenirs—purchased or received—and personal effects like clothing or jewelry. It may also include “found” or inherited items. Note: there is typically no duty owed on personal effects which are more than 1 year old. 

2. Anything purchased at a “duty free” shop. You won’t have to pay tax on these items (as long as you are not bringing in more than the established minimum) but they still must be declared to agents.

3. Items you repaired or had altered while abroad (even if the work was performed for free). This is to prevent the smuggling of certain illegal plant and animal products and of select electrical and mechanical components which may be removed and resold.

4. Anything you wish to sell or use for business—including, but not limited to merchandise samples—even if you had the item with you when you left the United States.

5. Traveler’s checks, cash, gold coins, negotiable checks, money orders, promissory notes, and securities or stocks.

For more information about duties, including personal exemptions (dollar amount/ value amount of items exempted from duty), head over here.

Get through Customs quickly, Uncontained Life

What Happens if You Fail to Declare Items You Are Required to Declare

Sometimes, in an attempt to avoid having to pay the “duty” or having an item confiscated, travelers attempt to sneak items past Customs agents. Here’s why that’s really NOT the best plan:

If you fail to declare items at Customs that ought to be declared, and are caught doing so, you can face a variety of penalties. If the items being transported are not considered illegal to import (more about those penalties below), you will be required to pay the assigned taxes on the item and, additionally, may face fines, and/or the temporary seizure of the goods in question.

Be aware that even if you state that you have “nothing to declare,” you may be selected for a random bag check.

Get through Customs quickly, Uncontained Life

What Happens You are Caught With Illegal Items at Customs

The rules and regulations on what you can, and cannot import vary from country to country, but most countries do not allow foreign foods, plants, animals, drugs, firearms (and other weapons), counterfeit items, and items made from endangered or protected species (plant or animal). *NOTE: Some of these items may be importable with a special permit, but that’s not something we’ll be discussing here.

For a full list of items you cannot bring into the United States, head over here.

If you are caught by Customs agents attempting to transport illegal items, punishments can be quite severe. Depending on the type of item, and the amount you are transporting, the consequences will vary. If, for example, an agent finds a single counterfeit watch or handbag, the item may simply be confiscated (though a fine may be also be levied). If, however, you are caught attempting to smuggle a large quantity of counterfeit goods you will face large fines and even jail time.

Items like drugs and firearms typically carry more severe penalties—long prison sentences or worse. (In some countries, a drug smuggling conviction can even result in the death penalty.)

Get through Customs quickly, Uncontained Life

Did we miss anything? Ask you questions or share your tips for how to get through Customs quickly and legally in the comments section!

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